When the church of Bemerton St. John was built in the early 1860s as a memorial to George Herbert, many local people were regular church-goers and in those days it was the natural focus for a wide variety of parish activities. But by 2005 the congrgation had shrunk to the point where even routine maintenance had become a financial struggle.
So when the heating packed up in St John's in a dramatic cloud of smoke back in 2008, I knew it was an opportunity to do something new with the building, to re-order it and get the community involved. Little did I think it would take 8 years, cost £650,000, and become such a strain - but little did I imagine how transformative it would be either. From a congregation of 20 people using it for one hour a week it has become a new source of life for the wider local community. Our school childres are in there every day, as is the after-school club. Groups use it every evening, and at the weekend there are parties, conferences, baptisms and weddings. Next year we have 18 weddings booked, both for the service and the reception.
I'm sure George Herbert would have approved. St. John's Place is a building which pays for itself, is used every day, and looks more amazing than before. People ask if its been cleaned, or if the engravings are new - the answer is no - its just now we can see it all! And the work over so many years has drawn the village and the community together - it is more than the community saved a building - for this building has saved a community!
When you stay in a parish for as long as I have (nearly 13 years!) you find out that you will have the privilege and sorrow of taking the funeral zservices of many of your parishioners. At first this was a bit sad: Mildred and I shared a love of Formula 1, despite our 40 year age gap; Mary was always the first to arrive and never missed a week, ever. Then of course there are those who played such a vital role in parish life, and I only saw them in their twilight, like Doug and Betty.
This summer we lost 2 more leading lights. Roger had been in the village man and boy (but was away in-between!). In the past he had been church treasurer, and he was one of the initiators of the St Johns project. Bridget picked up litter in the village every day; she was wonderfully cheerful and a real Christian neighbour. It was fitting that although her funeral was in St Andrew's church, there was a thanksgiving in the new St.John’s - a project she always supported. And as I looked out over the 250 people who had come, I was reminded that there is an even greater crowd in heaven. The bible tells us that those we love but see no longer have a place with God, if we have faith, and that these earthly separations will only be for a short while. Soon we will all be gathered in, as the Harvest hymns put it.
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