Diocese of Chichester

Leading a church into growth

Jane Willis has been the vicar of Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint for five years. As she prepares for a new role in Oxford, she reflects on the activities that helped her church grow.

On 6 jan 2023

In Diocese of Chichester

By communications

THE last few years for most churches have been a time of significant change and that’s certainly been the case for Holy Trinity Hurstpierpoint.

Essentially three things came together which for us have been a catalyst for growth: participating in the Leading Your Church into Growth process (LYCiG), reordering our church building, and the Covid pandemic. It’s hard to separate the three in telling the story.

For several years as a church we had been focusing on developing our ministry with children and families, and had reached the point when we knew a fresh initiative was needed. Our regular Sunday Sung Eucharist had become family-friendly with children’s activities every week, but we were reaching capacity in terms of our small meeting rooms for Kids@HT, and in terms of the integrity of an essentially traditional service.

In a village with lots of young families, many still chose to travel out of the parish seeking a more contemporary style of worship.

In 2019 we were invited by the diocese to participate in Leading Your Church into Growth workshop – out of this we discovered far more openness to change among our congregation than we had realised and identified two short term and two medium term priorities.

The short term were worship for all: diversifying our worship; children and youth.

The long term were welcome and belonging, and developing connections beyond Holy Trinity.

Concurrent with this we had begun a faculty process to reorder our church building. It’s a wonderful Grade II* listed Victorian building, which had been partially reordered a few years ago with the introduction of a gallery at the west end, with small meeting rooms under.

But the worship space was still full of very uncomfortable pews and with no church hall we desperately needed flexible space.

Providentially for this season, our churchwardens were an architect and a chartered surveyor. Working with our inspecting architect we drew up plans to open up the worship space, retaining and re-siting some of the pews in the transepts and at the rear of the nave, preserving historical features of interest.

Our plans included the installation of a glass door in an archway between our inner and outer foyer, enabling us to keep the heat in while looking welcoming, and a new AV system which includes a switchable smart glass screen set back from the chancel arch. The screen in permanently in place, but when not in use appears clear. When in use it become opaque and we can project on to it.

The height of our chancel arch had offered a particular challenge to installing a drop-down screen, so we were delighted with this solution. The consultation process for the reordering was of course a very long one.

Then Covid happened. Like everyone we then completely reconfigured church life, including taking worship online in various ways and setting up a pastoral network. We had no idea we were so agile. Returning to gathered worship was of course wonderful but while children were always welcome, the restrictions made our past children’s work impossible.

We stayed online for a while but realised the “new service” we had been imagining needed to start right away.

So we started a new service, or planted a new congregation, whatever we might call it. It’s been the most unusual way of planting a new ministry – essentially beginning with what we were permitted to do in Covid times and growing from that.

We couldn’t sing but we could do the actions for songs and to start with families sat in bubbles in pre-booked seats and were given a quarantined party bag with everything they needed for the service – service sheets, children’s craft etc.

Then the second lockdown happened and we simply rode the coronacoaster, returning online for a while. During this lockdown our consistory court hearing was held, the first to be heard via Zoom.

The Victorian Society had chosen to oppose the application, a key issue being the heritage value of the pews. Though our expert report had indicated otherwise, we chose not to contest their assessment of them as being of high value, but rather to make the necessary strong missional case for the reordering.

The toughest times in the faculty process came at a time when we weren’t even permitted to use the building. I had moments when I really questioned what we were putting ourselves through but we were delighted when the chancellor granted our faculty. We were able to complete the pew reconfiguration/removal before we returned to gathered worship, with the AV installation completed a few months later.

Plans for the new AV system grew somewhat in Covid times and the need for cameras and the capacity to live-stream became apparent.

So where are we now? Worshipping back in our building, with three regular services.

Thanks to the Diocesan Mission Fund, supported by the Benefact Trust, we were successful in applying for a grant to recruit a children and families leader, Sarah Steel, and will be able to continue developing our children’s ministry.

Our new AV and flexible and comfortable seating contribute significantly to our welcome and accessibility. One of transepts has become a side chapel with pews relocated to it and this has now become a prayer space for the many Ukrainian guests in our community.

As well as for worship, our new flexible space is proving wonderful for cafes, concerts and other community events. A children’s theatre company and a Pilates class are now among our regular hirers. We know we are still very much a work in progress – but amazingly we are finding the priorities we identified in the LYCiG process coming to birth in ways we could never have imagined.

We wish Jane Willis well as she leaves the Diocese to begin her new role in Oxford Diocese.