Three churches tell us about the difference digital grants have made to their communities

The Diocese of Oxford was first approached in 2020 by an anonymous donor who had recently struggled to install broadband into their church. They are regular donors to their local church and churches in the wider diocese and following their own struggles, wanted to help other churches looking to install broadband to facilitate livestreaming of services.

The Generous Giving Advisor, Joshua Townson, began working with the donor, the Diocesan Advisory Committee and the Development Fund team to agree guidance for churches on building works and criteria for securing grants.

So far, over 30 churches have been successful in obtaining funding to support broadband access – totalling more than £25,000 in aid. There is still over £20,000 available, and churches can apply for up to £1,000 to support 4G and fixed-line broadband installation and activation. Where broadband connectivity is not possible, churches can instead apply for funding towards a livestreaming kit.

We talked to three churches who have benefited from grants to improve their digital offering – you can find out more below. If you would like support or information regarding recording or livestreaming church services (or other technical/digital advice) please visit the diocese’s Online Worship Discussion Forum on Facebook.

The Revd Mark Abrey, Rector of the Chase Benefice, Chipping Norton

“We are a benefice of four rural parishes, none of which had broadband/phone lines and only two have such mod-cons as a WC and tap! Since Easter 2020 we have been producing a weekly recorded service for the benefice, which we post to YouTube.

“However, we were concerned that with restrictions on the numbers that can attend funerals and weddings, many were missing out on these important occasions. This was particularly true in January 2021 when a parishioner died and at the last minute her husband of 63 years wasn’t able to attend her funeral after being admitted to hospital. Using the camera that we purchased to produce our recorded services, I was able to record the funeral service and send it to a doctor at the John Radcliffe, who kindly took in an iPad so he could watch it immediately after the service. The family decided to share a link to this recording and within 24 hours it had been watched by over 120 people across the world!

“We began to explore the possibility of installing broadband. Having fixed-line internet connection was not an option, and mobile signal within the churches is very patchy. With the help and advice of a local telecoms company, it soon became apparent that the cheapest solution would be to place a small mobile antenna on each of the roofs of the churches, running a cable down to ground level and connecting to a wireless router. The company we worked with were brilliant – there was no drilling through our listed buildings and so we were able to proceed with a List B authorisation: no faculty to be applied for! We were then able to use a different SIM card in each location, depending on which provider had the best coverage. Installation took no more than half a day, and we now have speeds of between 20-50mbs in the churches – better than the 30mbs I used to get at the vicarage through BT – and all for between £8-13 per church per month!

“Since then, we have been able to offer families the option to have funerals and weddings livestreamed to a private YouTube page, allowing those not able to be there in person to join in. The camera is small, unobtrusive and simple to use from an iPad or smartphone. The results have been brilliant.

“A very popular and much-loved local butcher died: there were 30 in church but over 500 people watched the service within 24 hours – over 100 whilst it was live! A wedding two weeks ago, with just 13 in the congregation, had 58 people watching live and able to feel part of the celebration – leaving comments for the bride and groom to read after the event. We subsequently found out that one of these viewers was watching it live from the cockpit of a Virgin Atlantic plane flying at 38,000 feet – he was the pilot!

“As a benefice, we have just started onsite services again. For now, we are continuing with our recorded services, as these have been really well received and through them we are connecting with people both near and far who will probably never be able to join us for services in church – for health reasons and personal circumstances – but they still feel very much part of the benefice family.

“I have two regular home communicants – both 99 years old – who are now watching our services weekly on iPads! It is interesting that our Electoral Rolls have increase by 10% this year – many of those who have asked to join are those who were on the fringe of church life.

“As to the future? We will continue to offer livestreaming for weddings, funerals and baptisms, as well as livestreaming some of our Sunday services. Having an online presence – both recorded and livestreamed services – is here to stay, and the PCCs are committed to continuing to care for those unable to come through our church doors and encourage them in their faith.

“The total cost of installing the equipment in all four churches of the benefice was just over £4,000. It wouldn’t have been possible without the generous grant given to us by the diocese. We are grateful for the opportunity to grow our mission in this way. Thank you to the diocese and the generous benefactor who made these funds available!”

The four PCCS which make up the Chase Benefice received a combined total grant of just over £2,500 towards the installation of 4G broadband.

Stephen Bridge, Treasurer, Holy Trinity, Theale

“Prior to applying for the digital grant, we had no reliable form of internet connectivity. Our rector had been livestreaming services from his house and posting them onto YouTube. Once we were allowed back into the church, he began streaming from his phone, but of course he ran out of his own personal data very quickly!

“Once we found out that a digital grant was available, we contacted BT – they said we had a phone line, but it couldn’t be found! After some investigation, we found out it was because we didn’t have a postcode. So, we bought a post box, approached Royal Mail, who gave us a postcode, and started in earnest on our journey towards digital transformation!

“Following surveys and support from BT customer services (who have been wonderful), we are now waiting for planning permission to dig up the road that runs alongside the church. We did worry that we would have to abandon our plans when we were told that digging up 30 metres of the road would cost us £4,500 – we don’t even have a working boiler, so finding that sort of money would have been impossible – however, BT have waived the cost and are doing the work for free, which we are delighted and humbled by.

“Once the line is installed, we will only have to pay for the streaming kit ,and the funding from the grant will cover our line rental for 24 months, which is just fantastic. The next stage in our journey will be to buy a better computer, as the one we currently have is struggling slightly! For now, we will carry on running livestreamed services – we have built up a strong following, especially amongst our older congregation who struggle to get to church and those who work in jobs that mean they have shift patterns or weekend working hours. Our online congregation is now about the same size as our onsite congregation, which is brilliant.

“Once further restrictions have been lifted, we will return to offering an after-school club in the church and having access to the internet will be extremely beneficial for that. We were also able to offer a virtual PCC AGM recently and will continue to do this as we were able host more people than ever before. As well as this, we have a card reader in the church which we use to take donations, and the addition of broadband will make these transactions quicker and more likely to be successful.

“Whilst we have big plans for future issues, at the moment we are just delighted to be able to have a working phone line! It has been such a team effort to improve our digital connectivity – from the DAC team who supported us in terms of our Grade 1 listing, to Joshua who facilitated our relationship with BT, to the anonymous donor whose generosity has enabled us to support our community; we are so blessed and excited about the future!”

Holy Trinity, Theale, received a grant of £630 towards their broadband contract.

The Revd Hannah Reynolds, St Peter’s, Didcot

“We very quickly found a way to livestream our services during lockdown, using a mobile in the vicarage and streaming onto Facebook. However, the quality was really poor, and we wanted to be able to offer more robust, community-focused support – especially as once we were allowed back into the church I had to continue to stream services from the vicarage whilst others were in the church, which was quite lonely and not representative of St Peter’s, which is all about community and being together. We needed to have the technical kit to bring our offering out into the ‘real world’, and the digital grant from the diocese was instrumental in allowing us to do this.

“We have ordered a wifi signal booster, camera and tablet – essentially the kit that was recommended on the diocese’s digital support group – and are eagerly awaiting their arrival with our plan to livestream from St Peter’s in June.

“We will be offering a hybrid approach to worship as although many of our congregation are keen to be back in the church, we do have a number of vulnerable and elderly parishioners who would prefer to stay at home. As well as this, we have a growing contingent of followers that live away from the benefice but used to be members of the church and want to continue their journey of faith with us. We have also begun to support several ‘unchurched’ people who have found their faith during lockdown either by taking part in Come and See or by joining our livestreamed morning prayers, which happen daily.

“Going digital has been a great way to encourage people to church without the process being overwhelming – diving straight into the Eucharist from nothing could be overpowering so taking things slowly and introducing ourselves online has been a great way to support people.”

St Peter’s, Didcot, received a grant of just under £630 towards a livestreaming kit.

With many more churches livestreaming services from within the church building, the need for internet connectivity and wifi is greater than ever before. For more information and to apply for a grant, visit our Capital Fundraising page. Grant applications are considered as and when they come in.