St Mary’s Going Forward

INTRODUCTION

St Mary’s will celebrate its 150th Anniversary in 2024. Marking this significant milestone in the life of the parish merits careful consideration so that St Mary’s can continue to thrive for the glory and praise of God and generations of worshippers to come. 

I write the following in the hope of involving as many of the congregation and our friends as possible in our thoughts and plans; for, as well as the proper liturgical celebration and events, there is also the possibility of carrying out works on the parish buildings to ensure that St Mary’s distinctive mission and outreach is embodied and energised for many more years to come.

With that in mind, early in 2019 the PCC and St Mary’s Trust came together for a time of discernment as how best to mark this anniversary in such a way as to reflect our particular and special charism as a church.  Both bodies have distinctive and interlocking stewardship of the complex of buildings that serve St Mary’s, and the day brought together these two overlapping groups of people for collective exploration, mutual learning, and shared reflection of what the vision might be and how it might be brought into being.

The aim at this early stage was most importantly to consider the prior and deeper question about the charism of St Mary’s which inspires us all. And having done so, then to ask what should characterise our marking of the 150th Anniversary.  That group judged what might best characterise our marking of the 150th Anniversary could be gathered under six headings:

  1. Celebratory Liturgies
  2. Action on Evangelism (educational & other initiatives)
  3. Celebratory & Community Events (for the wider community)
  4. An Anniversary Appeal (for ourselves and/or others)
  5. Creating Community (for the Church membership)
  6. Facilities for the Future (buildings – and lavatories!)

We also judged that the next step was to engage with the wider congregation, at first about the possible building projects, and so to extend the conversation to include us all.  This exercise of an information leaflet and accompanying display boards is very much part of that attempt to engage with you all about nurturing the tradition we have received, and are a part of, as well as to enable it for the generations to come.

BUILDING MATTERS

We have here a range of buildings, some listed and some not, all of interest but of variable design, constructed on different levels, with different access points and not always properly interconnected.  Yet St Mary’s is the spiritual home for many – of past and present, of local and dispersed as well, we hope, of the future and presently unknown.  We, the congregation of today, are part of the unfolding narrative of God’s people in this place; custodians with a responsibility to nurture the place and make it fit for this time and season as well as for the future. But our present facilities aren’t really suitable nor accessible enough nor is where we meet for drinks after Sunday Mass large enough   As Gladstone, one time Prime Minister and occasional visitor to St Mary’s, once memorably commented, ‘No ritual is too much, provided it is subsidiary to the inner work of worship; and all ritual is too much, unless it ministers to that purpose.’  What of the essence of worship and our present buildings?  What might happen in bricks and mortar to enhance our common life and mission? For ourselves and for others?

Crossing the threshold of a church is like entering a conversation.  How easy or difficult is it to enter and join in we might ask? A building such as the Presbytery can feel as if its back is turned to us.  The Church though is more approachable – especially when one is greeted by a smile from a Sidesperson on entering at the time of Mass – and you feel you are in the right place, reassured there’s nothing to fear.  With the Presbytery though some sort of advance knowledge is required – how best to get in, where to go once inside, best for those already in the know.  And with both there is the question of the differently abled and less ambulant, of access in and out and to lavatories for wheelchair users.  What of welcome is made to them by all our buildings?  As one Church building commentator, Nigel Walter, has commented, ‘most congregations describe themselves as welcoming – and none are as welcoming as they think they are!’  

SUMMARY OF POSSIBLE DEVELOPMENTS

Early in 2018 the architect Matthew Lloyd was appointed by St Mary’s Trust after a competitive selection process to address the need for work to the Presbytery to bring it up to date with new fire and safety regulations.  He was also asked to reflect on the mix of buildings around the church generally (the cottage, the Presbytery, the Bell house at no 26 Graham Terrace and the spaces between) to see if some enhancement could take place to address the requirements of a better provision of meeting and social space and (at least as important) better connectivity and access around the site with proper disabled access and a better provision of lavatories and other facilities as well.

In the autumn he met with various stakeholders who use the premises and over time and with feedback evolved two possible schemes (which are not in fact mutually exclusive).

Both schemes address the issue of flow and connectivity:  both would involve a new door leading from church, situated under the organ gallery and to the side of the font.  This would run beneath the organ gallery access walkway and these would be enclosed.  It would then lead to a reception area situated roughly where the cottage courtyard currently is – with disabled and other lavatories leading off in one direction, a new lift and staircase running between the basement, ground and first floors (providing a new main entrance to the Victoria School of English), and access in to the new hall as well as, in the case of the smaller scheme, the courtyard.   

The larger scheme would involve the demolition of the Bell house and the creation of a hall/meeting space (for about 100 people) covering the courtyard and the ground floor of the Bell house.  Three flats above it would be additionally created within a tower structure that copies somewhat the original bell tower envisaged for the church but which was never built because of the second war.  A fourth flat would be created on the ground floor of the Presbytery. This scheme would cost approximately £8.5 million to bring about.

The smaller scheme focusses on the ground floor of the Presbytery and those parts of it that have been incorporated in the cottage dwelling and would create a smaller hall/meeting space (for about 60 people) at the front with a new kitchen running between it and the courtyard.  This scheme would cost approx. £2.5 million to complete.

The plans on display show both the larger ‘Bell house’ scheme and the smaller ‘Presbytery’ scheme with some responses made about both from various informal consultations.  Note again it would be possible to do the smaller scheme first and look to the second one later if that was what was wished.

CONCLUSION

Our task now is to judge what is the right way forward for us. Please pass onto me any thoughts you may have (in writing by letter or email to the office) as the PCC and Trustees will need in the summer to look at our next steps.  All Churches are places of Gospel encounters, always providing the possibility of dynamic, disturbing, comforting epiphanies.  I hope whatever we decide to do, and how we go about doing it, will be part of the dynamic, disturbing and ultimately comforting epiphany into which here, as elsewhere, our God is always inviting us.

Fr Andrew Walker, Parish Priest – March 2019

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