President’s report on building a new church 2014

‘Except the Lord build the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ (Psalm 126, v.1) 

At Matins this morning I heard that verse from Psalm 126, and it resonated within me throughout the service. Today I’m introducing the Board and Appeal Committee’s ideas about the proposed new church, telling you what we have done so far and what are our future intentions. I’m also introducing the Executive Summary of the Capital Appeal Plan, which we have been distributing to the Community in recent Sundays, and which also appeared in the May issue of ‘The Spring’. Today we’ll be very happy to take your questions, but there just isn’t time now to respond to them in the kind of detail you might like. This meeting is a start. We’ll follow up your questions, and if anyone wishes after this meeting to raise anything with a member of the Appeal Committee or the Board, I hope they’ll do so. 

The three questions that we have been facing since 2010 (yes, the very first mention in ‘The Spring’ of expanding our present church or building a new one was four years ago, in May 2010) are: 

– do we really need a new church? 

– if so, what should it look like? 

– can we raise the money to pay for it? 

The Board did first look into the possibility of building on to our church, but this was not possible because the landowner was not prepared to sell us the land we needed. But even if we had expanded our existing church, we would still not have ended up with the church and community facilities we needed. So we decided for very good reasons that we needed a new church, and on several occasions we explained to the Community why we felt so. 

For over three years, the Board, through its Appeal Committee, has spent a great deal of time carefully working up a fundraising plan for an outline scheme. In essence, our job was to identify how much a new church would cost and then to devise a programme of fundraising to pay for it. The Board recognized early on that it would be a great advantage to us if a new church could be built on the Percy Thrower site across the Oteley Road, which is being developed as a mix of commercial and residential accommodation including community facilities. It was not, absolutely not, to design a new church. We commissioned an outline drawing from the architect, based on a project brief indicating scale and massing (size) criteria, so that we could obtain some idea of the acreage of land we would require and also identify rough costings as a basis for our fundraising. We obtained outline costings from quantity surveyors, who most generously charged us nothing for their ser-vices. It is true that we did finally base the scale and massing option on the ruined Koimesis church in ancient Nicea, now Iznik, in Turkey. This was an inspiration of Fr Stephen’s, and we believe that this will give us a powerful ‘story’ or ‘narrative’ to help pitch our appeal nationally and internationally: that we, an Orthodox community dedicated to the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, would be bringing back into Orthodoxy something that it had lost. Now the new church won’t be a replica of a seventh century church: we are in the 21st century, in a very different climate, with different local materials, and the new church will have to reflect that in its design and construction. But it’s a fact that when the architect looked at the plan of the Koimesis church, he said to us, ‘If you build it to this size, you will have the church you want, not only in terms of the overall floor space but also in terms of the intimate spaces that it would create’. It is the case that the area between the door of the Narthex and the Holy Doors in the church in Nicea is almost identical in size to the entire length of our present church. The idea of basing our design on the Koimesis church has already received some very positive reactions, as Fr Stephen can tell us. I too have received expressions of great enthusiasm for it from Orthodox in the USA. We believe that there are potential big donors in this country and abroad, who will be very attracted by our scheme and willing to invest in it. 

But neither the Board nor the Appeal Committee came to the task with fixed ideas – we had no axe to grind. Our job was to try to identify what we thought was best for the Community, and then try to make it happen. At its meeting on 10th March the Board en-dorsed the outline scheme recommended by the Appeal Committee. But our work is not all finished by any means. There is still a very great deal to think about, and in order not to waste money we are waiting until we have news about a possible site for a church before we really work up a detailed scheme and start fundraising. So we emphasise that the scheme is not yet ‘set in stone’ (or brick, or reinforced concrete – sorry!) For example, we have yet to commission architect’s detailed drawings. However, we are quietly doing the necessary background thinking about a new website, building up our contacts database, and sounding people out who may lead us to money. Meanwhile, as all of you can see, work is going on very rapidly at the Percy Thrower site; so, God willing, it won’t be long before we have an answer to our bid for a site. That’s where we believe our new church should be because, apart from its proximity to this church, a number of community facilities, including meeting halls, kitchens, toilets etc. are in any case going to be provided there, and if we were to be sharers in them it would save us a great deal of money. If we were on another site we would have to include these facilities as part of our church design, at much greater expense. I should also categorically say again, here and now, that the future of this church, our present church, is secure. We Orthodox do not make our churches redundant. 

A couple of weeks ago Fr Panteleimon and I met representatives of a company called “Land Improvements Holdings”. They are now the owners and developers of the Oteley Road site. They buy land, apply for planning permission, put in the services and sell plots on to builders. They seemed very willing to work with us, and were not unreceptive to the idea of a church on the site. They have not shown a church on their new plan, but they have shown buildings that fall within the same planning use class – i.e. ‘non-residential institutions’. An outline permission only establishes the principle of pro-posed land uses, and does not fix the detail. It was decided at that meeting that we and our architect should 

sit down with them and their architect to discuss this further. In short, it was a very positive first introduction. 

We understand that not everyone in the Community is entirely happy with the results of our labours. However, we believe that the gap between contrasting views, which we know exists, can and will be narrowed. The Board has had to take a view in the name of the Community of the Holy Fathers, and to give a lead. This view is expressed in the full Capital Appeal Plan, which it is ex-pected will form the basis of our proposed fundraising programme. We are very willing to hold a special meeting of the Community to go through the Capital Appeal Plan and to discuss the project in more detail. But we now invite the Community to take ownership of the pro-ject, much as the Board and Appeal Committee have taken ownership. It will require much prayer and hard work on fundraising by all of us to see this vision through to a successful conclusion. And if the Community doesn’t get behind the scheme, then it’s hard to see how it can happen. 

Finally, the people who come together as one body in the Liturgy are the Church, not the building they assemble in. In this crowded little church today there are many young children. We shall be building the church, not for us older folk, but for them and for their parents who are bringing them up as fully participating members of the Orthodox Church. We shall be failing in our duty if we don’t get behind the scheme for a new church. The size of the project and the work it will entail are a bit daunting, but perhaps we can take heart from the example of those eleven frightened disciples in the upper room, whom we have recently been reading about in Acts and the Gospels. They went out of that upper room with changed hearts; and they changed the world. We are their successors, members of the Holy Orthodox Church. Let us begin! 

Rdr. Michael Asser, President 

June 2014

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