All you need is love at St James’…

Alan Crump

Liverpool’s Woolton village is known around the world as the place where musical history was made when John Lennon met Paul McCartney for the first time. No surprise then that this place of ‘blue, suburban skies’ has become a place of pilgrimage for Beatles’ fans who head for St Peter’s CofE church hall where the young John and even younger Paul were introduced. The whistle stop tour then continues with a visit to Eleanor Rigby’s grave in the churchyard across the road.
Alan Crump has been minister at St James’ Methodist/URC church, in the heart of the city’s conservation area, for eight years.

‘To be honest, we don’t tend to see the tourists too much,’ says Alan. ‘They arrive in taxis or coaches at the top end of the village, jump out, take photos of the hall and the grave and then jump back in again before exploring any further!’ But, earlier this year, St James’ did find itself very much on the visitors’ map due to the local funeral of one of Liverpool’s favourite daughters, Cilla Black.
The service took place at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church; attracting hundreds to the area. Police were concerned about traffic congestion and crowd safety. Alan spoke to other local clergy and agreed a very practical way to help on what was a very emotional day.
‘We kept it all low key,’ he says, ‘but we simply opened up our doors and put out a sign that said free tea and coffee – and toilets – were available. All the cafés and businesses in the town were full; they didn’t really want people just coming in to use their toilets but we were happy for people to do that. The funeral service was also being streamed on the internet so we put it on our big screens in the church and about 80 people sat watching it.’
All of this was possible because of the extensive renovation programme that has seen St James’ transformed from a dark, though beautiful, space into an equally beautiful place that is full of light and fit for purpose in a busy community.
St. James' is part of the Mersey Synod of the URC and the Liverpool District of the Methodist Church. It has been a Local Ecumenical Partnership for 30 years, though the ins and outs of LEP working tend to be a mystery to the vast majority of people in the area. ‘Denomination is just not that important to the majority of people,’ comments Alan, ‘we’re just St James’. If they feel at home and want to belong to what we do here, they don’t tend to ask questions about whether we’re URC or Methodist!’
Thoughts of renovation and refurbishment all started when the church began to consider how best to use the space and recognising that they were only utilising the building for, at most, 5% of the week; namely Sunday morning, the occasional Sunday evening service, choir rehearsal and occasional concerts. It was not really used at any other time. Alternatively, St James’ church halls – on the opposite side of the road – are used for 60% of the week.

 

Alan came to the church in 2008 and, within 12 months, the process had started to reimagine the St James’ church building for the future. It took six years to get to that, with work starting on the building in January 2014.
The decision to get the process underway was prompted by a series of events which forced the church’s hand. An electrician came to fix a light in one of the roof beams and subsequently found dry rot in three places. This coincided with the church’s quinquennial when further investigations revealed that St James’ was suffering from “nail sickness” in the roof. As a result, the church’s insurance company said they would no longer insure the building until both the church and hall were re-roofed due to the risk of slates slipping and falling.
‘In addition,’ explains Alan, ‘the Methodist Church, which owns the buildings, were quite clear about whether or not they would support us in this. We met with the District property and mission representatives and they advised us that refurbishing the internal church building, with the compromise we had agreed, was not acceptable. if we wanted to keep the building, we had to do more to remove all the pews and different floor levels.’
Alan says this is a lesson for many churches today.

How many churches are about 150 years old? Quite a lot. Be prepared to face similar issues if you’re looking to make changes in your buildings. All of these things happened at the same time for us. It was a very painful period for many people in this church who had been here for a long time and loved the building very much. I had to say to those grieving at the thought of losing what had been here for many years that their memories of this place were not about the space at all; they were memories of special people and special times.

There was no choice but to look at what needed to be done but there was a choice in how we responded to that. For instance, we did have a cross made and two small pews created from the pews – that were eventually all removed – because we were keen to keep something of that history. We didn’t want to become a historical society but we did want the new-look St James’ to reflect where it had come from as well as look to the future.

Alan, and all at St James’, knew that they needed to take a serious look at what was required in the wider community. If they wanted to keep the building, they needed to make some decisions about how it was going to look in years to come. As a result, the questions they kept asking themselves were: ‘How can we bring people into this building to give them a different appreciation of God and his love for us?’ and ‘What does this building say about God, both inside and outside? ‘When people came in it felt very dark,’ says Alan, ‘the message the building gave was that God is something of the past. We wanted to reflect the fact, in our physical surroundings, that God is very much of the present; we wanted to get the past and the modern-day working together.’
People had the vision about what could be achieved in Woolton and a group, including one member of St James’ who was very much against the idea, went to look at three other churches which had undergone refurbishment projects. Alan said they had to think very carefully about how they could make the most of it for God’s mission.

We wanted the community to come and be able to use it but we were not sure what else could be done. Some people from the church community asked what was the point of spending this sort of money, why didn’t we give it to Africa – or anywhere else that needed money desperately? Shouldn’t we just sell it and move into the hall? But we didn’t feel that was a real option because we felt that wouldn’t allow us to fulfil the mission that we have at this time in the life of the church. People were concerned about all sorts of things. We had said that we hoped to have a space at the back of church where we’d put tables and chairs so that it could be used as a café space. Some were genuinely concerned, saying, “If there’s a café, people will drop crumbs. What will we do about the carpet? Who is going to move the chairs when things are changed around?” These were not silly questions; they showed that people were thinking very carefully about the practicalities associated with running a café space.

All of these questions and unknowns were being considered when the church had about £20,000 in the bank...
As the project idea took shape and initial costs for the project were evaluated at £425,000, monies came from the Methodist Circuit, the URC Synod, funders who gave about £140,000 in grant aid, and church members themselves. People were asked to commit to give by standing order over five years, and the church got an average of £1,000 a month in donations from members. Many fundraising events were organised; a loan came from the Circuit along with a number of interest-free loans from the congregation.
Building work started in January 2014 and was finished by Easter. Only a handful of the church’s building group were allowed in to the church while the work was going on. Alan said he’ll never forget the congregation’s response on that day: ‘When we had our first service in here and people walked through the new glass doors – replacing the old wooden ones – it was literally the first time they saw the whole thing. I set up a camera to film them as they came in and showed their reactions on one of the screens at the front of church. It was the “big reveal” and it was just amazing. Even in that faith that says, “I’m going to step out and do that thing”, they trusted others to make decisions on their behalf and that moment of them walking through the doors told them that their trust had been rewarded.’
What has been the effect of the refurbishment on people in the church? Alan believes it has been transformational. ‘We have seen people more willing to talk about their faith because of the building. One of our members was dead against any refurbishment at all but she is now property manager, overseeing the continued use of the space for all sorts of things, including increased involvement with the local school.’
Wendy Doig is that property manager:
I really didn’t want any change. I thought, “I love the pews, the wood, the workmanship that had gone into it all.” I’d been through the process of thinking about refurbishment three times previously in this church and it had never come to fruition. But I took over the property management and we started to think and pray all these things through; the pews were on their last legs anyway! I think we got it right in the end. I love the Tuesday mornings when we have the café, it’s great because it has brought different people in. Some of the people who started coming to the café now come on Sundays too; it has been a real “way in” to church. I think you have got to go out of your comfort zone when thinking about refurbishment. Don’t be too precious about your building. It’s a “home” and you have to look at it as a place that feels like home to everyone. We are lucky that we have a beautiful building, it still is a beautiful building.

Alan Smith has been part of St James’ Church for many years; his wife’s funeral was the first service to take place in the refurbished building and the concept of St James’ as “home” is very important to him too. ‘When everyone started to think about the changes here, everything seemed to be about the pews but it’s got nothing to do with the pews. It’s all about welcome, it’s about opening up the doors to other people. I don’t tend to mention the word “church” very much because it’s all about “home” to me, “home” and family.’
The church now runs Harmony Café every two months after being inspired by the Synod’s Café Jam services which travel around the churches. It’s a two-hour, informal style of service which involves singing old and new worship songs, drinking tea or coffee and eating a lot of cake. Alan says, ‘That seems to be a winning formula! Organisers choose what they do and it might be on a particular theme and include reflections. Some of those who come are from other churches and some have no church background at all. Harmony Café is set out in café style with people sitting around tables; about 120 people can be seated in that way. The first Harmony Café we did, 70 people came. We were amazed, but happy! It has now been going for about 18 months and they haven’t had less than 90. The most we’ve had is 120.’
Two years on from the changes and Alan has seen a marked shift in attitudes, both inside and outside the church.

The way this building is now makes people more open to things because they have already gone through what they see as a massive change, so they are much more open to whatever other change there may be. Since the glass doors were fitted in place of the original, large wooden ones, it is rare if people don’t stop and have a look through them as we have meetings in the church and, of course, they are invited to “come and see!”
Within the congregation, no-one is against the changes we’ve had now. We always leave the café tables out at the back of the church on a Sunday morning and we started to serve coffee in here at the end of a service when possible. People now gravitate to the tables all the time! Those who were against the refurbishment now sit at the tables because people have found that a comfortable thing to do. If we don’t have the tables out, people complain that they’re not there!

Before the refurbishment, St James’ had about 145 members with an average congregation of about 95. The numbers are not that dissimilar now but nine new people attended the popular church weekend away this year, five of whom now come to church on a regular basis.
Attention to detail has been a hallmark of the new-look St James’. Alan explains: ‘We use the Methodist four marks of mission to guide our thinking, and every two years we meet plan our Mission Priorities based on what we feel God is calling us to do in each of the categories. It’s important to think about the age spread in your congregation. We are also considering how we work with people with dementia and what we need to do to provide a more welcoming environment for them. You have to think ahead and we put internet in the building because it’s essential if we want to welcome in other organisations and groups. Technology is key. We have two fixed and permanent screens, which we can split, so that everyone can see what’s happening at any one time.’
Some of the decisions may seem surprising: ‘We purposely didn’t buy as many chairs as there had been places in the pews, for instance,’ says Alan. ‘We bought 120 wooden chairs, with a further 80 – easily stackable – metal chairs, because we didn’t simply want to replace the pews and then have the headache of how and where to stack a huge number of chairs. The new wooden chairs interlock to form benches rather than individual seats to increase capacity when we need it; it’s all part of the modern building being multi-purpose, very flexible and appropriate.
St James’, again demonstrating that attention to detail and context, deliberately chose the colour purple for the chairs because it marries the reds and blues of both denominations – and the city’s two football teams.
The approach has paid dividends, with the building now up to about 20% usage. All sorts of local groups use the space, including Woolton Community Life which provides volunteers to combat isolation and loneliness.
St James’ set itself a target, within the first year of the refurbishment, to achieve a footfall of 500 people who had never previously entered the church building. They reached about 1500.
Penny and Lindsey are regulars at the Tuesday morning café. ‘I’ve been coming for about a year,’ says Penny. ‘I’ve got two children at the pre-school so I come along once I’ve dropped them off. Some people think that church could be clique-y but this one isn’t. We’ve got to know them a bit now.’
Lindsey agrees: ’I’ve been coming for about a year too. I’ve got one child in primary and one at senior school. It’s a welcoming atmosphere and we are made to feel comfortable. When I started to come over to the café, I didn’t feel left out. The people here don’t throw the church “thing” at you; in some places it’s really in your face. But here they don’t need to do that.’
The popular, annual church weekend away has attracted newcomers to join in with the wide range of activities. This year 50 people, with ages ranging from one to 90+, travelled to the Chatsworth Hotel, Llandudno, to enjoy the theme of Reflections and get to know each other a little more.
Alan continues to look to the future. ‘The questions we ask ourselves about the building are, “How is this making disciples of Christ? What does it say about God in your life? How does it reflect God in our lives?” It’s not about, “we’ve done it”; it’s only the start.’
Top Tips from St James’ for those considering church refurbishment:

  • You’ve got to trust in God. If the building blocks for the project start to fall into place, then it’s of God.
  • You have got to have someone within the congregation who can keep in touch with the professionals and trades people and be involved in the project every step of the way.
  • Be prepared to change as you go along.
  • Don’t go to the church with the colour you want to paint the toilets; leave all of that to the architects. Otherwise you’ll be talking for hours about paint shades.
  • It’s vital to appoint a building group.
  • Have the confidence to step out and know at what point you can move things on. We wouldn’t have stepped out when we had £20,000 in the bank; that’s why you need to appoint a person whose sole aim is to apply for grants and funding. That takes a lot of time and patience.
  • Be sensitive, through your pastoral visits, to everyone’s needs and concerns. Allow people to raise any objections in an open environment without retribution. Remember that we are all trying to discern what God is saying.
  • It’s really important to try and find someone with negotiating skills who can negotiate many of the contracts churches enter into, from big projects to utility bills and accommodation for church weekends away.