Meet the Folk at Alnwick URC
By Revd Joan Grindrod-Helmn
St James’s Church has been in existence for over 330 years, being legally founded in 1689. It has had a few different names over the years, coming from the dissenting tradition of Presbyterianism and more recently a member of the United Reformed Church. The church has always been in Pottergate, on land given by one of the original dissenters, and is now in its third building. The building was enlarged over the years to accommodate a growing congregation that at one time was counted at over 700 members. Common to many churches, in recent years the big building was too big for the much smaller congregation (100ish) and so a redevelopment project was undertaken to make the church more useful for the 21st century.
The theology and worship style of the congregation is primarily traditional with leanings to the more liberal. In recent years the congregation has welcomed many worship leaders; lay, ordained, its own worship groups and the groups of other churches, URC and ecumenical leaders. The congregation enjoys different voices and ways of worship. St James’s is registered to perform same sex marriages. It has a relaxed atmosphere, perhaps due to the more modern surroundings, but one where visitors feel welcome and invited to sit, chat, and participate as they wish.
The members and friends of St James’s reflect the communities they come from, which are becoming more diverse. Years ago church goers would be drawn from the local community, but with
churches closing, the ability to travel farther distances and the nature of many areas of work where people do not stay in their birth community, St James’s is richer for a wider experience of church. St James’ is not a congregation laden with ‘professionals’, being in the Alnwick District many of the congregation have been estate workers. They have historically been folks that didn’t have lots of money to give, but were there to roll up their sleeves and work for the church and community. Up until very recently St James’s had always had a ‘Sunday School’ and young people have played an important part in church activities. Beneath the façade of a beautiful area there are many areas of great poverty and need, most of which fall between the cracks of the care system.
St James’s though on its site in Pottergate for its 330+ years, has been a church that both received and created other churches in the community. Over the years seven churches in Alnwick came from St James’s. To be honest as is common to many churches, many came from splits within the congregation. The present day St James’s is made up of the original church, the congregation from Lisburn Street Presybyterian and Clayport Church, the latest of which merged in the 1950’s. Being a larger church, St James’s was also very active in what was then known as ‘the Session’ and often gave money or other gifts to local churches in need.
Part of the vision of the redevelopment has been to continue the work that St James’s has historically undertaken in its community.
Aside from a smaller worship space, the church wanted a multifunctional space that could accommodate church and community activities with the goal being a building used seven days a week for all sorts of activities. The building is busy most days, with many groups using the space rent free.
St James’s is very active in Churches Together in Alnwick, a group made up of all the churches in the town. This group has a covenant signed more than 25 years ago which sets out the wish to do as much as we can together rather than separately. This means that we support (financially and / or physically) many programmes that are ecumenical such as supporting a youth and schools worker, an ecumenical coffee morning, ecumenical services, the Mighty Oaks coffee van, Messy Church, Rock Solid youth group, Higher Sports (holiday club), Open the Book in schools, CAP and many other events.
Internally, the church is active with women’s and men’s bowls, a women’s group, Brownies and Guides, a Walking Group and other activities which are open to the community as well as church folks.
But there is more to a church than the building. As a congregation St James’s donate a percentage of their yearly budget to outreach and have recently set up a group to look at community projects that might be helped by funds available from a large legacy. It is hard to define what the ‘church’ is involved with as opposed to its members because many overlap. When the church looks at its outreach it tries to split between local, national and international projects. It has given great support to the Alnwick Food Bank, the Community Centre (NE66), Contagious (ecumenical town youth work) and other projects. It supports the People’s Kitchen West End Refugee Centre, Shelter, Crisis at Christmas, Christian Aid and other national programmes. Internationally St James’s has been a Commitment for Life church for many years and at present is supporting the Palestinian project. The church has been or is linked with the church in Tuvalu around climate change, a hospital in Malawi, the Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline. Toilet Twinning and the CTIA Spitak project in Armenia. It is currently looking into a project in Chile to rebuild houses. St James’s is registered with Eco-Church and is working to offset its carbon footprint and improve its use of resources.
In all these many programmes, events and activities the church supports them by funding, presence and / or volunteer help as well as individual members serving in many capacities with them or in other groups in the town.
St James’s is still working on its vision to be a ‘centre’ for the community and a place that also reaches out through the community to the world. It has changed significantly in recent years, perhaps due to the redevelopment, to being more outward looking.
Like many churches the largest issue to be faced is sustaining the vision – the work – when the capacity of the congregation due to age and numbers is decreasing. New ways of working will have to be found soon!