The church is about 800 years old and throughout this time it has been responsive to the changing needs of the people in whose lives it played a part. It has seen many alterations, additions and adaptations to new circumstances and new demands arising within its community.
Like our forebears have done in previous centuries, we too have a responsibility to have vision and put in place what will be needed at St Leonard's Church during the next 100 years. We are trying to build for tomorrow, as well as today.
Our vision is of a comfortable, welcoming and beautiful building that can become a vibrant hub of Watlington life, not just for worshippers, but for the whole community too.
Keeping this in mind, here are the main aims for the Renewal Project:
• To make it possible for anyone and everyone to come to St Leonard's, including people who have disabilities or health issues;
• To grow the numbers of people supporting and worshipping in the church;
• To attract new and younger people to the congregation by offering different types of services;
• To encourage people to come to the church for a wider range of reasons and activities;
• To create a special venue for prestige concerts, arts festivals and community celebrations;
• To contribute to attractions offered by the town and the promotion of Watlington as a destination for visitors as well as residents;
• To increase the footfall in the church, and thereby make it easier for people to discover or explore the spiritual dimension of life;
• To build fellowship between members of the congregation;
• To strengthen the links with other people in the community.
Taking the church forward through the 21st century
The church needs to be used and loved by many more people than do so at the moment. We therefore want to make it suitable for more frequent use, and for a greater variety of services and activities. We have already made a start by creating a temporary kitchenette and by replacing the pews with stackable chairs so that the space can be easily adapted to different uses. We've also installed a computer-controlled audi-visual system. Our future plans include:
• building a small extension to house a kitchenette and toilets, including much-needed disabled access and baby-changing facilities;
• creating a more welcoming and flexible space;
• installing a bell ringing platform;
• creating a room that can be used by children during services, or for small meetings or groups at other times;
• bringing more light in to the church by using the west door.
In June 2012 we were granted planning permission for the extension, and we have since obtained all the other necessary permissions for this. We have also been progressing with other proposed changes to the church. External drainage and services have already been put in place in readiness for the start of the extension; in the interim these serve the temporary kitchenette.
St Leonard's Church is fortunate in receiving financial support from the Church Houses Charity, more usually known as the Maria Cook Trust. This charity owns land adjoining the church, and it may be possible to sell some of that land in order to meet all the costs of the Renewal Project.
Oxford Diocese would like to build a new rectory closer to the church. The Trust in partnership with the Diocese has therefore spent several years developing plans for two new homes at the far end of the church hall site, one of these being intended as the rectory. That redevelopment would mean that the money from the sale of the land, and the land itself, would be put to good use and the direct benefit of the church and community. Planning permission has now been received and the Maria Cook Trust, the Diocese and the St Leonard's Project Group are working through the details to turn our plans into a reality.
A positive outlook
Church decline is not inevitable. We have visited and learned from other nearby churches that have already introduced similar changes, and their experiences have been positive.
We want to make sure the church is still here - and still being used – for another eight hundred years. We want to enable more people to come to it, to enjoy it (in all sorts of different ways), to recognise the role it plays in the life of the town, and to appreciate the support it offers at times of joy and sorrow.
Ultimately it is people and uses that will preserve our church for the future. This applies not just in the sense of a historic building, but also as a group of people who worship together, who bear witness to the welcome that God offers all, and who work to strengthen their community.