St Mary's Church
The Story of the Fire
Wednesday 4th September 2019 started just like any other work morning. Philip and I were up early and preparing for the day ahead. As Philip stepped out of the shower a few minutes after 6 am he called down the stairs to say that firemen were running up the road with water hoses. He couldn’t see anything up the road.
I rushed to the back of the house where a massive plume of smoke was swirling around – we both immediately thought that the Rectory was on fire. We dashed out of the house, running towards church lane. One of our neighbours said, ‘The church is on fire’. We couldn’t quite believe what we had heard.
As soon as we turned the corner into the church drive we were met with what can only be described as numbness and total shock. Within minutes of us arriving we saw the roof of the building collapsing in front of our eyes, and flames lapping towards the tower. Total devastation. St Mary’s has, for many years, had an open-door policy with the church being open 24/7 throughout the year. The building was used by several folk over the years who were seeking shelter. We prayed that there had been nobody inside.
During the day we had 7 fire tenders and lots of policemen, all doing their utmost to minimise the damage. We also had the dubious pleasure of the local and national press who were eagerly awaiting comments.
I have always been of the opinion that the church is the people and not the building. However, when you actually see your place of worship being destroyed you realise the significance of the building.
My thoughts were of the parish families whose lives had been mapped by the building. The joyful celebrations which this place had been central to, and those of sadness in which families had taken consolation. Family history is such an important element of our parish churches.
One of the first events of the day which confirmed to me that God is always with us was, at 7 am when a local member of the Plymouth Brethren approached us, saying that he was in the process of organising facilities to feed everyone on site. By 8.30 am that morning a catering stall had been set up, serving hot and cold drinks, breakfasts (and later in the day lunches) to everyone who was in attendance. Apparently, we learned that they always offered this service when more than 5 tenders were involved. Until that day we had absolutely no idea that this occurred – and how grateful we were to them. God really was with them and all of us that day.
Over the next couple of days, we were kept busy with forensic teams, firefighters and police trying to piece everything together. Some of you might find this difficult, but I have to admit that, by about day 3, my thoughts had changed from despair to optimism and hope for the future. Out of this picture of devastation I could see a new and exciting option before us, to rebuild in a modern, comfortable and warm style and to be able to offer hospitality to more people in our ‘Food and Fellowship’ events, and to encourage groups to use our building, for art classes, for Learning Disability groups, etc.,
We tend to think of fire as being destructive, but what about the stoking of the fire within us? Can good come out of bad? Perhaps we don’t always need the devastation of a physical fire to make us think. Perhaps we can stoke the fire in our hearts to make our ‘church’ more welcoming, more peaceful, more of God?
As far as our worshipping community is concerned, we feel St Mary’s has been beset by a double whammy. Fire followed by Covid. A vibrant church with an accompanying social life has been dispersed. Just as the shepherd tapped his stick on the rock and the flock scattered, so St Mary’s flock is a social church as well as a worshipping body. Our task in rebuilding a physical building relies totally on the blowing of the embers that exist to reignite them, to be the fire of God that resides in us all. Without this, our buildings are merely empty shells. Without God our buildings may be medieval masterpieces but totally empty of purpose; they are like a sounding bell that not even one ear hears.
Last summer, as part of the insurance claim, we were instructed to carry out a Community Questionnaire. We hand-delivered 770 questionnaires – to every household within our ecclesiastical parish. We then returned two weeks later to collect them. The team were absolutely amazed at the number of households who responded, and even more thrilled at the positive comment we received. It is sometimes too easy to think that very few people in our communities have an interest in the church. How wrong can we be? Even though people do not physically cross the threshold for a normal Sunday service, it became apparent to us how many people had entered our building in the past – for quiet prayer or contemplation, to put a prayer star on the Christmas tree, or just to sit alone for a brief time. Over 80% of the responses wanted us to restore the church. They relished the thought of their being more space, comfortable chairs, and the option to enjoy food together, a cup of coffee, and more especially a toilet!!!
Our sub-committee was overjoyed at these results and it is our hope that, out of despair, will come a huge joy and hope for the future of our parish. With God’s help, and our faith in Him, we are sure the building will become a hub of activity and a haven for many and they like us, will be aware of the eternal warmth of the fire within; the fire of the living God, of the Holy Spirit.