AUDIO & GALLERY: Bishop re-dedicates St Mary’s, Westry, ‘tragedy transformed into new life which is indeed the Christian story’
PUBLISHED: 22:38 01 April 2014 | UPDATED: 12:41 02 April 2014
Probably the most remarkable part of the re-opening and re-dedication of St Mary’s, Westry, was the role played by the arsonists who virtually destroyed it four years ago.
For if they were considered at all it was almost certainly only in moments of quiet prayer and reflection and not in the acclamation of a church re-born from the ashes.
The Rt Rev’d Stephen Conway, the bishop of Ely, described the fire as a “tragedy” but then drew an immediate parallel with the Christian message.
Of seeing, he said, “that tragedy transformed into new life which is indeed the Christian story, from Good Friday to Easter Day. For it’s that tragedy turned into glory is what we, as Christians, believe”.
As the congregation began arriving – many at least an hour before the service was due to begin- the bishop spoke movingly of the restoration plans which began within hours of the fire taking hold.
“Of course it could have been restored in a stingy, meagre way but we have gone for high quality for that’s what we want as the best emblem of the church in the community,” he said.
Decent insurance cover helped shape the re-building programme but that was only part of the story for St Mary’s, with its committed congregation determined that an opportunity presented itself for something special indeed.
The bishop said there was “such desperation when it came to the fire and with everything gone.”
But as the faithful worshipped in the church hall they helped form the backbone of the church as it slowly came back to life.
“It was the most astonishing witness to resurrection,” he said.
The bishop said the Church sometimes questions the number of churches it has but in this instance, in an area where new housing is likely and so visible from a main road, it was vital St Mary’s was restored.
And it was the congregation and the church leaders locally who had set the template for the future “as they committed of their energy, their prayer and their money. If you think about the church across March you must also appreciate that as well as wanting to be in the town centre we also need to be on the edge. That’s where Jesus is and sometimes for God the centre is on the edge.”
He said: “What we have now is not simply a place of worship but a venue that offers much more for the community- and that is a vital part of what we are doing.”
Bishop Conway said there had always been positivity about St Mary’s which he loved and cherished and recalled, for instance, his first visit after the fire when he was accompanied by the priest in charge, the Rev Anthony Chandler.
But it was not, he noted, simply to look at the damage the fire had caused – considerable though that was- but to look at what remained.
“I remember putting on a hard hat just after work had begun and Anthony wanted to show me some of the surviving key features of the church,” he said. It was those “key features” that combined with the architect’s vision to create the re-born church.
“In essence it’s a Victorian church that’s been restored with modern resources,” he said. “Yes, it is a high Tec church (the sound system, lighting, and acoustics for example are phenomenal) but it’s that marvellous use of human ingenuity and skill to celebrate God’s creation afresh. We will be packed out tonight to celebrate the way it has been done and the fact we have created a space in which people can be worshipful and hospitable.”
The bishop said, historically, the word restored meant re-invented and that is what has happened to St Mary’s.
“The church has re-opened and it’s not what it was for we are building on what it was. “Something afresh has been re created and that’s really fantastic,” he said.
As the evening service got under way the bishop and clergy gathered at the church door to begin the traditional re-dedication ceremony.
With a packed congregation inside he proclaimed from outside ‘let the doors be opened’ before entering and crossing the threshold with the sign of the cross.
“Peace be to this house and to all who enter here,” he said.
The conclusion of the re-building programme also means retirement for the Rev Chandler who has been priest in charge since 2000.
He stayed beyond his normal retirement age to oversee the transformation but will now be passing the mantle of responsibility.