St Michael’s Recent History
By Derrick Phillips
The history of St Michael’s Church goes back to Norman times and almost certainly earlier, but having a long history is not enough to keep a church alive. You don’t need to drive far to discover church buildings that have been demolished or re-purposed as homes or commercial premises. The popular perception is that churches are going out of fashion, but St Michael’s is one of many that prove the opposite by growing consistently year after year. A church thrives when people love it, and this is the case with St Michael’s. It sits at the heart of Stoke Gifford, occupying buildings on both sides of the village green. Even the survival of the green owes something to the church, with the church being its legal owner.
Themembers of St Michael’s Church have a compelling vision expressed in the ambition– “Living to make a difference by being a Christian heart at the centre of the Community”. This vision was put into words in 2008, but it’s been characteristic of the church for many more years. Stoke Gifford survived the war years (1939-45) in clear sight of the destruction wreaked on the Bristol area, but with little physical damage to the village itself. The church played a useful role in encouraging hope during that period. But, after the war, there was some decline in church attendance, similar to other areas of the country. However, when Rev. Dudley Powell was appointed as vicar in 1980, several couples who were committed Christians moved into new houses in the area with a will to support him in the work of re-invigorating the church. The average weekly attendance at that time was just 50 people. Steady growth began at that time and has continued ever since.
The growth of church attendance and the number of different meetings created a need for more space, so in 1983, part of the old vicarage was converted into meeting rooms and a Sunday School was started. The congregation grew to 60 adults plus a handful of children. Further progress by 1985 took attendance to 80 plus 20 children, but the need for a new church in Bradley Stoke prompted 30 of the regular congregation to voluntarily relocate to plant a new church – Christ the King, Bradley Stoke. Despite that loss of numbers, St Michael’s continued to draw in new people, so when the village school relocated to Ratcliffe Drive in the late 1980s, the transfer of the Old School Rooms to church ownership provided a happy solution.
By 1990, it was time for Rev. Powell to move on, but not before making further significant changes. A fresh vision emerged to bring God into families and several new ministries were born, including a Mums & Toddlers group, uniformed groups, and a Pre-school Playgroup with a distinctive Christian ethos. Average Sunday attendance (120 plus 50 children by that time) was maintained during the 12 months the church continued without a vicar.
Rev. David Widdows moved into the vicarage in 1991 with his wife, Becky, and 4 children. Partly to accommodate increasing congregations, but also to encourage diversity of worship, the Sunday Morning services were split between a traditional 9:30 a.m. service and a more contemporary 11:15 meeting, with Sunday School provision for the children at both services – and numbers continued to grow. The vision of the church at that time was expressed as “Bringing Jesus into every home and family”. Families were growing in numbers and ages. In 1996,the church appointed a Youth Worker to develop and strengthen the church’s provision for young people.Increased numbers and a more varied programme of activities began to put further pressure on accommodation, so in 1997, an architect was appointed toexplore optionsfor developing the former village school building into more up-to-date meeting rooms and offices. The architect’s brief was to design a building with a modern interior, but with exterior features to blend with surrounding houses and enhance the aspect from the village green. The project was ambitious (£1.1 million) and church members agreed that it must be funded by freewill offerings and without any public appeal. Work commenced on the Old School Rooms project in 2002 and the impressive new buildings were opened in 2003.By then, average Sunday attendances of adults and children combined had reached 320, and the extended facilities enabled the church to open a coffee shop,which soon became apopular venue facing the village green.
Members of St. Michael’s had become accustomed to thinking of themselves as a small church, but numbers no longer fitted that description. On the other hand, it was still distinctly a local church, with a good balance of females and males across all ages – and the majority living in Stoke Gifford village or nearby. However, the greater numbers posed potential problems for a community that had always excelled in personal relationships and pastoral care. The congregation reached a size where it was impossible for everyone to know everyone else. The solution has been for most people to meet in smaller groups during the week in local homes, where they can find a sense of belonging and grow in their faith.
The old vicarage, on the large corner plot opposite the railway bridge near Parkway Station, had become expensive to maintain, so in 2006, when Rev. Widdows moved away, the Bristol Diocese decided to stop using it and to buy a modern house on North Road for use by the next vicar. Meanwhile, the St Michael’s Pre-School group was facing two problems. Firstly, the group needed more facilities than could be provided in the multi-purpose space in the Old School Rooms. Secondly, changes in demand and the government provision of free nursery vouchers made it necessary to consider upgrading the service to a full-time nursery. The old vicarage seemed an ideal answer – though it would need substantial changes and redecoration. In 2008 the church agreed to rent the vicarage from the diocese and to upgrade the property for this new use. Refurbishment was undertaken by volunteer work parties, and the St. Michael’s Pre-School and Nursery became another key part of serving the local community.
Continued growth was going to need further accommodation, and even more so when the local plan predicted massive growth to Stoke Gifford in the coming years. An industrial site alongside the Old School Rooms had long been a possible option for further extension. In fact, the first idea for that move came as long ago as 1990. It was known that the site owner had been seeking opportunities to gain planning permission to develop the land for housing, but several applications were refused. In 2006 a friendly understanding was reached with the owner for the church to purchase part of the site if the money could be raised quickly. To gauge the level of support for the idea, the church staged a members-only fund-raising project in one short week, during which £135,000 was pledged. This was enough to assure the Trustees that the full amount could be raised. Later in 2006, the church bought the 0.38 acres of the site for £525,000. In 2007, Rev. Simon Jones was appointed to St. Michael’s, providing an inspirational style of leadership for the every-growing congregation – ably assisted by Rev. Julie Bradley, who moved into the area back in Rev. Dudley Powell’s time and ultimately became ordained to serve in the local church.
The former industrial site could not have been described as beautiful – except for the arched stone barn walls that remained from the site’s historic use as farm buildings. The stonework had already been reflected in the construction of the Old School Rooms and the Trustees determined that the same quality should be retained in the new building. After much consultation and some opposition from local authorities and some residents, the Trustees applied for planning permission in April 2010 and were successful in obtaining consent (with the support of the local councillors) on 22nd June 2010. To many observers, this looked like an over-ambitious scheme. Planning consent was conditional on the building work commencing within 3 years – and the cost of construction was estimated at almost six million pounds spread over four stages of development. Consistent with their previous policy, the Trustees determined that the project must be funded by voluntary contributions, without public appeal. This goal was achieved as demonstrated by the fine buildings now on the site. They are now constantly in use by the local community, and by local and national organisations and, of course, by the church.
St. Michael’s church has been a resource for the Stoke Gifford community for hundreds of years. The original church building overlooking the village green was an ambitious construction from its earliest days (space for 120 people in what, historically, was a tiny village). The expansion of the church and the numerous events and organisations that use its buildings has more than kept pace with the growth of the village.The church is loved and continues to “make a difference by being a Christian heart at the centre of the community”.