Across the whole of the County, healthy churches from The Church of England in Lancashire are serving and transforming their communities in a whole range of different ways, every day of the week; not just on Sundays.
And now, fresh from its brush with international recognition during the G7 Speakers’ Conference in October one of them, St Laurence’s Church in Chorley, has been highlighted as England’s ‘Church of the Week’ this week by the National Churches Trust (NCT).
The new accolade, also praised this week by the Bishop of Blackburn, Rt Rev Julian Henderson, is to recognise the work done to support and minister to the Chorley community throughout the pandemic crisis.
Fr Neil Kelley, parish priest, is thrilled by the recognition of the hard work of the last two years by his congregation.
He said: “St Laurence’s is an amazing community with a heart for the disadvantaged and overlooked. The welcome we offer to all at the Lord's Table is the foundation of our work with those in need.
“We have a phenomenal number of people who help with this - church goers and non-church goers - and we reckon that during 2021 almost 6000 volunteer hours have been invested in our hospitality ministry.”
The NCT citation as ‘Church of the Week’ describes how it is seven years since St Laurence’s, a proactive outgoing church serving a parish of some 8,500 people, started its ‘Open Table’ initiative. This initiative saw them delivering a hot meal once a week for people struggling to afford to provide basic meals for themselves and their families.
Before the first Covid 19 lockdown, every Monday evening disadvantaged people could come to the church and be served a hot meal, free of charge. But the lockdown did not stop St Laurence’s from stepping up to the plate (literally!) in support of people in the town.
Demand for hot meals increased dramatically, and in response a take-away service was introduced, with church volunteers delivering meals three days a week.
A delivery service of emergency food parcels nicknamed ‘The Food Phone’ was also established, available every hour of every day of every week. The church mostly takes referrals from Chorley Council, but as more people became aware of ‘Open Table’, they increasingly turned directly to the church.
Father Neil says: “We are not a foodbank, but we are there when foodbanks close their doors. The Food Phone is always staffed so that referred families for emergency food parcels can receive a quick response. We respond personally to every request to ensure what we offer can best meet the needs of our guests.”
About half of the calls to The Food Phone are regulars who struggle with money management and who are referred to debt and finance support charities. The other half are one offs due to specific circumstances, such as unexpected expenses draining available income.
Up to 40 volunteers help run the services, with half of them people who are not part of the church congregation; they simply became aware of what was happening and wanted to volunteer.
Fr Neil is aware that the situation is going to get worse again with furloughing ending and costs of food, fuel and heating continuing to go up: “We are already making provision as the demands on our services will severely increase as we lead into Christmas.
“If the church closed, people might find some of what the church provides locally but there would be a gap. No other organisation would be able to provide all that St Laurence does for the community. As a result, there would be less provision in the town for people in need.
“Recently we have been delighted to welcome folk from our sister parishes of St George's and St Peter's who are part of the team delivering food parcels across the town.
“God calls us not only to share in the Eucharist week by week but to live eucharistically too. Our commitment to hospitality is an extension of the hospitality Christ extends to us"
Bishop Julian said today: “The work being highlighted at St Laurence’s as a result of this recognition shows how each church community can make a real difference in the lives of local people.
“Jesus showed us that serving others and humility go hand in hand. Those who have given of their time so sacrificially at St Laurence’s will not have done so to gain recognition; nevertheless, I am delighted they have been singled out for praise in this way.
“Our Vision 2026 aim is to have ‘healthy churches transforming communities’ across Lancashire and, through their dedicated service to Chorley, St Laurence’s is living out our aim in a very distinctive way.”
Article by Ronnie Semley and Mark Ashley; picture courtesy Lancashire Post
Ronnie Semley, November 2021