With rapidly expanding communities and a rapidly changing society, it’s vital that we reach out to people who are untouched by the Church because they are physically, or culturally, just too far away. As part of our diocesan Common Vision we could see as many as 750 new congregations by 2030. In the second of our occasional series of photo essays, Jo Duckles went to find out how one rural Oxfordshire church is doing just that.

£80,000 appeal

It began with an £80,000 appeal for works including a new kitchenette and loo. The funds also covered major drainage, guttering and sewage works. It has grown into a huge, multi-faceted project to keep St Mary’s, Childrey, alive and relevant in a small rural village with a population of just 500.

Despite having no pub or post office, Childrey is a vibrant rural community with an award-winning village store and a good Church primary school. St Mary’s, which is listed in Simon Jenkins’ Best One Thousand Churches, is central to community life.

But, with an elderly and dwindling congregation, churchgoers realised they had to consider the long-term sustainability of St Mary’s. Linda Soames and John Martin from the church have overseen the major project to build partnerships and launch events and schemes to raise the profile of the church.

Linda Soames and John Martin at St Mary’s, Childrey.

Getting creative

They realised that to engage the community they needed to find more creative ways to get people involved than expecting them to turn up on Sunday mornings.

“To get more people into the church we would have to change our services quite significantly and weekends are very important for young families. We needed to do more than just say ‘the church is open every day and here is a list of services. You are welcome any time.’ We decided to talk to people in the community about what they want, rather than expect them to come along on Sundays,” says John.

They asked various groups in Childrey how they felt the church should continue and if they were willing to make it more than just a heritage building.

The response was extremely positive. One of the key relationships to come out of John and Linda’s work was with King Alfred’s Academy, near Wantage. This has seen the church become a concert venue, as A level music students perform for the whole community as part of their assessment.

“It gives the music teachers the chance to get all the pupils in one place and all of the recordings in one go. The church gives them a different space and ambience rather than being in the melee of school life with only one person listening. Those who come from the village absolutely love it. We are always amazed by the standard. We’ve just done if for the fourth time and the church was absolutely packed,” says John.

The church project has provided reading partners for youngsters in years seven and eight who are struggling with literacy.

“Lots of children arrive at secondary school behind on their reading,” says John. “Since October we have improved the reading standards of 28 of the year seven and eight children by 15 months in just one term,” he says. King Alfred’s gave the volunteers training and put them through the essential safeguarding checks before they started.  “The children are starting to get some really good grades. We have given them a real start in life. The volunteers are loving it too. We have an 82-year-old doing it, and a man who lost a son a few months ago. Helping children to improve their reading has made a real difference to them.”

An art exhibition, with work by years seven-13 at King Alfred’s is also held every year, with work incorporated into a postcard available at St Mary’s.