Keeping Christianity’s heritage alive

by Jo Duckles

TWO major projects are set to keep our region’s rich Christian history and heritage alive for generations to come.

Part of the historic Reading Abbey ruins. Photo: Reading Museum

A world-class interactive exhibition telling the story of Christianity in Oxford could soon be attracting thousands of visitors to St Aldate’s Church.

Meanwhile, this month Reading Abbey will open to the public, giving people the chance to discover Henry I’s burial site and learn about the influential religious community that lived there until its dissolution in 1538.

John Mullaney, who is behind the Hidden Abbey project, says: “One factor that I stress in my talks, and in what I write, is that we should not lose sight of the Abbey’s spiritual significance.

“The restoration work is much more than the conservation of the stones and flints that made up one the greatest Romanesque buildings of its day. It was a place of Christian prayer and pilgrimage and the people who lived there for 400 years dedicated their lives to this end.”

John, who worships at St James’ Church, the Roman Catholic Church in the Abbey grounds, added that the site may have been home to an earlier Saxon or Norman monastery, meaning it could have been a place of Christian worship before 1121, when the Abbey was built.

Several projects have been linked to the conservation of the Abbey, including Reading Abbey Revealed which attracted £2m Lottery Funding matched by Reading Borough Council. Alongside this is the Hidden Abbey Project which John started with his wife Lindsay, Canon John O’Shea, priest of St James’ and Philippa Langley, who discovered Richard III’s tomb in Leicester. This is now a joint enterprise with Reading Borough Council and the Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth.
An offshoot of this is the Hidden Abbey Stones scheme, which gives Reading people the chance to find out what happened to the Abbey after its dissolution.
The St Aldate’s idea came when leaders felt that rich faith strands had been airbrushed out of Oxford’s history on hoardings that were installed around the Westgate Shopping Centre as it was being redeveloped.

The Revd Canon Charlie Cleverly, the Rector, said: “If you want to know about the Christian history of Oxford you have to go looking for it. We want to open the doors of our building, which is empty on weekdays. We want this to be on a par with other sites in Oxford. St Aldate’s is opposite the most visited cathedral site in the country.”

St Aldate’s leaders shared the vision with key people in the city, including the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd Martyn Percy, Cllr Bob Price, the leader of Oxford City Council, a Professor of History from Oxford University and the Rt Revd Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford.

After receiving positive comments, St Aldate’s commissioned a feasibility study, by the same company that worked on Bletchley Park museum — famous as the home of the Second World War codebreakers — and the Titanic museum in Belfast.

The result is an ambitious plan for a £3m exhibition that will be projected onto the walls and pillars of the historic church. “Our church budget is £1.5m per year but we don’t want to detract from our core business,” said Charlie. St Aldate’s core ministries reach out to students as well as many Oxford residents of all ages from children to pensioners. It also has specific ministries for the vulnerable, including ex-offenders and the homeless.

The exhibition will be separate from all those ministries. “This will be open from Tuesday to Saturday. We hope it will attract school trips, Oxford students, residents of Oxford and tourists. They will walk in and look at at the story and hear it through headphones with the latest technology. As well as history, there will be stories of modern-day encounters with Christ and the opportunity for people to reflect on mindfulness/spirituality.

Reading Abbey’s official re-opening takes place from 11am on Saturday 16 June. An ecumenical service, celebrating the re-opening takes place in the afternoon of Sunday 8 July at St James’ Church.