New communities are springing up across Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes with a population the size of Edinburgh expected to move into the Diocese over the next 15 years.
This means creative and strategic thinking with plans for up to 750 new congregations of all shapes, sizes and traditions. One example is Great Western Park Church on the new Great Western Park estate in Didcot, Oxfordshire.
The Revd Mark Bodeker invited Jo Duckles to join him at a weekly community café, run by volunteers from Didcot’s churches, in the Northern Neighbourhood Community Centre.
There, Mark explained how GWP Church has evolved from a group who got together to pray on the new estate.
“This ecumenical group of people meeting for prayer began to do community activities,” says Mark, who made inroads into the community becoming a governor at the University Technical College in Didcot, an engineering focussed college for students in school years 10-13.
“It was a way to get involved and help. As we carried on, I asked the question again about whether we should have regular worship. We had another conversation, asking if we wanted to meet as a church. The answer was very much that we did. It grew from there and we now have 50 or 60 people coming every week.
“As we were forming the church I was conscious of what sort of model of we would use. It’s a fresh expression in the sense that it’s new,” says Mark. “But we have elements of Anglican liturgy, with confession, absolution, prayers and a monthly Eucharist.
“We have a very open format where people can get up during the service and there is provision for children. A lot of what we do is outside, it’s an incarnational ministry.
“There’s no Christian banner. You won’t find hard-sell but you will see people working away and sharing things. We are really focussed on hospitality and welcome and we encourage everyone to join a small group or house group. We have four of those.”
The weekly meetings take place in the UTC college at 11am on Sundays. The church is supported by All Saints’ in Didcot and the Diocese of Oxford.
Hear Mark talk about the evolution of Great Western Park Church here:
Gareth Lane, chair of the Great Western Park Residents’ Association, is also a regular at the café. A member of GWP Church, Gareth says the residents’ association links with community and faith groups and works as an interface between the community and the local authority.
The association got defribillators fitted at the community centre and has campaigned for better road safety measures through the estate, which can see 6,000 to 7,000 cars each day. “It’s supposed to be a 20mph limit but no one sticks to 20,” says Gareth.
Members of Great Western Park Church are among the volunteers who run the café. Mark introduced me to some of them, as one mum walked in exclaiming how excited her little boy was that morning. That was because it was the monthly session with soft play equipment for toddlers.
Rebecca Kerry is the café’s volunteer manager. She took over from Claire Hann, who originally set the café up in 2015.
“It has very definitely been something that Great Western Park Church has been involved with from the beginning and was pursued as a response to the need in the community. When it started there wasn’t anything here.
“There was a toddler group but there was nowhere people could just come and meet each other whether or not they had children or where at that life stage,” says Rebecca, who is also the GWP Church children’s coordinator.
“Claire from the Methodist Church ran it for a couple of years when her children were small. When she went back to work I was at home with my children, so I was able to take over.” Hear Rebecca talking about the café here:
Coffee and cake
Serving Kingdom Coffee and homemade cakes, the café is popular with young mums and older people alike. Rosie Hall, who worships in the Benefice of Cherbury with Gainfield, said: “I come here because I live down the road. I’m a disabled mum and my children are at pre-school. I can cycle here. Rebecca used to help the children and I get here. It is always very welcoming. When the children come they love the colouring in and it’s a safe environment. You meet people, sit around the tables and chat and it’s good for the children. It’s reasonably priced and a real community environment.”
David Hawkins goes to the café because he enjoys Kingdom Coffee. “I seek it out,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to come somewhere in the middle of the week to have a cup of coffee, even when there is soft play and it is a bit chaotic. They also always make sure there is dairy-free cake here for me. We have been going to Great Western Park Church, which is where we found out about the café.
“We are Samaritans first…”
Marianne Maunder is a Methodist. She was at the café with her husband, Geoffrey, who is one of the volunteers. The couple have lived in Didcot for 38 years. She said: “When I had my first child I lived in Rowstock and there hadn’t been a baby born in 23 years. I know what the isolation of moving somewhere new is and I became a post-natal support co-ordinator for the NCT. People I knew from that are still my friends. Not everyone enjoys every aspect of motherhood. I am not looking for the ones who look like they are enjoying it, but looking for the ones who may feel isolated. It doesn’t matter what our religion is, we are Samaritans first.”
Hear Marianne on why she is inspired to help others here: