It’s been just over a year since Father Neil Kelley arrived in Chorley to take up the position of Rector of St Laurence’s – a key historic church in the town centre.
He now leads a faithful and growing congregation that is looking to the future with optimism after a period when finances had become a bit tricky.
What’s more, the church is expanding in other ways – particularly with the creation of the new ‘Friends of St Laurence’ group.
Father Neil believes passionately in the importance of mission to the local community in Chorley, supporting the wider Diocesan Vision 2026 Healthy Churches Transforming Communities.
He spoke to Mark Ashley about his time so far in a rewarding role…
Father Neil Kelley became Rector of St Laurence Chorley in October 2017.
It’s been a whirlwind year or so for the incumbent with plenty of new friends to meet for both him and his Labrador named Poppy!
Neil arrived in Chorley after a long interregnum (the name given to the period between vicars) and very much aware of the faithful prayers of the congregation as they fervently sought a new Rector.
Neil originally hails from Portsmouth. He is a very accomplished musician; indeed a stand-out event at St Laurence was a 24 hour sponsored organ and piano recital he gave in church in August last year.
After working his way through piano grades as a youngster he became an organ scholar at the Royal College of Music, which led to a brush with royalty when he spent two years playing the organ at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, providing the music at the Baptism of Prince Harry and at the funeral of the Duchess of Windsor.
A glittering musical career seemed to beckon, but the intervention of a hamster caused a major change in direction!
Neil explains: “When I was a youngster, a pet hamster died, and I found myself directing the funeral service for my family.”
That first brush with God planted a seed. Neil continues: “I felt increasingly that I was being called to ministry. I explored the path with plenty of prayer and from the Diocese of Portsmouth I was sent to spend six months as a pastoral assistant in Kirkby on Merseyside.”
Convinced of his calling, Neil was accepted for three years of training at Westcott House in Cambridge and was ordained at St Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1991.
Following two curacies in London, Neil came back to work in Kirkby and Crosby in Liverpool, before heading south again to Bushey in Hertfordshire.
After the completion of some major projects in his parish there up to 2017, he responded to the advertisement for the vacancy at St Laurence.
He says: “I knew Bishop Philip, the Bishop of Burnley, well, having first met him in 2002, and I was convinced that I was being called to Lancashire, despite Bishop Philip warning me that it often rained in Chorley!”
A visit incognito to St Laurence revealed a congregation in an act of lively worship and praying hard for the right person to come as their new Rector as the interregnum was now in its second year.
“I was struck by the fact that a group of people were meeting for prayer every Monday to ask God to direct the right person to the church and subsequently I became increasingly convinced that I had made the right decision to apply.”
St Laurence is, of course, a big presence in Chorley town centre.
An historic and impressive church, with a large congregation and a very outward looking approach to the Chorley community; the parish office and the main body of the church is invariably busy with the comings and goings of many groups and the people who make up those groups.
They include cafe goers, Little Explorers, Pathfinders, Scramblers, Climbers and Explorers, Bellringers, wedding couples, members of the Mens’ Fellowship, Baptism families, Choir members, Worship Group members, Church Lads and Church Girls Brigade meetings, a Cursillo group, Brownies, Guides and of course Rainbows. Hardly time to sit, think and pray, you would think!
But you would be wrong … more than once in our conversation, Neil stresses the importance of prayer in the flourishing life of the St Laurence community.
Neil arrived with Poppy, his black Labrador, in October 2017 determined to fulfil the prayers and ambitions of a large and committed congregation.
Neil explains: ”St Laurence had made such great links with the wider Chorley community: with a much-used café; meals provided for homeless people in the town every Monday evening and many flourishing organisations.
“But there was a financial problem, with a gap of some £40,000 between income and expenditure.
“I told everyone that we were facing a crisis of identity, rather than a financial crisis.
"I said that, by rooting ourselves in prayer and in the proclamation of our salvation in Christ, we would be guided out of the difficulties we faced.”
Neil’s faith was rewarded very quickly: the St Laurence budget is set to break even and already a substantial increase in weekly giving is coming from a growing congregation of church members.
“Numbers vary, but we can expect more than 200 in church for monthly family parade services,” Neil says.
St Laurence is a church in the ‘liberal-catholic tradition’ but Neil says that he takes the principals of ‘mutual flourishing’ (where all parts of the church work together for the common good) seriously: “Our growth is coming from across society,” he explains. “We have welcomed young families into our family, new church members from the Evangelical wing of the church and some from no particular tradition.”
Neil adds: “Put simply my passion is for inclusive and creative worship.”
And that’s not all. The traditional and respected robed choir is being joined by a new worship group; the church website has been revamped and relaunched and, significantly, a ‘Friends of St Laurence’s’ group has been established to help with the coming challenge of finding some £350,000 to fix the fabric of the historic place of worship over the next three years.
“We are a church with a caring heart that sits at the heart of our community and serves our community, and we need to become more intentionally missional,” says Neil.
“This approach is supported by our wider Diocesan Vision 2026 Healthy Churches Transforming Communities,” Neil adds. “As part of our work locally to support that Vision, our key task is to help people grow in confidence so that they can appropriately share their faith with others.
Neil believes passionately that Christ is the ‘USP’ (unique selling point) for the local church. He explains: “Without Christ and prayer at the centre of what we are and what we do, we may as well become another branch of social services.”
Neil continues: “I am really impressed by the gifts, time and talents people of all ages are giving to our parish life. After I preached on the subject we had no less than 47 new offers of help and assistance with a variety of jobs and groups; many of these offers coming from young families.
“A direct result of that has been the establishment of new spring and summer fairs for the parish, where people come and get a flavour of what we are about at St Laurence’s.”
New house groups, the establishment of a parish safeguarding team and, most significantly perhaps, the ‘Friends of St Laurence’ have also quickly followed.
“As well as preserving our buildings for the future, we need to invest in building the spirituality of our church,” Neil adds.
Meanwhile 2019 is set to be a ‘Year of Grace’ for the St Laurence family, an opportunity to ‘develop a greater understanding of God’s grace to us all in Chorley and to each other’ as Neil explains.
“I believe that Vision 2026 is a much-needed initiative. We can fall into the trap of just keeping going in what I would call ‘maintenance mode,’ but congregations grow and flourish when churches are intentionally missional.
“The Vision 2026 strategy gives us that direction and is especially effective among younger people.
“Our Mission Action Planning and our strategies as a church and Diocese need to be rooted in prayer and worship, and that will remain as the cornerstone of our life here in Chorley.”
Ronnie Semley, January 22, 2019