St Andrew’s Centre - The Story so far...

By Rev. Alan Stewart

I’d like to begin with an old Irish proverb:  ‘it is in the shelter of each other that people live’.

That’s a typically Celtic way of saying we depend on one another; human kind relies on human kindness; we share a responsibility for each other’s well-being.
Historically, the Christian Church has tried, and sometimes failed, to take that responsibility seriously. In generations past the church of course was very much the centre of community life; the actual building was the place of gathering and commerce, of learning and refuge. The church was in many ways the glue that held a community together.
Things of course have changed. Communities now arrange themselves around other support networks and yet often quietly and conscientiously the church continues both corporately and through the volunteer work of individuals, to contribute to the glue of a society which some have said is in fact ‘broken’. Now whether we agree with that evaluation or not, we nevertheless seem to be living in times of increased stress, overwork, debt and depression; symptoms of what certain psychologists might call Affluenza; we’ve never had it so good and yet we’ve never felt so bad.

That’s something of the context out of which the vision for the St Andrew’s Centre has grown. Out of what began life purely as a response to an in-house problem, has grown a deep conviction that as a church we have a much wider responsibility to our neighbour.

Initially the project was simply about creating more and better space for the various church activities which have outgrown a hall which is itself at the end of its useful life. As we began to reflect on these plans to renovate and increase the footprint of the hall, we were inspired by those words attributed to the late Archbishop William Temple: ‘The church is the only society which exists for the needs of those who are not its members’. In other words the church should never be a ghetto or a members-only club, but instead an investor in others and an agent for the welfare of the society we live in.

We began to think of new ways in which we could try to meet some of the needs we saw around us and in a moment I’ll share with you some of things which I think a Christian community can uniquely offer. At the same time we knew that the task is way too big for any one group. Our vision therefore is to create a network of partnerships and share what resources we have with other groups and organisations who share our ethos, so that together we can make a real difference to this and future generations in Hertford and its surrounding villages.

That ethos is based on a little Hebrew word; shalom, or peace, well-being, wholeness. And that Shalom encompasses the whole of life - mind, body, spirit, community, planet. We want to build a Centre for the community with a particular focus on well-being as a resource not only for our own work in that area, but for other groups, who could make good use of the space and facilities and who might value any support the church community could offer. We’ve had some very encouraging and informative discussions with local community groups and charities and this launch is the next step in that consultation.
The Centre, which has been designed with as low a carbon footprint as possible, is tucked away behind St Andrew’s Church on St Andrew Street; this we believe allows for a degree of privacy.
Among the facilities available there will be a range of meeting rooms, including a one to one counselling room, rooms for larger groups and a multipurpose hall with kitchen facilities. There will be three discreet entrances, two accessed through the churchyard and one through the church itself so that each user group can be assured of a degree of security and confidentiality.
The Centre will be managed by the Hertford St Andrew Community Trust. Under their auspices a part time Operations and Development Manager will help liaise with potential users and oversee the day to day running and promotion of the centre. I’ve excited to say that Viv Thornton has agreed to take on this for the moment, unpaid role.
We envisage a sliding scale of charges based on the financial situation of any user group. Our overall aim however is not to make a profit but to be financially self sustaining.
The New Economics Foundation, a secular group have identified five things which we need to build into our lives if we are to maintain a balanced and happy life. We’ve produced a little leaflet called ‘how are you feeling?’ It’s a ‘work in progress’, but outlines how we as a church might contribute to the well-being of our community.

It’s important to say that we see the Centre and the Church building as complimenting one another. The church remains open during daylight hours and many people search out its beauty and stillness. There are opportunities to post prayers and light candles or just sit in silence and many record their thanks in the visitor’s book, particularly for the degree of peace they find within those walls.

Within the church space we host services of prayer for healing and short evening candle-lit reflections aimed particularly at busy people or commuters on their way home from Hertford North. We also host concerts, talks, exhibitions, school visits and social events.
The church of course isn’t a particularly flexible space, nor is it a neutral place. For some it’s uncomfortable (perhaps in more than one sense of that word!). That’s where the St Andrew’s Centre comes in.

Historically the hall has been used to meet the needs of the elderly and isolated through Sunday lunches and luncheon clubs; we run a vibrant and over subscribed toddler group which also provides much needed help and support to young families; we have two youth groups which offer safe spaces and help with life skills, and we have plans from October to begin an after-school drop-in for teenagers; the centre has also been used when we’ve needed to relocate our Saturday morning children’s club which usually meets at St Andrew’s School on Sele Farm and attracts children from a very wide social background.

We also have a running group and a badminton club, and In the future we would like to offer parenting classes, listening courses and relationship and marriage enrichment, bereavement support and counselling. We are also aware of the need to offer such support to teenagers dealing with bereavement and family breakdown and would be keen to liaise with professionals working in this area.

Many of our congregation have skills and interests in areas such as art, music therapy, exercise, alternative therapies. There might therefore be opportunities to work in partnership with other existing groups.

One significant area we would like to develop is that of meditation. Studies show that meditation can reduce stress and promote mental health. This is something which although for us is rooted in the Christian tradition, transcends religion. We already have two monthly groups which are open to people of any religion and none.

I’m personally very excited about the potential of this initiative; already it’s allowed us to talk with so many wonderful projects and groups who are making such a difference to the lives of so many. I’m also humbled by the dedication and efforts of so many who have helped to get us to this point, where we are now over halfway in our fundraising, and in a position to share with you something of the vision for what we are calling ‘our gift to the community now and for generations to come’.

Alan Stewart, 18/06/2011