You kind of hope that God is at work in the church all the time. I certainly believe that, even when the word of the Lord is rare and there are not many visions, as it was in 1 Samuel 3:1.
But about 20 months ago, when the Diocese of Bath and Wells decided that the Rectory, a ramshackle Georgian affair next to Holy Trinity Church, would be sold between Rectors, Holy Trinity and Trendlewood, Nailsea embarked on a period where a few people thought about how we could keep it. We discarded the usual Anglican question 'Why?' We exchanged it for 'Why not?'
Why not buy it and use it as offices, conference space, cafe, accommodation, meeting rooms, storage, a studio or retreat? The vision was an endless stream of excitement. This was great, and also one of the difficulties. Many folks asked why we were considering buying a building when we hadn't decide to what use we might put it. Why? But we would, if we bought it, have years to fix its use. Indeed it might become the sort of flexible space that would have a new lease of life in several different forms over its next century. Why not? We had one shot at buying or lose it for ever.
We became aware of several 'I wouldn't start from here' moments. There was a recession. We had two other projects on the go which would need just under half a million pounds to complete. We were in a vacancy. The Diocese would want the money for the sale quickly.
But the vision niggled away and a small group of people did some feasibility studies, had some preliminary surveys done and arranged for a group of young adults to rent the building in the meantime to keep it occupied, warmed and vandal-free.
It also seemed essential that the next step for leadership of this amazing church was to produce a parish profile and person specification for a new Rector which might attract the sort of applicant who would say 'Why not?' A visionary leader over and above all the gifts and skills you might want in a Rector. It seems to have worked.
Throughout all this we made it clear that any news or developments would be shared first and foremost not on a Sunday but with the parish prayer meeting on the first Wednesday evening of every month. Numbers, which had slumped to 10-15 a time grew to 40-60 and have stayed high.
We embarked on more detailed proposals and an in-house, recently retired architect did us some free drawings. We had, as we had done with the vision-building the year before, several open meetings where everyone's views were listened to and recorded. At first we were spilt three ways between yes, no and don't know. Then the don't knows turned to yesses. Then one or two of the nos began to change.
At the decisive PCC meeting before we launched our appeal for money there was a wonderful speech from someone who had changed his mind. In effect he said that the project was ridiculous, would only work if God blessed it, but that the history of our church was of many other projects such as that. It was simply that this one was bigger and grander than anything previously envisaged. It had a lot of noughts. He was in. It would be a lie to say everyone was in. We had a fairly high profile resignation by someone who was unconvinced. I respect that. But the eventual vote was nem con.
Our initial thought had been to do a substantial amount of grant-application and fund-raising but my new Rector colleague gently corrected us. If this was our project we should pay for it and trust people to be generous.
And so we pulled together all our projects and gave them a spiritual rather than a buildings focus. We want to get our plant right so we can reach out to the community, the region and, possibly the whole of the south-west. We want our generosity to bless others, not ourselves.
The Trinity Project Gift Day was for lump sums of £400,000 and pledges of £400,000 more, spread monthly, for ten years.
We preached our hearts out about faithfulness, vision, stewardship and surrender. I had no idea what the outcome would be, but I knew I had helped respond to a little voice in my head back in May 2008 that said, 'I think we should buy it.'
Liz and I seriously considered putting all our savings in. We had a long talk about it. We didn't. Our reasoning was largely due to other members of our family occasionally making financial demands on us and our needing to have some money left to help. It meant a lot to me that as I was writing out a cheque for the amount we had decided to give I had a message from a member of the family who needed money in a hurry. I have never been so pleased to get a demand for £400. It felt that it validated our decision to leave some cash in the bank.
On the actual Gift Day I was happy to be on holiday. That's how much I left the results to God.
When the cash, cheques and pledges were counted a few days later and the results announced to a well-attended prayer-meeting we had this result:
Cash in hand from previous fund raising and available to pump-prime the project £130,000
Donations on the day £200,000
Reclaimable tax £50,000
Grants to date £10,000
Monthly pledges for ten years £38,000 a year or £380,000
Interest free loans to aid cash-flow £190,000
Not all the responses are in but roughly 200 people have contributed, some so generously it can't all be gift-aided in the same year.
I did a little towards it myself, drafting leaflets and profiles. Others did what I shall call 'the work.'
I have never heard of this level of generosity outside the stock-broker belt. It is twenty times more than any gift day I have ever been involved in.
I stand in awe. We wanted to walk on water. We got out of the boat.