A church for life – not just Christmas

I’d thought “church” wasn’t for me … until I visited a church like none I’d seen before. It set me on a new journey through life. I made friends with wonderful people. “Church” – what it does and what it stabds for – became a fundamental part of life.

Please stay with me if you’re not religious: I’m not going to get “churchy” or try to convert you.

I had a Christian faith of sorts when my wife Sue and I moved to Woking in 1983. But I only set foot inside a church on special occasions: Christmas, weddings and baptisms.

In my mind, “church” meant cold grey buildings, hard wooden pews, archaic language and unfathomable ritual. The impression had been reinforced by the few services Sue and I attended in the Cambridgeshire parish church where we used to live: all “thous” and “thines”, traditional hymns with organ, fancy surplices and processions. And we were shown little friendliness.

So, “church” felt uncomfortable, obscure and inaccessible.

‘The Meeting Place’: The St Andrew’s Church building, at Goldsworth Park Centre, opened in 1988

Then, upon moving to Surrey, we found a parish church that was welcoming and spoke to me in a language I could understand. It met in an infants’ school on Sundays. St Andrew’s had been founded as the parish church for the new parish of Goldsworth Park, but it didn’t then have a building.

Goldsworth Park is a huge housing estate in Woking, developed from the 1970s into the ’90s as a “garden estate” with 5000 homes, on land previously used as plant nurseries.

A church in a school
The Diocese of Guildford created the parish of Goldsworth Park in 1981. Its church had a vicar – Andrew (“Andy”) Knowles – and the name St Andrew’s, but not a a building.

An alternative view of the church building. The church’s A2 Youth & Community Centre now occupies part of the lawn area in the foreground.

In biblical days, during the early days of the church movement, “church” didn’t mean a building but a gathering of people, most probably in someone’s home because they couldn’t gather in public. Even today, a church is, strictly speaking, its people, not the building where they happen to meet.

St Andrew’s initially met as a house group in the vicar’s home before meeting on Sunday mornings in the hall/gymnasium at Beaufort Primary School.

My wife Sue had already attended this “church in a school” with our daughter Clare (then a toddler) on a few occasions and we’d been together to one of its social evenings.

One Sunday mornin, sometime in 1984, I “gave it a go”. When we entered the door, the reception was much more than a welcome: people appeared genuinely delighted to see us.

Informal, engaging
Many of the church members were parents with young children, like us. The service was informal: we sat on the school’s plastic chairs, which were arranged as three sides of a square. Andy Knowles shared leading and preaching duties with non-ordained members. We sang modern Christian songs and choruses accompanied by a guitar and piano. The “sermon” was as far from the archetypal “fire and brimstone” model as you could get: an engaging and meaningful presentation presented by Andy or a lay church member, often illustrated using papers hung from the school’s wall bars.

I didn’t intend attending this “odd” church regularly. But I went again the following week. By week three I was looking forward to the next time.

Sue, Clare and I were soon regular members. I even dug out my guitar to join in!

The numbers at its Sunday services increased weekly as new houses on the Goldsworth Park were occupied and its population increased .

Plans for a building
It was Andy’s vision to have a proper parish church building. An architect had produced outline plans and a model of the building, which would occupy a plot donated by the estate’s main developer, New Ideal Homes, next to Goldsworth Park’s local shopping centre.

Andy asked me to join the church building project steering team, specifically to help publicise the project. The Diocese of Guildford would fund half the building cost; the remainder was to be raised through a variety of means, including appeals to business benefactors, charitable foundations and local fund raising. I issued numerous press releases and many stories about the project and fund raising activities were published in the local press.

The church building project was a long, complex and challenging story which I won’t cover here. However, the building was constructed and consecrated by the Bishop of Guildford during a special service in September 1988 .

A diversity of ages and instruments at St Andrew’s:  the music group at a special service, in 1989 or 1990. I’m at the back on guitar, with Margaret Taylor on keyboard, Barbara Davies on flute, and Eddie Bradley-Fearey and Grace Owen on violins.

Music and movement
My participation in services was mainly as part of music leading (I play guitar). Over the following years we were blessed with many musicians: several pianists (some of whom also played the church’s organ when appropriate) and guitarists (electric and acoustic), bass guitarists, drummers, violinists and a cellist. At Christmas carol concerts, teenage church members – members of their school’s wind band – joined in: we had an orchestra!

During the “fund-raising” years before the building opened, some of us (guitars, bass, drums, keyboards) entertained at “Sixties” evenings, playing hits from that decade.

Playing ‘golden oldies’ at a St Andrew’s fund-raising event. From left: myself, Martin Steady, Ian Gooding.

The numbers of musicians have fluctuated over the intervening years. Some moved to new pastures, some went even into the ministry. Youngsters have grown up, married and taken flight. Some of our senior members have gone to meet the Almighty.

Sadly, I’m the sole remaining musician from the church’s formative years. I still play guitar and sing regularly on Sunday mornings and in other services, although my disability prevents me from  standing up to do so!


Still playing and singing at St Andrew’s in 2012!

Home from home
St Andrew’s is now a mature church with members of all ages: parents with babies and toddlers, youth members, and adults in each of life’s decades up to nonagenarians.

Sue and I remain involved in several aspects of its life and work, as well as attending its house groups and Sunday services. Locally, our best friends are members of St Andrew’s or people we met there. After many years, St Andrew’s feels like home.

This church is definitely its people!

For details of St Andrew’s Goldsworth Park visit www.goldsworthpark.org.uk.

Royer Slater
September 2012
Revised March 2013

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