Position Statement as at August 1st 2009
St Mary’s stands in the heart and centre of Stafford. A place of worship for over 900 years’ it is home to a worshipping community most of whom travel in from other parts of Stafford for the privilege of worshipping in such a beautiful and historic building.
St Mary’s plays a key role in the community. Everyone in Stafford knows about it and many people relate to it in variety of ways. It stands as a reminder of the presence of God in the midst of life. Many of Stafford’s great events take place under its roof. Just recently the visit of the Queen, the Freedom of the Borough Service and the Return Service for 22 Signal Regiment. Three times a year the Crown Court Opening Service is held at St Mary’s and major Civic events from both borough and county are held there. The Church is open every day for most of the day and attracts between 10,000 – 12,000 visitors a year during the week. We have recently tried to improve the visitor experience by renewing the signage around the church both outside and inside, by publishing a new Guide Book, and by providing a new free welcome/information leaflet.
The Church is being increasingly used by schools as a means of looking at the religious history and traditions of Stafford as well as the historic building. Concerts both large and small are regularly held in the church and it is a major venue for the annual Stafford Music festival. St Mary’s is a popular Venue for Staffordshire Performing Arts.
In the light of this we have recently re-ordered the lady chapel and the east end of the chancel providing chairs rather than benches thus giving greater flexibility of use both for worship and for other events such as concerts etc.
It is important in all of this that we remember that St Mary’s is first of all a place of worship and prayer. However it has become apparent in recent times that we recognise that we are a town centre church and that we need to focus more of our attention upon town centre ministry. In many ways this seems to be a natural development of our already substantial Civic and visitor ministry.
There are many ways in which the development of St Mary’s needs to be progressed but here I want to focus upon the development of the building.
As pointed out above St Mary’s is a significant building in the town both historically and architecturally – quite apart from its importance as a spiritual centre in Stafford for 900 years.
Over the past few years there has been a great deal of thinking within the Church of England and within the ‘Heritage Community’ about how church buildings may be used more for community purposes as well as places for worship and prayer. Although this may all seem veryy new and even revolutionary to us, yet history reminds us that in fact until the reformation in the16th century churches or at least the naves of church were used for all kinds of community events and purposes. In fact St Mary’s was used to hold the town’s assize until the 18th century.
In our time and in order to meet both the challenges and the opportunities of today we need to look again at the building to see how it may be adapted to enable a more effective town centre ministry not just on a Sunday but for seven days a week. Church buildings have always been adapted to accommodate different styles of worship and the varying needs of the times.
How may St Mary’s Church be developed?
South West Door Area and Porch.
We hope to instruct an architect to redesign the area behind the South West Door to provide a proper welcome area, as well as storage, for notice boards, a bookstall, a toilet and ample cupboard space. This may also include adapting the wooden door which is cumbersome to open easily and far from welcoming. We may also ‘bring the porch into the church’ by putting an outside door on it and heating and lighting it thus giving more space to welcome people and for display. There are also disabled access issues to be addressed. If we are to develop St Mary’s as a place to visit and as a concert venue as well as a more attractive place in which to worship then we really do need to tackle the welcome area and how we receive people into the church building.
Stafford’s most illustrious citizen was baptised at St Mary's and there is a memorial to him in the church. We would like to develop the area near to the memorial as a small and accessible walk –around exhibition area dedicated to the life of Izaak Walton his importance for Stafford’s history and for English history. This could have an influence for good on the visitor experience at St Mary’s and maybe even attract more people to the church and to the town. We would hope that this would be a new and attractive resource for schools.
The view is widening at St Mary’s that for there to be an effective town centre ministry from the church and within it then there needs at be a base in the church building from which that ministry can be offered. At present the Rector’s office and the Parish Administrator’s office are ten minutes walk away from the town centre. The area to the left of the High Altar at present incorporating the Priest’s Vestry and choir robbing area (which is quite frankly unsightly) could be developed to provide a vestry/ office for the rector and administrator as well as a robbing room for the choir; this could also double up as a small meeting room. This would locate the Rector and the Parish Administrator in the Church and thus available in the town centre. This area could also provide an administrative base for the Town Centre Chaplain and Town Centre Missioner.
The lighting at present is both ineffective in that it does not bring out the best of the building and inefficient in that it is expensive to run and environmentally unfriendly. If we wish to develop St Mary’s as a concert venue then we need to have modern, effective and flexible lighting.
It ought to be possible to fund much of this work from existing resources and with some small amount of fundraising and grant seeking.
At the moment we are in the process of seeking an architect to draw up plans for the scheme so far.
The Historic Harrison and Harrison Organ.
St Mary’s has two organs both of which are of value and interest. The 1790 Geib organ case situated at the west end of the church houses a fine instrument and for about thirty years has been used to lead worship and to give occasional recitals.
However by far the most important instrument in the church is the 1909 Harrison & Harrison. This organ has recently been certified as of historic and musical importance by the British Institute of Organ Studies who are sponsoring a conference here next spring based upon the Harrison organ. At present we are researching the provenance and the history of the instrument. It is a very important instrument and is unique of its type and time in that it has not been rebuilt, altered or added to since it was first built.
We need to restore this instrument for its own sake but also because it could play a major part in the overall development of St Mary’s as a resource for the community.
As pointed out above St Mary’s is already used as a venue for concerts. We sponsor regular Coffee Concerts through the spring and summer. The Stafford Music festival uses the Church as a major venue, SPA does the same as well as other groups and ensembles. We are hoping to develop our Saturday Coffee Concerts as well as developing a Stafford Music Share on Saturday mornings whereby we would provide a venue and publicity and also a readymade audience for local schools to come into the church and use it as a venue to perform in the town centre. We want also to develop regular Saturday morning organ recitals.
Music plays an important part in our worship. We have two fine organists and a good choir. We could however do a great deal more. St Mary’s is the only venue in Stafford which can accommodate a large audience. We would anticipate that restoring the Harrison organ, which is of national and international importance, would raise St Mary’s and Stafford‘s musical profile. We could attract organ recitalists of international fame and with that we would hope to raise the whole musical profile and attract concert audiences to other concerts with St Mary’s as the venue. This could also have a positive effect upon the music in our regular worship.
In addition to this we would hope to be able to offer the church and its organs as an educational resource by offering a cross curricular package to local schools which would include music, history, science and RE all based upon the organs and the church building. We are beginning to look at the practicalities of offering this.
At the last estimate the cost of restoring the organ would be in the region of £500,000. This is by no means a final figure it could be more, it could be less.
We would also like to set up an endowment fund to ensure the future of the instrument and to cover the cost of help to organise concerts and to steward the church building. It is anticipated that this could be up to £200,000.
We would hope that much if not all of this would be found from trusts and grants as well as individual and corporate donors and legacies.
A capital fund-raising campaign will need to be launched with a Campaign Director supported by a committee and very probably professional Fund Raising Consultants.
The purpose of the campaign would be to :
The whole point and thrust of this project is to make St Mary’s accessible to more and more people from within the wider community of Stafford. To put it and all that it stands for even more firmly at the centre of our community in town and county, to continue to offer St Mary’s as a place which wants to be of service to the community and have even more to offer to it than it does now and so to ensure a bright future for this historic and holy place of worship.
The Rev’d Prebendary Graham Fowell.
Rector of Stafford. For and On Behalf of St Mary’s D.C.C.