Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The historical development of St Nicolas Earley - written June 2010

This was one of my assignments from the LLM Training; I have decided to share some of these assignments since they might be of interest to people. 

This is a presentation on the missional history of St Nicolas Earley.  It was written in June 2010.  Each slide is provided with my presentational notes underneath.

Today we are going to look at the historical development of Earley St Nicolas.  I have picked the theme of mission as the main discussion point through the presentation, allowing us to look at what mission started St Nicolas, through to our mission today.  Although the church was only founded 63 years ago there have been three mission focussed building projects; I will focus on the initial planting of the church and building of the original church hall.

why is the first section entitled mission?

The Church of England’s mission and public affairs council produced the document “Mission Shaped Church: church planting and fresh expressions of church in a changing context” in 2004 (Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs Council, 2004, CHP). It starts in the introduction by defining what is meant by church planting; and having researched the history of St Nicolas Earley I was amazed to see that it was as true in the 1930s for the congregation of St Peters as it is now. Realising this I decided to focus my presentation on the history of St Nicolas on the mission aspects of it’s concept, building, development and ongoing work.

Of course the 2004 document moves far beyond the discussion of church plants in a geographical context, it being written for the 21st century; but it pays homage to the preceding periods when planting new churches in developing areas geographically was a forward thinking and extremely valuable activity. And this is what those at St Peters did in having a mission to provide a church for the new developing areas of Earley.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at what the culture of the UK was like in the 1930s.

War and disasters always dramatically speed up change and create a readiness and acceptance of cultural changes. This was the case in the period between the two world wars (1918-1939) in the UK. Once undisputed and strongly held social and class barriers started to come down as the whole population suffered together.

And as the depression hit and continued, so the country bonded together; building a stronger sense of community and developing a need to care for each other as had been in the past; the stable past.

Strangely, even through the depression living standards were rising. Electricity was more widespread and available, the petrol engine was revolutionising the transport industry with more cars and faster buses. Jobs were created in the new industries including chemical production, and this counter-acted the job losses in heavy industry.

Entertainment and use of free time now became a new aspect of life which was embraced readily. People started to value what they could do in this time; for themselves, their families, communities and church.

In 1935 the St Peters PCC bought 1.25 acres of land on Sutcliffe Avenue, amongst the lots that were being sold for housing development. In 1943 a centenary committee was appointed by the St Peters PCC to make church plants. The main recommendation, from this committee, was the “erection of some kind of premises on the new church site in Sutcliffe Avenue for the extension of the church’s work in that district”.

The district had grown by 2000 people since 1935 and needed spiritual and community attention. It was expected that Reading would expand after the Second World War and St Peters was already caring for 10,000 souls; twice that envisaged in the planning of 1910. It was therefore proposed that “the time has come to build and extend the work of God’s kingdom”. It was agreed that a church could be built in the future, but that for now it was time to provide a general purposes building for Sunday services, Sunday school and to host the social life of the Christian community.

£7,000 was the estimated cost of providing the church plant building for general community use; this was established in 1944 and put on hold, with the rest of the plans until the conclusion of the war. In the meantime the Centenary fund was opened and the following words published in the fund letters “Here within the bounds of our own parish, on our own doorstep, opportunity stands, and I ask you all to help us to take it by giving our effort your prayers and blessings, and also to contribute of your substance. Of all the things upon which we might spend our wealth on earth, none could ever give us such priceless satisfaction as the knowledge that we had in however small a part extended the Kingdom of Christ in this suffering world. That, as these pages have shown, our forefathers ably did and now it falls to us to follow their example, let us therefore thank God for the opportunity which is given us, and ask His blessing upon our deliberations and efforts.“

Victory, as we all know, was achieved in 1945 and the plans for the church plant were re-started. The ministry of works offered a plaster board hut to the church and this officially started the building scheme. The process of building at this time was extremely complicated, there were huge building projects needed to repair the country and therefore labour and materials were both in short supply. After jumping through many hoops and exploring all options it was decided that the only way to build the building would be to use voluntary labour. At this time the local community to the Sutcliffe site became closer, slowly forming a more active community; to assist them in this they approached St Peters to see if the church would help them in sustaining the formation they had started. St Peters were thrilled to have a community who were keen and arranged to meet with them to discuss both the purpose and the running of the building. The result of this meeting was that a new committee was formed for the church plant.

Raising money was the number one stumbling block to the project; but eventually after a year and many, many donations averaging about £10, the targeted £1,000 was raised to erect the hut on site. Unfortunately, at the same time, the costs of licences increased and more money was needed; then the licence permissions were lost; and then, the final nail in the coffin, the hut was found to have become weather damaged . Many within the project team felt disillusioned and would have given up if it had not been for the community eagerness and the positivity of a few determined souls. Not long after, another hut was offered and the Earley community themselves were the ones to push the plans forward.

And so the church plant was finally able to go ahead. Construction started in July 1946, with a team of volunteers dismantling the hut from its location, moving it to Earley and then re-erecting it on the church site. Miraculously, despite the wettest summer for many years, the building was completed in December 1946. The first service was arranged for 22nd December 1946 and 100 people attended. The official opening of the building was held on St Peters Day 1947, that’s 29th June.

It is interesting to go back to why St Nicolas was chosen as the name for the church. It was named after the chapel of St Nicolas in Whitenights Park; the precursor to St Peters and a fitting name for the new church plant.

A year after the first service the church plant was already thriving. It had built a real community with those in the surrounding area and was now providing the following:
Sunday schools
Full services
Brownie pack
Cub pack
Youth club
Women’s friendship of young mothers
Toc H group
St John Ambulance group
Social events every Thursday

The amazing thing was that each and every one of these provision was self supporting within three months.

The plant had worked, St Nicolas church was thriving and growing and fulfilling the hopes and mission planned.  But St Nicolas did not rest on their laurels.  Through the years there has been ongoing mission.  At first this was to grow the congregation and strengthen the community.   Then to use the £700 left in the Centenary Fund to go towards a permanent building, the now church hall.  And then to be strong enough to support an Assistant Priest – Priest in Charge.

One of the reasons for this ongoing mission was the very nature of the people who had planted St Nicolas; mission focussed, driven, Holy Spirit filled people.  But it is also likely that the society they found themselves in was a factor.  Post second world war Britain was broken economically, broken structurally and broken as an empire.  Yes the war had been won, but so much had been lost.  The people came together and kept strong and battled through the hardships, they were determined to build their winning nation back to strength. For the people of St Nicolas this had already been achieved with the new church building, but it needed to be completed.  And so they pulled together and volunteered and raised money in the delivery of ongoing mission.  I was not there, but I know this to be true both from speaking to those who were there and from looking at examples of mission of all sorts around the nation at that time.  Change lay ahead and the people led the way.

In the proceeding sixty years the St Nicolas congregation and local community built a real church community. They built the new permanent church building, our church hall, sustained priests in charge from 1947 to 1976, opening the church building we now use as our church in 1971 and have sustained vicars ever since.  St Nicolas’ numbers have waxed and waned, but St Nicolas stays strong.

It is as if our history is repeating itself economically, as I now get to 2010. We are back in a recession, the modern word for a financial depression, and every sector of society is struggling, not least the church. Church giving is down, one off gifts are less, costs are up. Worry is a part of a treasurer and PCC members life.

And yet, unlike in the decades previously, the fighting spirit which seems to have been a key part of those who delivered the mission of building St Nicolas seems to be lacking in society. There is a loss of a sense of community with many neighbours never speaking to each other, let alone helping each other. There are reported reducing numbers of church attendance and this is all said to be pointing to a decline in the social value of church.

Is this true? I don’t think so.
Now more than ever we need mission.
Now more than ever the Word of God tells us how to act.
Now more than ever we need to remember the mission of the church, as told through the bible, shown by St Paul and acted by previous generations.

St Nics would not be here today if it were not for the vision, passion, time and monetary giving that those people at st peters gave 65 years ago. Today we take for granted that we have a church in Earley; if it were not for the people who, despite hardship and upheaval, followed through the mission of spreading the church we would most likely not be blessed with this place.
We owe them; we owe them thanks but we also owe them a continuation of their mission, to reach everyone with the word of God.

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