Friends of Fawley Church and the strength of community during and after COVID-19

In a quiet part of the Oxfordshire countryside, something amazing is happening. The people of the small village of Fawley aren’t letting COVID-19 get in the way of their community spirit, strength and support. Whilst this month sees the nation mark the sombre first anniversary of the first national lockdown, the villagers of Fawley will also be marking a year since they began offering the chance to pray for their community more formally – something they adopted to combat the loneliness and fear caused by COVID, nourishing their community during a difficult and uncertain time.  

St Mary the Virgin’s Church in Fawley is one of six churches that form the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches and is at the heart of village life. When the first lockdown was enforced, the importance of St Mary the Virgin’s and the other churches in their respective communities was evident as the desire for daily prayers in each church rang out loud and clear. Unfortunately, as places of worship closed, it was impossible to carry on this practice. However, a core group of St Mary’s congregation, led by Julia Ogilvy, decided that the sanctuary offered by prayer, providing a moment to pause and reflect, was still of huge importance. As a result, St Mary’s devised a weekly prayer session, held outdoors when restrictions allowed, and since then the event has gone from strength to strength, with a few alterations as different lock down measures were introduced. 

The group has continued to grow

The original group of worshippers of twelve grew to 25 people at the height of the summer when restrictions were eased, aincrease on the numbers that were attending Sunday services regularly before the pandemic, which, due to several factors, including an ageing population, the lack of family friendly amenities in the church, and the lack of a permanent vicar, occasionally reached as low as six to eight people a week.

What has been surprising for Julia is the number of people who don’t profess to have a strong religious leaning but still attend the prayer session regularly;

“I would say that most of the regular attendees aren’t religious but the format – short, outside and community focused, really appeals to people, both young and old.  

“One woman in particular, who has never been a churchgoer, started attending two weeks after the death of her husband and has not missed a meeting since. Due to her age, she must be very careful, so she keeps a safe distance from everyone, more than the recommended two metres, and wears her face mask, but despite the distance, the meetings have kept her connected in some of her darkest moments – so much so that she has asked us not to end the prayer meetings once national restrictions are lifted.”      

The prayer meetings are usually about ten to 15 minutes long, start with a poem and then a bible reading. The leaders try to pick a theme each week, using unusual prayers often written by members of the community. Names are then read out of those who people want to pray foran email is sent round every Thursday asking for names and, if appropriate, an explanation for the request, with reasons ranging from ill health, financial insecurity and world events. Over the course of the last year, nearly 300 names have been emailed through to the organisers, demonstrating just how important this act of worship and reflection has become for the community. 

Responding to need

The sense of community spirit and involvement that has been created through this small act of worship has opened a wealth of discussions, with perhaps the most important being how St Mary’s responds to the needs of its congregation, ensuring the church is around for many more years to come.  

An unexpected windfall for the residents of the village, following a refund due to broadband issues, raised the idea of each resident donating their share to a new project designed to protect the physical building of St Mary’s, and much to the delight and amazement of everyone involved, money started pouring in, with c.£50,000 being donated. As a result, a group of villagers have registered The Friends of Fawley Church as a charitable entity with the aim not to raise money for general running costs but rather to preserve, maintain and enhance the ancient church and churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Fawley, for the greater benefit of the whole community. 

Guy Andrews, trustee of The Friends of Fawley says;

“There is broad support here for keeping the church upright and alive. We may never attend a service, but we recognize that the place itself is beautiful, and that it represents continuity in the village in a way that nothing else can. Everybody in Fawley has the right to use the church; we all have the right to be buried in its grounds, whatever we do, or don’t believe, or say or do. It’s ours.

“The problem is many residents can’t grasp what the church is for, on a day-to-day basis. In non-COVID times, a handful of people gather there once a week to worship. Rather more get together at Christmas and Easter and for christenings, marriages and funerals. The rest of the time it just sits there, looking pretty but effectively unused. Concerts, coffee mornings, gatherings of all kinds have to take place elsewhere.”

Looking forward

 Julia continues,  

“Yet, it doesn’t have to be like this. We could make the church warmer, rewire it, furnish it with discreet but properly functioning lavatory. We could create a space for a small kitchen. The pews could be reorganised or put on wheels, and we could have super-fast broadband. And that’s where Friends of Fawley Church comes in. 

“The more of us who are willing to be involved in helping things change, the better – with the support of the community, we can help resurrect the church as something essential to our village. A place of worship and sanctuary for those who need it for that. But also, a place to gather for discussion, performance, celebration. A place that everybody has the right to use, in which we can feel emotionally and physically comfortable.

“The pandemic has been devastating for people, but it has also taught us the importance of community spirit and cohesion, and The Friends of Fawley Church is the embodiment of that. This is our best chance in several generations to put our church on the front foot. A chance to face the future, with a plan.” 

If you have been inspired by The Friends of Fawley to investigate new expressions of church or to find ways you can help support your community, visit our Advice and Inspiration pages or take a look at our Growing Congregations information.