Last week I visited, what is technically, one of our smaller congregations, with fewer than 10
members. What I found, when I arrived, was far removed from what one might expect of a very small church. The congregation has been on a journey which started more than a decade ago when the pews were removed, under floor heating added and carpet installed. This bright and welcoming space was further transformed a few years ago to become a vibrant hub for the small community of Broad Chalke (population about 700).
This was both a brave and sacrificial act for the congregation which has resulted in a well-used community facility which does not disguise the fact that it is also a place of worship. The church is situated right at the centre of this somewhat sprawling village and so was well-placed to become a community hub. The first third of the sanctuary, nearest the main entrance, has been turned into the village shop and Post Office. The remainder of the sanctuary, shown in the photograph, is a multi-purpose communal space with a small kitchen and coffee bar/servery. The store is open six days a week, as is the ‘café’ for coffee and lunches. Even on a cold Monday afternoon there were a quite a few people in the church. I’m told that the vast majority of households in Broad Chalke are touched, one way or another, by the URC! This is the second URC I have found that supports the community with a Post Office. You may remember the blog I posted in August showing Mark ‘Postmaster’ Kirkbride who runs a Post Office from the manse in Finstown, Kirkwall, Orkney.
So how does such a small congregation achieve so much? I observed three reasons for this. The first is that they are listening to the Spirit and being obedient, even when it requires sacrifice. Secondly, they are working with the community: with those of any faith and those of none … although it must be said the Anglican church is a particularly strong partner in this enterprise. Finally, they are well supported by their sister URC in Salisbury. In total, there are something like 80 volunteers that support their operations. The shop and the café are managed by ‘The Hub’, which is run by a village committee. The facilities are leased to The Hub by the URC. Sometimes I feel we struggle to make our church relevant for folk outside, but Broad Chalke has definitely become very relevant to their community.
While I celebrate the way the congregation has made their church the true centre of village life I do not want to suggest it was easy, either practically or emotionally. In turning the front part of the church into a shop and Post Office (which don’t open on Sundays) this has resulted in worshippers having to go around to the back of the building to get into the worship space. This is not ideal. Nonetheless, I think the church is to be commended for their sacrifice to enable The Hub to thrive, and the village community to be served better by the church. I know they are looking for a better solution for access … and I pray one will be found.