Moribund churches get the HTB treatment

Holy Trinity Brompton, the creator of the Alpha course, is busy ‘planting’ churches all over the UK

This article was first published in the Times on 25 October 2014.

The Rev Tim Matthews at St Swithun's in Bournemouth (Tom Redman Photography)

The Rev Tim Matthews at St Swithun’s in Bournemouth (Tom Redman Photography)

St Swithin’s church in Lincoln is an enormous 19th-century structure built to seat 1,000 people. For the past few years it has survived on a congregation of ten. The Right Rev Christopher Lowson, the Bishop of Lincoln, admits that if the Church of England had been “a more commercially sensitive organisation”, it would have been sold long ago.

On recent Saturdays, however, the church has been abuzz with activity. Fifty or so volunteers have been busy gardening, painting, mopping and clearing out rubbish. Pest control was called in after dead rats and mice were found inside. A new sign has been put up along with a banner advertising the Alpha course.

Its new vicar is the Rev Jim Prestwood, a former youth worker from north London. He has arrived with a team of 12, mostly volunteers, who uprooted themselves from the south-east to help to bring St Swithin’s back to life. They came after an invitation from the Bishop of Lincoln to Holy Trinity Brompton (“HTB”), the evangelical Anglican church in west London that developed the Alpha course. The stalwart group of ten “kept the church alive”, the bishop says. “Now we have an opportunity for it to have a very exciting use.”

The change in style will be quite radical. Instead of incense and altar servers there will be electric guitars and drums and a video screen. Worship will be switched to the other side of the church, Prestwood explains, so they don’t “start banging into the nice Anglo-Catholic reredos”. Traditional communion services will continue on a Thursday in an attempt to provide “the best of the old and the best of the new”, he says.

HTB has a good track record in reviving churches. Until recently this was seen as purely a London phenomenon. That changed in 2009, when it took over St Peter’s church in Brighton. Since then it has been invited to “plant” churches in Norwich, Bournemouth and Hastings, in addition to Lincoln.

St Peter’s, known as “Brighton’s cathedral”, is the success story that St Swithin’s and others are seeking to replicate. In early 2009 St Peter’s was due to be closed. Half the building had been cordoned off because of a leaking roof and falling plasterwork, and it had a congregation of about 30. Now its Sunday services attract 900 people, mostly in their twenties, thirties and forties (and the roof is fixed too).

The Rev Archie Coates, the vicar of St Peter’s, says the key is to provide more than just services on a Sunday. When he and a team of 30 volunteers first arrived they established an Alpha course, to introduce people to Christianity, and a weekly meal for the homeless. “People don’t want to just come to church — they want to make a difference,” he says.

One significant — and immediate — benefit from HTB’s involvement at St Peter’s was the £50,000 in start-up cash that the west London church brought with it. Many of HTB’s plant churches start off with that amount, though not all. Once the money runs out, the churches are on their own, however. Mark Elsdon-Dew, the communications director for HTB, insists that they are “not HTB churches”. He explains: “Once they say goodbye they are independent — they can do what they like.”

At St Peter’s, Coates says, they had the extra help of good publicity; a petition to keep the church open attracted 6,500 signatures. When it did re-open there was “a huge amount of goodwill”.

The Rev Ian Dyble, vicar at St Thomas’s in Norwich, was not so lucky. After his appointment was announced one member of the congregation burst into tears, he says. Some people, he explains, associated HTB with “white sofas and smoke machines and smoothies” (he is citing an episode of the BBC soap opera Rev in which a church is taken over by trendy evangelicals) and feared that their parish traditions would be smothered. He has tried hard not to do that, he says, and offers two traditional services on a Sunday and a monthly evensong as well as a more contemporary service with guitars. He says it is “important to honour the very faithful people who have served their heart out in this parish for generations”. In just a year and a half a congregation of 30 has grown to 300.

One HTB plant without the constraints of an existing congregation is St Swithun’s in Bournemouth. The church was closed for a year before the Rev Tim Matthews arrived last month. The task for him and his team of 20 volunteers is to reach out to people who do not go to church at all. Matthews was a chartered accountant in the City before changing career, working for several years as a leader at HTB before heading the planting team from the congregation to St Swithun’s.

He says of his new home: “We try to make it look and feel as little like a traditional church as possible.” After the first service everyone went down to the beach for a picnic. He says that people have been surprised: “They often say, ‘this doesn’t feel like church, this is actually somewhere I want to be . . . People bring their friends because they know they are not going to be embarrassed.”

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