St Andrews Community Church is in Tilbury, a town of around 11,000 people perched on the Essex coast. The original church was Methodist and built in 1928. When the Germans flew in to bomb the town’s docks, they damaged the church - the current building dates from 1966. There’s a hall and a manse behind, the whole site overlooked by a block of flats. The church is a joint ecumenical project of the Methodist and Baptist churches.
Drive into Tilbury and you wonder whether it ’s a film set for some desperate drug-crazed horror film. Unkempt railway property backing on to the docks area faces empty shops on the main road into the town,competing with neglected sites and a fenced graveyard for rusting freezers.An empty Asda trolley snuggles against a garden fence. A pony and trap rush out of a side road defying the impression of gloom and decay. It ’s the kind of urban wilderness that too many churches have abandoned as if to say, “We ’ve no vision,let them perish.”Further into town and on the right stands a defiant yellow building,St Andrews Community Church,raising its fist to defeatism and ecclesiastical tidiness.
As soon as I walked into the church on the Sunday before Christmas,before anyone really knew who I was,I was made very welcome and handed a wrapped Christmas present,which I faithfully resisted opening until Christmas Day.When I did,it was a pen and pencil set, just the thing for an absent minded writer.How many churches welcome strangers so openly and give out Christmas presents to one and all?I felt completely at home in this church.It was so like a community I once served for nine years further up the other shore of the Thames at Thamesmead.
Mary Prescott is 68 and was born in Tilbury and has lived there all her life.She joined St Andrews in the 1950s.She wouldn ’t move.“I love Tilbury,I love the people.We ’re all mucking in together.” Mary ’s daughter Elaine is in a wheelchair and has never walked in her life having been born with a dislocated hip.I asked her what was the best thing about the church.“It ’s very friendly, just very loving.The worship is lively and enjoyable.We all join in together.”She agreed with me that God probably didn ’t mind whether we ’re Baptist or Methodist. Before coming as Baptist minister to Tilbury, Bob Edwards had been a steel plant foreman in Yorkshire. He then worked for himself driving a taxi for 12 years in Leeds.He spent a year studying at Cliff College before going to Northern Baptist College in Manchester for four years. His wife Sue told me that the move from being self-employed to training as a minister had been stressful.“One Christmas when he was training the cooker went wrong and we couldn ’t afford to get it mended.Somebody came up to me in church and said,‘God ’s telling me to give you this.’It was enough to get the cooker mended.And this from someone unexpected.It was amazing.”Bob and Sue have three grown up children,22,23 and 24,all still living up North.
How did they come to be working in Tilbury. Bob told me it was a definite call of God. “Tilbury was one of the places my name was sent to.Susan and I came down to visit in January.We thought it was an awful place,not picturesque,nothing to appeal to anybody.We spent time with friends praying and reading the Bible together and God took away all the life in a dead-end town excuses we put up for not coming here.The only recourse was to be obedient and to accept the call which is what we did.” “When we first arrived in September 1998 the manse had had a great deal of work done on it but still required a great deal more.When we ’d seen the manse in the earlier part of the year,it was derelict,broken windows all boarded up, evidence of an attempted arson attack inside the front door.When we came down a tremendous amount of work had been done to redecorate but it was the first day the boards had been taken down from the windows.They ’d found lots of asbestos which they ’d had to remove which meant the flue had gone from the boiler.
We had no central heating or hot water for the first six weeks we were here.The manse still had a lot of work to be done on it but that ’s not to diminish the amount of work that had been done by volunteers. “The church itself was in a very poor state of repair.The first Sunday we were here we had water running down the wall in the sanctuary. We ’ve had to do a great deal of work but now we ’re dry and warm and all redecorated and it ’s a pleasant place but its taken two years and quite a lot of money to get to that position.” I asked Bob to describe the area.“Tilbury was built on marsh land towards the back end of the 19th century as a place for dockworkers to live. Currently around 11,000 people live here.The 1960s saw a massive decline in its fortunes with the opening of the Dartford Crossing.The town was by-passed.The port became the victim of containerisation so the workforce was reduced from 13,000 to 800.The British Rail workshop was closed so right through the decade of the 60s the town was really almost wiped from the map.All the problems that you get associated with unemployment were there,poverty,abuse, violence and crime. “There are three major groups of people in the town:the old Tilbury people who came here over 100 years descended from Irish Catholic stock;people who were moved out of the east end slums of London;and a large group of travellers who have settled in Tilbury.
The travellers bring their own unique culture with them, lots of horses,ponies and traps and various other animals,quite often kept in houses which can be quite disconcerting when you see someone leading a horse out of a maisonette.” The service I attended was a heady mixture of carols,readings and nativity scenes with children playing all the parts in appropriate costumes.The words of the carols were projected on to a screen.James O ’Neill accompanied on a keyboard and the children played percussion.Bob told me that a visiting member of the clergy characterised their worship as ‘in the style of Chas and Dave ’. “The worship is appropriate to the context,” says Bob.“Actually the worship life of the congregation was an answer to prayer.One of the first prayer aims that we set ourselves when we came here was for renewal in worship.We had a handicapped lady who played the organ and that was it in terms of music.We started to pray for musicians to join us and sure enough musi- cians did join us.Eventually we exchanged our organ for a keyboard and we bought an electric piano,and a guitar and drums.A keyboard player came to join us who could actually read music.They were all an answer to prayer.” Bob ’s ministerial colleague is Carol Foyn,a doctor who worked for 20 years in the health service in hospital and general practice.
Tilbury is her first post after training at Wesley House in Cambridge.“I came on a grey day in January when it was freezing cold,it was very grey inside and outside the church.When I started there were 3 or 4 in the worshipping congregation and I got the feeling that either it would shut or something dramatic would have to happen to it.Bob arrived when I arrived and we just started working together. “We saw the way forward as being a local ecumenical project but calling it a community church but with Baptist and Methodist foundations.We still have infant baptism from the Methodist side so that parents have an option of having the children dedicated if they want adult baptism later.We have the Methodist covenant service in January.
Methodist members are quite keen to support Methodist charities like the National Children ’s Home,things like that. We do support Baptist projects like the Baptist Mission Society and Home Mission so we try to keep supporting the denominational charities. But as you ’ve seen today,you wouldn ’t feel particularly denominationally attached to our way of worshipping or possibly our way of church government either.Church meeting is not really a Methodist thing but again they ’ve embraced that quite wholeheartedly as well,but its much more something in between.We ’ve written some of the bits and pieces as we ’ve gone along.
“I ’ve been thinking about models of churchat Spring Harvest they often talk about models of church.I think church here is very much hospital church.
There are people with so many needs who come and I think within the church a lot of their needs are being met,some financially,some materially,obviously spiritual needs as well as social needs.It ’s the outreach of this particular church to people in their own congregation plus the people outside which is the good thing about it.They see the church as somewhere they can come and even if they have got problems,they can talk about them,they don ’t feel they ’re barred from coming to the church because of them.” The first time I visited the church was on a Friday.The weekly jumble sale in progress. Bob wasn ’t too sure at first,according to Mandy Young.“He ’s not very good with jumble.But then people said it would be nice to put all the money from jumbles back into the community.” And that ’s what they do. Bob told me,“They said jumble sales were a ministry to the poor.Our act of witness at Easter this year on Good Friday was tables outside the church with various Cadbury ’s creme eggs and drinks and various different goodies along with a card just giving them away to people.“This gift comes to you with no strings attached just like God ’s love ”(on card)and the witness that that created was tremendous.
People asked why we were doing this and we were able to say,‘because Jesus loves you.’One gentleman in particular who wanted to pay for these hot cross buns.He had a packet of hot cross buns in one hand and a pound coin in the other.We said,‘no charge ’,and he was looking at one and then the other then he raised his eyes to heaven and said,‘thank you,God ’ because he ’d never had anything given to him. I considered that a tremendous witness.” Sandy Edwards is church treasurer on semi- permanent loan from Cranham Baptist Church.She came to work with the children. “Every week they ’re in playing their instru- ments for about 20 minutes then we go out to ‘junior church ’ and then they come back in as part of the family.We follow a Scripture Union programme.I know I ’ve been called here.I can ’t say it isn ’t a challenge because it is.It ’s a place in need and the needs are now being answered.”The children support a World Vision worker in Ghana. The Community Church is precisely that,a church that looks both in and out at the community it serves.Community development workers meet at the church on a Friday,market day. Bob is up to his ears in community issues, including the Tilbury Riverside Project to create a riverside walk,the Tilbury Festival and the Christmas Fair and a pilot scheme for local governance run by Thurrock Council.
Mums and tots meet in the hall and there are Bible and prayer fellowships. Bob characterises the church leadership as relaxed.“My wife Sue is acting as church secretary,and there ’s Carol and me and Sandy our treasurer.One of our prayer aims is that God will raise up local leaders.It is beginning to happen very slowly.The vision here is to grow disciples and just exhibit kingdom val- ues in our family life that make it attractive so that people ask questions opening the way to introducing them to Jesus.We ’re hoping that God will continue to provide abundantly through his people as he has done so far.” I asked one of the first members I met,Joe Wilsher,what he liked about coming to this church.“The friendliness of it and getting to know Christ more,”he said.What did Christ mean to him,I wondered.“Saviour,peace, bringing the meaning of peace,looking at the world through completely different eyes.”Joe was baptised last July in an amazing collapsible baptism pool which takes 9 hours to fill.He ’d been coming to church for 3 years and it was the right thing to do,he said.He liked the worship, describing it as like one big family. If God caught me up and dumped me down in Tilbury,I ’d make a bee line for St Andrews Community Church and get stuck in.If Dr Carol Foyn is right when she describes it as a hospital church,then it ’s one of the most hopeful and loving hospitals I ’ve ever been blessed to attend.