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The Future Of Our Church

Forty-five people, Methodists and Quakers, attended the general meeting on Sunday, 21st October. The meeting, preceded by lunch, was called to consider the future of the church.

Phil Le Sueur, Church Treasurer, opened the meeting with a presentation on the finances. Phil displayed a series of graphs on historical and projected income and expenditure. The trend was and is downward. It is impossible to say just how long we can continue on our present course, because over the short term income and expenditure will vary in an arbitrary and unpredictable fashion. However the long-term trend, both in membership, size of congregation and income, is downward. It has been so for more than twenty years. Money is not the primary problem; it is the lack of numbers of people. If we had sufficient members, of an age to be active, we would raise however much income we needed. An informed guess is that if we continue unchanged on our present course, the church will close in between five and ten years time.

The meeting was characterised by good fellowship, and candour in the expression of views. No topic was too sensitive to be aired. Everyone agreed that Christian worship and witness must be maintained in Marple. No one dissented from the view that if we are to achieve that end, we cannot continue as we are.

The loss of interest in attending church is manifest. The Anglicans and Methodists expressly recognised this when they launched the Fresh Expressions initiative some years ago. The purpose of Fresh Expressions is not to increase the size of traditional congregations, but to take the Christian message to where people are, and to deliver it in a form they understand and can relate to. As someone pointed out, that is exactly what John Wesley did. Fresh Expressions has been successful in many areas, including our own circuit. There is however, one effect that occurs almost universally. Wherever the establishment of a new, alternative, group (or congregation, if we choose to use that word) is established, that group does not mix or merge with the congregation that initiated it. Virtually no one, outside the traditional church membership, is interested in making common cause with organised religion in the form now practised. If an alternative group takes firm root, it tends to co-exist separately. The end result may well be that traditional forms of worship will continue to retreat, to be replaced by something new. We can usefully think about different ways of ‘doing church’. Yet venerated and deep-rooted practices die hard and the traditional ways will probably continue for many years.

How does all this relate to our own situation? No one dissented from the view that the church’s mission is being pushed aside by the need to maintain our buildings that are no longer suitable for our purpose. There is no doubt that a welcoming warm and friendly building will attract people. The Quakers report that the attendance at their Meetings has increased markedly since they moved locations. Whilst the School building is not very appealing it clearly has not dissuaded new members from joining!

So, if we shed our buildings, what do we do and where do we go? The options are simply stated. We could doggedly stick to ‘building loyalty’ and keep going until we close. That course does not sit easily with the Christian tenet that we are working God’s purpose out. God created a transient world, subject to constant change. Is it false logic to conclude that we should therefore be looking for and fostering change? Possibly not, provided that the change is for the better. We must bear in mind that any radical change at Marple would impact on the Circuit.

The next option is to sell up and hope we can raise enough money to build a new home, assuming we can find a suitable site. That would be expensive. What grant aid is available? Alternatively, is it feasible to remodel the buildings? Clearly we need a lot more information and advice before we can even begin to work our way towards a decision on these lines.

Can we find alternative premises? Someone suggested that a disused pub might be suitable, if one were to be available. Certainly there have been instances of pubs being turned into churches. We can contact the council planning department for advice on what might be acceptable. Should we contact developers who are planning to build in Marple – or would that be too controversial at present? Can we hire premises, if not permanently at least as a temporary expedient? The meeting was reminded that the move to the Scouts’ building in 2003, whilst the concourse was being reconstructed, engendered a new spirit in the congregation. It has to be said, however, that the move created a great deal of work for the stewards in setting up each Sunday, and such a burden should not be allowed to continue for long.

We must keep in mind that the church aims to serve the community, and any new home should be fit for that purpose.

What of the other churches in Marple? Should we talk to them? There may be the possibility of a fruitful partnership. From our standpoint, one object would be to share premises and that would require careful and detailed negotiation, assuming that another church was prepared to accept the principle. It was pointed out that ecumenism was in fashion some twenty years ago, but now seems to have gone from the forefront of church thinking. The view was expressed that the ecumenism in favour then was driven downwards from the top. Could we kindle a new ecumenical movement, energised from the bottom up? If successful, that would be quite an achievement. An ecumenical centre in Marple, from which churches could operate, seems just what we are looking for. What do we want, for ourselves as individuals, for our church family and for the wider community in Marple?

The cost of running a remodelled church must be within our means. Otherwise we shall find ourselves back in the same position.

The meeting was the first step on a long road. The immediate steps that were agreed, were to ask other churches in Marple how they see their futures, to contact the planning department and developers, and to seek the advice of the Chairman of the District.

Rev Margaret Crawshaw is being kept informed of developments. Members of the congregation are encouraged to make their views known, and a suggestion box will be placed in the concourse.

We shall hold another general meeting in January.

Alan Hooley

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