A church at the heart of its community in Oxford is almost halfway to raising £737,000 to improve its facilities and provide even more support for people in one of the city’s most deprived areas.
It is one of many initiatives across the Diocese of Oxford where Christians are working towards our common vision for a more Christ-like Church.
The vision at St Mary and St Nicholas is to be a seven-day church, open to everyone, that embodies the love of God in the community. The work will see a more efficient heating system, a kitchen and a toilet installed, and the pews removed to make-way for stackable chairs. A balcony will be built for the organ and musicians and the vestry area converted into a single large meeting space. The church is nearly halfway to raising the £737,000 for the work to create what will be known as the Newman Meeting Place
A place for people to come
The parish is in the lowest 10 per cent nationally for child poverty, with 13 per cent of people of working age living in poverty and 14 per cent of pensioners living in poverty. Situated between the bigger Blackbird Leys and Rose Hill estates, which have community facilities, Littlemore has nowhere that people can meet for coffee and a catch-up. Church Urban Fund provides an in-depth breakdown of deprivation levels.
“There is nowhere for people to sit and talk. We hope we can provide a building fit for formal sessions but also informal things,” says the Revd Margreet Armitstead, priest-in-charge. Currently the 19th-century building is kept warm with three different make-shift heaters, there is no running water and inflexible, old fashioned pews.
Prayer and generosity
Fundraising for a major improvement project in an area of deprivation seemed like a long shot, but after a 30-day prayer retreat, Margreet felt inspired to try. “I realised our weakness was going to be our strength. We would step into this vision as part of our journey of faith. If it’s God’s vision for us here it will happen,” she says.
And people began to get on board with the project. “One after the other they sat on the sofa in my study and I explained what we were doing and one after the other they explained how they could help,” she says.
St Mary and St Nicolas Church was built because of a campaign by the then vicar of St Mary’s University Church in Oxford, John Henry Newman
John Henry Newman was the vicar of St Mary’s University Church in Oxford Its benefice included Littlemore which was then a rural hamlet with no school or church. Read how Newman campaigned for the church and provided lessons for local children here: johnhenrynewman.org
Dr Philip Salmon, a specialist historian, got involved because of the link with Newman. “As a historian, I know about the struggle Newman had to build the church. We are looking at a community that has been overlooked. It’s a church that is doing a lot for its local community but when you look at the facilities it is a national scandal.”
Philip explained that in terms of the architecture, the church had been replicated internationally. “Particularly in places like South Africa there are examples that are identical,” he says. Newman could be canonised in the near future – a move that could put the church on the tourist/pilgrim map and raise its profile internationally.
Over her 15-years in Littlemore, Margreet has worked with the diocesan parish development adviser as well as others to deliver community projects. The church renovation will provide better facilities for these ongoing projects. These include a Christmas Day lunch, set up after a man posted a note on Littlemore’s Chinese take away. His note stated he had just eaten a slice of toast for Christmas dinner.
“It was shouting to the community that this was supposed to be a joyful day, but for him, this was a miserable day. We put something in the Littlemore Local asking for help,” says Margreet.
An after-school club, over 60s lunch club, a breakfast club and links with Response – a service for patients from the Littlemore Mental Health Centre, are all part of the work of St Mary and St Nicholas.
There are also strong links with John Henry Newman CE Academy – the local primary school. After becoming the first school to join the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST), JHN has gone from being classified as ‘Requires Improvement’ to ‘Good’ by Ofsted. There the church is working with the school on a project to provide reflective Prayer Spaces for pupils.
Meeting a hunger
Without a community centre in Littlemore itself, the church building is an invaluable resource. Margreet says: “There is something about this space which is nearer and is somewhere that takes them outside of their daily struggles. One single mum has four children and tells me she can’t eat as she can’t afford enough food and has to prioritise feeding the children.”
The Revd Hannah Cartwright is the Assistant Curate and has also witnessed Littlemore’s poverty. “I went into some local flats and could sense the depression that comes over you. I have met people who are often trapped inside their own space. A couple of mornings a week we give people an excuse to get out of their house.”
The Community Breakfast runs every weekday during school holidays and was started in response to figures showing that one in four children were going hungry. It is open to everyone and open to the wider community. It was so popular that it was decided to keep it going in term times on Mondays and Wednesdays.
“It has been a really good safe space for people to meet others, talk about their mental and physical health and to ask questions about life and faith. We are setting up a partnership with the mental health centre for some volunteering opportunities for residents. Some of those who have come to the breakfast are now regulars at worship on Sundays and out in the community and our fab volunteers regularly support people and direct them to services which can help them where needed.
“The thing that stands out to me most is the responsiveness and willingness of the community to get stuck in, not just to respond to people’s real needs but to have that discernment as to where God is.”
Margreet says: “Bishop Steven talks about being a Christ-like church which was something we had been embracing, being there for other people with compassion, stepping out with courage into faith on the basis of a contemplative life in relationship with God.”
The last four years have seen a powerful transformation in people’s faith journeys. “There is an openness in the broadest sense, to God and the wider community,” she says.
To help improve morale in the community, the creative arts are providing a therapeutic outlet. A Harvest of Talents community arts project has seen painters, knitters and others, as well as a musician-in-residence inspire people to get involved. The improved building will provide a base for schemes like this.
Margreet Armitstead, Benjamin Johnson and Philip Salmon
“It’s moving from the priest being the person people look to. It’s beginning to shift, and people are owning their own journeys. People come forward with ideas they would like to explore,” says Margreet. The work already underway to help people develop their faith in Littlemore is very similar to a project to deliver Personal Discipleship Plans across the Oxford Diocese.
Among those involved is someone training to be a spiritual director and Benjamin Johnson, Licensed Lay Minister in training. Speaking of the work at the church, Benjamin says: “The open doors are the arms of Christ Jesus, welcoming people impoverished, punished and marginalised by social injustice into a place of peace. The high ceilings and beautiful beams draw immediate attention and heads turn to God in heaven; toward an awesome God waiting to hear our words that praise and glorify.”