Already committed to an existing church plant, in 1992 the Parish of Cove bravely decided to reach out to the new Southwood estate. Philip Dobson was appointed team vicar for Southwood, a commuter village made up largely of families with young children or teenagers.
As the pioneer evangelist, Philip’s first job was to find ‘people of peace’ through involvement with the community. His style was very much to turn up on the doorstep and park himself in the kitchen with a coffee to listen and respond. This created a core group for a new church and Sunday worship began in November ‘93. Those who joined were either unchurched or lapsed since their youth.
There was no church building on the estate, so the plant met in a community centre that doubled as a sports hall. Everything echoed – like a Cathedral! With lots of imported technology like OHP and instruments, Philip was able to enroll his wife and four sons to lead the music, and with one or two others do most of the leading, readings and prayers.
When Philip left in August 1996, the church really struggled, but thankfully both the parish and the diocese realised that a long inter-regnum could ruin the whole project. I arrived in November ‘96 with Brian, my husband, and we soon realised that the two of us couldn’t sustain the ‘Dobson Show’. My leadership style and gifts are also very different and I needed to enlist a lot of new helpers. We stumbled along musically until there were enough musicians of our own and encouraged more people to take part in setting up for and running the services. I also tired to encourage members of the church to visit each other rather than relying on me. It was a big change for some, but they’ve got used to it and can see benefits – especially as they are well aware that having done four of the seven years in my contract, I won’t be here forever.
My arrival had coincided with a change of Head at the Infants’ School, a link that was to be a key factor in the future. The following month, the church and school jointly held a carol service for the community. About 170 attended, building a lot of goodwill within the community. I became a regular visitor in school assemblies with my puppet Eddie. Several children have dragged parents along to Sunday services just to see Eddie!
During the next two years we established our own D.C.C. and leadership team. Alpha and then Emmaus groups sprang up with baptism enquirers ‘queuing up’ to take part. Worship continued on Sundays in the big, cold hall while the children met in the café and bar complete with greasy smells and beer stains. Nevertheless, the congregation grew!
With no central focus, the community needed a heart, which we determined would be the church. Firstly, we helped to set up a Residents’ Association, now largely run by those outside the church, but with members still involved. We also contacted the local authority who helped us to set up and fund a secular Youth Project – much appreciated by youth and residents alike!
In January 1999, rumours spread that the private owners of the community centre were about to close it down. We spoke to the media and confronted the local council, pointing out that many other local amenities would also have nowhere to meet. “This is ripping the heart out of our community!” the church was heard to say on air over and over again throughout the day!
The regular congregation is now around eighty with at least half of those aged under eleven. We still meet in the inadequate, large, echoing hall. The threat of closure continues but we now have the assurance that a smaller and more manageable community centre will be built in its place – eventually! We’ve learnt to trust God for a roof over our heads and we’re learning to be ‘salt and light’ as individuals involved in community groups. The local community, at one time wondered how relevant a new church might be with no building. At last now they know that Southwood has a heart and at the centre of it is a loving and caring
This article was originally produced for an ACPI circular called “News From”. Please bear in mind that the articles were written several years ago, and circumstances may have changed and people may have moved on.