Making a church the Hive of activities at centre of community

Wealands BellWEALANDS BELL, pictured left, in his first year as Vicar of St Andrew’s Church in South Croydon and the chaplain of St Andrew’s School, looks ahead to developing a hub for the community, irrespective of people’s own religious allegiances

I remember a friend’s horror when I told him I was looking at a job in Croydon. “Croydon? What on earth do you want to go there for?” he asked. He gave no reasons for his disquiet, obviously believing them to be self-evident.

Happily, I knew almost nothing of Croydon, for good or ill, and when I was offered the job, as priest-in-charge of St Andrew’s Church in Southbridge Road, and chaplain of St Andrew’s School and Sixth Form, I judged entirely on what my eyes had seen, and readily accepted it. So last February my wife, young sons and I left our Barchester life in Lichfield Cathedral and its charming Close in a secluded corner of south Staffordshire and we remain very glad that we did.

Part of what attracted me to the role is that the work is divided between church and school, though “division” is not a helpful image: we dare to hope that, with time and a fair wind, the two institutions might grow more closely together to the benefit of each, and for the good of the whole town. How precisely this might happen will only become clear with time (the relationships on which it all depends will need time to be formed; there are never any worthwhile instant strategies), but at least we have been dealt a good and promising hand by our immediate predecessors, and our optimism is surely not misplaced.

First of all, the church interior is in excellent shape. Following work carried out in the last three years or so, we have been bequeathed a newly reordered church building, clean and bright, suited to the worship of God (the primary task of any Christian community) and very well-equipped to enable the service of the community. In this task we are helped by another great innovation of the recent past, a small local charity called The Hive-Croydon.

The focus of the Hive is to support the education of local children through a variety of ventures undertaken in collaboration with local schools. It also administers the social spaces within St Andrew’s Church (the hall, kitchen and very up-market lounge; these areas collectively form a Community Hub): it is here that the Hive enables a wide range of meetings, classes and other events to take place. Some of them are church events, like the monthly Messy Church, a morning of craft, songs, Christian teaching and shared food, held on the first Saturday of every month from 10.30am, with a team of helpers that includes young Christian leaders and sixth formers.

St Andrew's Church in South Croydon: a developing community hub

St Andrew’s Church in South Croydon: a developing community hub

But many others are not church activities at all: these might be birthday parties or wedding receptions, business meetings, Zumba sessions or band practices.

One of my hopes for the future is that over time these spaces (and indeed the whole of the church) will become familiar to all our neighbours, and that the community will develop a sense of ownership of St Andrew’s as their parish church irrespective of their own religious allegiances. The availability of the Hub at a reasonable price is a central strand in our thinking about the future, so that, as the town develops as an increasingly desirable and glamorous urban centre for business and commerce, it might also remain a place where people of all incomes and backgrounds are able to thrive as members of a co-operative and supportive society.

It is clear that the use of this space, and the gatherings and activities it can accommodate, will be critical to the future life of the church, and to the well-being of our town and community.

So: when it comes to the building, the story is already a good one. Where we are challenged is in the personnel department. We simply do not have enough church members with time on their hands who are able to volunteer themselves for any of the activities we would be very keen to see taking place within the community.

For example, our beautiful coffee lounge (formerly the Lady Chapel) is a really attractive space with tables, chairs and leather sofas, and is crying out to host a community café once or twice a month initially, an opportunity for locals to pop in, read the papers, chat, have a coffee, and enjoy a brief change of scene on a pay-what-you-can basis.

We might even be able to branch out and have some free computer lessons for prospective senior surfers: the church already has free wi-fi (long before Lord Lloyd-Webber made it fashionable). What we now need is a group of willing volunteers (Friends of St Andrew’s) who are willing and able to staff such an enterprise, and any others we might turn our attention to. We shouldn’t make assumptions about what the community’s present and future needs might be, but it would be surprising if old favourites like Parent-and-Toddler groups didn’t have plenty of takers. There would probably also be scope for a series of interesting lunchtime events, ideally suited for people who work within a short walking distance of the Hub, who would be able to escape their desks or counters for an hour and come to find some refreshment for body and mind. We will just have to find out!

Out of Great Tribulation, by Cecily Mary Barker, hangs in the church she attended regularly

Out of Great Tribulation, by Cecily Mary Barker, hangs in the church she attended regularly

One of the joys of coming to Croydon has been to discover all sorts of individuals and groups who are engaged in community work of one sort or another, whether through the making of gardens, or the appreciation of our history, art and culture, or through the care of disadvantaged people.

In all sorts of ways, a host of energetic and generous people with vision and commitment are already working to draw together the “strangers and pilgrims” of our town into a more unified whole. If St Andrew’s Church, together with our existing partners in School and Hive, can assist in that process, bringing to the party a long history of social engagement, then we might truly look forward to an equally long future in which we use our transformed buildings both for the worship of God, and in the service of the transformation of human lives.

If you think that you and we are interested in the same things and ought to talk together, please do be in touch. My email address is

Alternatively, if you wish to book any of the spaces for an event, email .

Better still (especially if you haven’t seen inside the church since its reordering in 2012) come and say hello in church and have a look round. I am obviously there on Sundays at 10am, and on Tuesdays at 6.30pm. It would be very good indeed to meet you and to find out how, as the future unfurls, we might, as church and community work together, bring about something remarkable for the people of our town.

MAN TO MAN: From Tuesday February 3, 2.30pm to 4pm, a new group for men will meet in church with a colleague and me, to discuss anything and everything as it arises, not necessarily religious, but not excluding religion and faith. Tea and coffee will be served, but nothing more intoxicating than good conversation. Do please make any men you know aware of this, especially if they would value serious and constructive conversation from time to time.

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