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St Mary's ASPIRE Project - Slough

St Mary’s Church, Slough, exemplifies how adapting church buildings can open up new opportunities for involving the local community without damaging its worship activities in any way.

The Church is situated right in the centre of Slough, a couple of minutes walk from the shopping centres on Church Street, which is the centre for voluntary organisations in Slough. It is part of the Church of England parish, which derived its name from two historic districts of Slough – Upton, in the East of the parish, with its Saxon church of St Lawrence – and Chalvey, in the West of the parish, with its nineteenth century church of Saint Peter. Saint Mary's Church is located in the centre of the parish of Upton cum Chalvey and serves the town centre of Slough – an area between the M4 to the South, the A4 to the North, Windsor Road to the West and Yew Tree Road to the East. The three Anglican churches – Saint Mary's, Saint Peter's and St Lawrence’s – work together as a team ministry, served by three clergy and two parish wardens. Saint Mary's has a particular civic ministry (through civic funerals, an annual service of remembrance, school carol services, or large scale concerts and events. The parish maintains close connections with the Slough community chaplaincy, known as Kingsway Connections and the hospital chaplaincy at the Heatherwood and Wexham Park NHS Trust and the Upton Hospital.

Saint Mary's doesn’t just minister to the members of the Sunday congregation. As an Anglican Parish Church, we seek to serve everybody who lives and works within the boundaries of our parish – through our daily worship, weddings and baptisms, our concerts and arts events, or simply by lending a listening ear. Our patron saint, Mary, provides a good pattern for our work. Mary was told that she would be the mother of Jesus. Mary responded to God's call, consented to His will and so made herself ready for God's service when she said: 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.' (Luke, 1.38). We believe that it is in being open to the will of God that we can serve Him in the people who surround us.

A few years ago, the church took out the pews from the back half of the church to create a community space with flexible seating and audio-visual capacity. It has left pews for about 200 and has available stackable chairs for concerts, conferences and large church services to seat another 250 approximately. This clearing of the clutter was later complemented with a kitchen area in the back of church.

Origins

The initial impetus for creating this space came from the then Rector with the church council in the conviction that St. Mary’s had something to offer the wider community as a resource for community use irrespective of faith background.

We consulted on the idea through an open day for various local volunteer groups, Slough Borough Council, and others who had either used the building or enquired about possible use. All enquiries were followed up by the co-ordinator and we sent questionnaires to anyone who had used building or had shown interest to ascertain what they would be looking for when hiring and we contacted enquirers who had not booked to discover their reasons for not going ahead; for example, whether it was because of hire costs or car parking or some other factor.

The ASPIRE Project

The ASPIRE project was set up in 2005 to co-ordinate St Mary's church as a resource for the whole community, all day, every day - not just for worship, and not just for Christians. ASPIRE achieves its aims through:

· Arts projects - concerts, arts, festivals, performances;

· Spirituality - sharing with those of our own faith, of other faiths and of none;

· Productivity - community achievement;

· Interfaith - fostering dialogue across faith boundaries;

· Reconciliation - promoting peace, unity and justice across cultures;

· Education - learning, sharing and teaching.

Saint Mary's is available for meetings, conferences, performances and exhibitions. The main building is 3000sq ft and seats up to 500. Seating is moveable, allowing complete flexibility of the space. There is a stage area with moveable blocks and lighting, excellent acoustics, microphones and facilities for audio recording. A small meeting room near the stage area can be used as a green room or hired separately for smaller groups.

There is a kitchen area for serving drinks and light snacks. Toilets, including disabled access, are situated between the two areas. There is a loading area at the main entrance to the building. Public car parking is easily available, and private parking can be arranged if needed.

Since ASPIRE’s launch, St. Mary's has built up a portfolio of regular users:

· Assemblies of God Church
· Aik Saath
· Alcoholics Anonymous
· Child Contact Centre
· Cookham Choir
· Fenner Festival
· Gospel Crew
· Langley Grammar School
· Lunchtime Concert Platform
· Narcotics Anonymous
· Same Difference Film Festival
· Slough Borough Council Election Office
· Taplow Choirs
· Ulster Youth Jazz Orchestra

In addition, Citizens Advice, Slough has sometimes run advice sessions in St Mary’s.

Many from the West Indian Community throughout Slough regard St Mary’s as their ‘Mother Church’ and so we host many large pastoral services for them. The church and the vestry are used by local self help groups. Twice a month the whole church is given over to a Child Contact Centre, a place where the children of separated families can enjoy contact with one or both parents and sometimes other family members in a relaxed and safe environment. All groups are flourishing. Coupled with this there is a weekly lunchtime concert for local musicians and from London music colleges. There is also a variety of ‘one off’ concerts, exhibitions and conferences. At the same time worship is offered on most days of the week and the church is open over the lunch period.

In Slough, we work in close collaboration with the Methodist congregations at Saint Andrew's and Ledger's Road and the Roman Catholic congregation at Saint Ethelbert's. The Society of Friends (the 'Quakers') regularly contribute to our Sunday evening worship. The United Reformed Church provides the home for the Slough City Centre Ministry Team, 'Kingsway Connections'. Saint Mary's is part of Slough Town Centre Churches Together, which brings together Christian churches of all denominations.

Internationally, Saint Mary's and the parish of Upton cum Chalvey are linked in a partnership of prayer with the Lutheran congregation of Auferstehungskirche (Church of the Resurrection) and the Roman Catholic Congregation of Herz Jesu Kirche (Sacred Heart Church) in Pforzheim, Germany. North of the Black Forest, Pforzheim (like Slough) is a large industrial centre in close proximity to a sprawling metropolis.

Leadership

Leadership has come primarily from the Church Council and incumbents. Initially there was a working group who reported to the Church Council. Initially, there was a paid co-ordinator, but there are no longer sufficient funds for the post.

Resources

Funding for the project has come from historic St Mary’s money set aside for ministry and mission; a CUF Mustard Seed grant and from some voluntary sector sources. St Mary’s itself has contributed in the form of underwriting some of the organisations that use the church and allowing them to use the premises rent free.

Volunteers are required to take bookings and open, close and prepare the building. Each booking is different. Only opening and closing the building takes a maximum of 1 hour, but for a concert requiring major adjustments to the building 4/5 hours is needed for preparation and dismantling. Keeping the church open takes on average 3 – 4 hours per day, which calculated on the basis of the minimum wage amounts to about £120 per week.

Connections

In addition to the Diocesan and ecumenical links, we work with a variety of the large number of voluntary organisations in Slough. One advantage has been that one of the Church wardens is very involved with the voluntary sector and this has resulted in a lot of interaction and increased use of the building. We have found personal connections to be important. A former curate at St Mary’s had a lot of contacts in the arts and again that influenced the profile of users. Many still use the church for artistic endeavour, but now our day-to-day contacts are more grounded in local voluntary bodies.

Outcomes/impact

The range of community use and the close interaction with such a wide variety of groups demonstrate the value of the project. The vast majority of people attending the various groups and concerts are not members of the church community so the church is fulfilling its mission to be here for others throughout the week.

Barriers

Funding is always likely to be a barrier and may restrict the extent to which the church can subsidise certain users in future. The demands of parish share are growing at a time when the largely low-paid congregation is becoming relatively poorer.

Another barrier has been the establishment of various rival facilities in the vicinity since 2005.

Challenges and opportunities

The main challenge is maintaining the plant itself in the current economic climate. Opportunities come from the new needs arising in Slough and the demographic changes taking place within the local community.

Father Andrew Allen