I had seen it coming years ago, the inevitable. Stepping through the church door, I was momentarily stunned, almost moved to tears. The pews had been ripped out, the altar stripped, and there were men on scaffolding behind the altar busily working on dismantling the reredos.
This is my ‘home’ church, St. Margaret’s, in the Diocese of Portsmouth. It was September 2019, and I was visiting the UK to see my latest grandchild. A family walk took us past St. Margaret’s. This familiar building had served my family with baptisms, weddings, and funerals for more than sixty years.
Recovering from my initial shock, I took a photograph and retreated. Back on the sidewalk, I glanced at the church noticeboard, took another picture, and we continued on our way to a nearby bar.
When I said I had seen it coming, I wasn’t exaggerating. I had made St. Margaret’s plight the subject of a Spirit editorial back in 2014. Then I wrote,
I discovered that this church has no Internet presence at all, just its name and phone number listed on the Portsmouth diocese’s website. It was in this rather rundown inner-city church that I got the feeling that the changes of the world at large hadn’t simply passed them by unnoticed but that the church and its congregation had decided to turn their collective backs on the modern world. They appeared to be unable, reluctant, or simply refusing to change.
At the Sunday Holy Eucharist, we were left pretty much alone. Ignored it seemed. After the service, the few congregants disappeared, presumably for tea or coffee in the parish hall. We never found out. I don’t like to think it, but it felt like this is a congregation in terminal decline. I hope I am wrong and that we just picked a bad day to visit…”
Of course, a church experience doesn’t have to be like that, again quoting from the 2014 article.
“… in the remote Scottish village of Pool Ewe. Saint Maelrubha’s Scottish Episcopal Church is a tiny converted byre. What a vibrant, welcoming church it turned out to be! They made us feel very welcome from the moment we put our heads around the door. After the service, they plied us with delicious home-made cakes and welcome cups of coffee. Checking their website, I see that part of their new parish hall includes a holiday cottage that they rent out. What an excellent idea to help them offset their costs.”
Back in Missouri, vacation over, I was looking through my pictures when I came across the photos I’d taken at St. Margaret’s. On closer inspection, a few things caught my eye. Yes, there were boarded-up windows in the top left of the picture, but there seemed to be a lot of stored goods present, and there were also lights strung across the nave. Intrigued, I checked my photo of the church noticeboard, which led me to a website and an afternoon spent learning the fate of St. Margaret’s.
St. Margaret’s taught me the painful truth that sometimes we have to let things die for them to be re-born. Hmm, haven’t we heard that somewhere before?
Yes, the church had been closed for a long time. There were structural problems with the building’s fabric, and it had been deemed unsafe to use. However, new, younger people had come in, got involved, repairs were undertaken and it has morphed into a community church. Its doors were open two days a week as a café and shop, and services were being held again.
In our current situation in 2021, there is a lot we can learn from this. I am reminded of the dangers of ignoring change and getting stuck doing things the same old way or wanting to revert to the old ways. My latest encounter with St. Margaret’s taught me the painful truth that sometimes we have to let things die for them to be re-born. Hmm, haven’t we heard that somewhere before?
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to how this story might apply to your church. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what, if anything, you will do about it.
Visit the St. Mags (as they call themselves) website: St Margaret’s Community Church (stmagscc.uk)
Footnote. This article has been sitting in my ‘Ready’ box for over a year waiting for an appropriate moment to publish it. I was finally reminded of the piece when an Instagram friend recently started volunteering at St. Margarets.