St Barnabas Church was established in June 2006.  The church meets for worship in Thatcham Park Church of England primary school which is situated in Park Avenue, north Thatcham. It serves the school throughout the week with an emphasis on reaching the local community around the school.  Worship here is informal with a variety of worship styles. The church has a strap line of “Serving To Build Community‟ derived from the letters of St Barnabas Church, (STBC). Liz Hudson visited to find out the story of the partnership.

The team at the St Barnabas and Thatcham Park Primary Partnership. Photo: Liz Hudson

The team at the St Barnabas and Thatcham Park Primary Partnership. Photo: Liz Hudson

There’s a primary school in Thatcham which is ‘walking the walk’ in its partnership with the local church. In this case it’s so local the church is within the building and has been changing the lives of families gradually over the last few years. I met with the Revd Mark Bennett and team vicar, the Revd Nicola Hulks together with Leanne Fowler and Amey Tunney from the Parent Teacher Association to see how it works.

The church and school have history, beginning originally several decades ago with an ecumenical partnership meeting in the school which was the heart of a new estate. The strapline ‘Serving to Build Community’ was the early vision which still holds true. The church became St Barnabas in 2006 and when Mark arrived in Thatcham with two churches to care for, he realised he was intently committed to the church presence in the school and all that it could deliver. He also has a more traditional church, St Mary’s.

A team to make things happen

From the start Mark knew he needed a team in place to make things happen, and appointed a Pioneer, Pat, ordained with a social work background who over the next 7 years created a network of good relationships which consolidated what had happened before. Working with the PTA, there was a deliberate focus on ‘not on Sunday’ and introducing family friendly events. They moved away from fundraising as a key reason to meet and focussed on pastoral care.

The ‘Chit Chat Club’ for children at lunchtimes, Parenting Courses, Curate the Revd Leonard Onugha sitting with and talking to people while they make things for the school, joining in with school trips, all involving clergy just being part of life on the ground, behind the scenes. Parents began asking questions, talking about their faith and experience, which led to becoming part of the Sunday service as well.

Amey speaks about conversations to support people, for the improvement to children’s mental health, of their role encouraging the staff during OFSTED, and of the way the school and church came together at a time of crisis in the community in 2017. Offering a place to sit, ribbons and stones to represent prayers, the people were held by the compassion and care all around them.

A welcoming, informal church

St Barnabas Church has 60 regular members, with any 20-30 coming to the Sunday Service.  St Mary’s Church has many baptisms, over 100 a year, with families then coming to St Barnabas for the Welcome Service afterwards.  “We’re more informal” says Leanne, “and welcome everyone even if they’ve never been to church before”. Nicola is new to the area and loves the two-fold aspect of the work. “It’s like being a chaplain, being out there,” she says. She has time to spend on the children’s spirituality, and being seen in school gives parents confidence in her.  They speak about love, loving the children and the parents and showing God to them all, not “ramming religion” into them

There was a significant sealing of the relationship when the church and school both booked the building for an event on the same day. The church offered to cancel their event and ran the barbecue at the school fete instead.

“Our most vulnerable mum’s flourish under their love and care and enjoy getting tasks done in and for school.”

Another key figure is Sarah, the school’s Family Support Worker. The boundaries and respect are critical, she says, and it takes a long time to build trust. Apparently, the PTA group she describes is not typical. “Our most vulnerable mum’s flourish under their love and care and enjoy getting tasks done in and for school,” says Sarah.

What sort of things do they do? “Loads!” There’s a Breakfast Club by invitation, ‘Operation Beans’ which involves lunches, coat, shoe and uniform collections, ‘Elfridges’, a low cost gift shop allowing children to get a surprise for a parent or carer, and all with the support of donations from the church community.

“It’s all about the way we interact…”

Alison, Head Teacher, has been here over five years. She speaks of the culture and the ethos of the school lived out in partnership with the church. Everything is underpinned by love. She sees that the church PTFA partnership, working together, is providing a sense of purpose for families. “It’s all about the way we interact with them” she says, “not what the interactions are”.

Above all, the children know that ‘church’ is people, not a building.