Manna speaks to Revd Trish Ollive about the challenges and joys of reordering.
When the Revd Trish Ollive arrived at St Mary’s Bridgwater four years ago, she knew that she would oversee a major reordering of the 13th Century, Grade 1 listed building as the church sought to realise its vision of being more outwardly facing. The ‘to and fro’ discussions with the Diocesan Advisory Committee had already taken place, funding of over £600 had been raised, compromise had been reached on the number of pews to be kept and the architects appointed.
Trish says, “The church was very dark, full of pews and laid out over different levels which made parts of the church difficult to access for some people. There was a sink and small work area, but that was up a couple of steps too so if we did have coffee after a service, those in wheelchairs or with limited mobility couldn’t circulate with everyone else, so it was less than ideal.”
Trish adds, “The plan was to lighten the church by cleaning the stonework, stripping the dark ceiling and pews, and installing new lighting. The floor was lifted to allow us to fit underfloor heating and level it off, and it was there that we came across a major obstacle to our plans as we discovered a number of vaults we weren’t aware of.”
Archaeologist Keith Faxon recorded and registered all the remains and they have been reburied in the church and blessed. The discovery of the archaeological remains had a huge impact on the project. Instead of the modest scaffolding tower they had planned, they had to have a carefully-placed gallery of scaffolding around the church and the extra work wiped out the contingency funding St Mary’s had set aside. Trish says, “My only sadness about the project is that the £130,000 debt from the diocese is hanging over the church, but there was no going back at that point. I also have no doubt that God will provide. We’ve got to be proactive, but if we listen and watch, then He will provide.”
The extensive scaffolding meant staying in the church while the work took place was no longer an option so the church community had to celebrate their services either at the Baptist Church opposite or at St Mary’s Primary School.
For Trish, however, the move offered a number of unexpected blessings. She says, “It was lovely that we were able to build our relationship with the Baptist Church. We are a very traditional church but have since had joint services, with our musicians all playing together, and we all enjoy fellowship afterwards.
“What was also lovely was how it really brought our congregation together. We are a gathered church, drawing people from across Bridgwater, and everyone used to sit quite separately. When we were in the school, people sat next to each other, chatted and got to know each other. One gentleman had to use an oxygen tank and usually sat in the back of the church on his own. He wrote to me before he died and said, ‘I didn’t think I’d like worshipping in a school but now I realise how many friends I have got in the church’ so it proved to be real blessing for him.”
That feeling of togetherness has continued as the congregation now enjoys worshiping in its light and accessible building. Trish says, “In our opening service I vividly remember a lady coming in on her mobility scooter. She whizzed into the back of the church, then whizzed around so she was facing the right way. That was fantastic. The other day I came in to find schoolchildren scattered around the church, sat on the under-heated floor, as they enjoyed learning about the Beatitudes from our curate, Suse, and looking at our newly-cleaned ceiling using a mirror on a trolley, donated by one of our parishioners. We host a dementia-friendly café once a month, sponsored by Sanctuary Care, one of the town’s care home providers. Patients and care workers alike can interact and even play Bocce, beanbag bowling, which we set up in the church.”
Long-standing PCC member, Heather Prosser, was part of the vision team that set out to pull in the community and can see that vision coming to life every week as she helps with the now weekly community café in the church. She says, “I think the church is now beautiful and I’m so pleased to see the result of all those meetings. Before it was a bit like a museum and only open on Sundays. Now it is so light, I love it and we do get a lot more people in here now. To a PCC member considering reordering their church I would say, ‘Grab the bull by the horns, if you don’t do it, you’ll never know what you can do!’”
Churchwarden Mike Vickery agrees and says, “Practical things can make a big difference. The church was not in a good state, the heating was failing and the wiring was not good. The reordering has changed things dramatically and with the improved sound, lighting, IT capabilities and flexible seating – thanks to our moveable pews – we can enjoy more comfortable services and host a lot more different things, from a talk by historian Dan Snow to the BBC Somerset Christmas Carol service.”
Sitting in the light and airy church, enjoying a light lunch from the café, with members of the community popping in and out and saying hello, Trish reflects that all the stresses and strains of the reordering have been more than worthwhile.
She says, “Now that we are in, we are concentrating on building up what we do and networking. Finding out what God’s plan is here and what niche we can fill. This reordering would not have been feasible without the diligence, commitment and sense of humour provided by our Churchwardens at the time, Adrian Patten and Richard Philpott, and the vision of those who went before – and that team ethos continues.
“I am blessed not only with some amazing volunteers, but also by our Verger Kelvin Millis, who can turn his hand to anything, Suse our curate who brings a younger viewpoint and energy, and Jonathan, a retired vicar, who realised God had plans for his retirement and now regularly supports us by taking services and making soup for the café. It’s as if God is saying ‘I’m here; I’ve got your back.’”
Trish’s top tips for those thinking about reordering their church
- Get a quantity surveyor – managing a nearly £1m project is not for volunteers. Having your own dedicated quantity surveyor will give you peace of mind.
- Build in a contingency to your budget – you may not need it, but you will be grateful for it if something unexpected comes along
- Don’t necessarily go for the cheapest option – we went for the slightly more expensive option of burnished bronze finish for our light fittings rather than aluminium and I’m so glad we did as they fit in so much better.
- Look on it as an opportunity – you’ll build up some invaluable friendships in your community
- When you get back into your church, breathe take your time – not all decisions need to be made immediately. Make the big ones, but let the others wait awhile and inhabit the space first.
- You can’t apply for grants retrospectively – if you do come across a problem, don’t dip into your contingency straight away, see if you can apply for a grant first.
- You need a strong committed team to see a project like this through.