Fr John Bunker in 2011
The happiest days of my life as a Christian were spent as Priest in Charge of a small brick building which served as our church in Marden, Cullercoats, North Shields. The reason for this had nothing to do with the people, for the people of all the parishes I have served have always given me cause for rejoicing. But the thing that made us happy there was our freedom. We had so much to do among the people of the housing estate that a church building which required little maintenance, and in which we were able to experiment meant that the Liturgy and Worship were a living thing.
First of all the building was small, it would only seat about eighty and that meant that the church was always full. On good days and especially in summer it was not unknown for the people to be standing outside and taking part in the mass whilst looking through the windows. On other days they had to be accommodated in the vestry after fourteen choir boys (who never missed) and the servers had gone into church. We were able to move the altar where we wished and were probably one of the first churches in Northumberland with a ‘central altar’ with the priest sitting behind it facing the people, although at that time we were not daring enough to face the congregation for the Eucharistic offering.
Above the church or worship room or space, or whatever name the Eucharistic area acquires at any fashionable time, we had the hall. Immediately after mass the congregation would ascend to the parish breakfast and parish business would be done. All would have to be out in time for Sunday School at eleven which took place both up and downstairs. Kindergarten aloft and juniors below in the Eucharistic space. What opportunities for teaching. One week a mass with baptism others mass and teaching. Evensong was at 6pm and we had about 15, which in the small room looked a lot and was encouraging. Numbers were no different then as they are now and were fifty years ago. Empty churches are those which are too big and unnecessary to accommodate the local congregation which is always going to be small.
Parish Breakfast with Fr Bunker upstairs at the old St Hilda's
Upkeep was always an easy problem. If the organ broke down we shoved it on to the rubbish heap and procured one from someone’s house. If the piano bust we chucked it out. Prayer books we printed our own. No need for faculties for the furniture was all moveable and disposable as the priest and people decided. The aesthetics were to be found in the simplicity of detail and worshipping lives of the people themselves. Of course the congregation had the same problems of personal relations with God and among themselves as as the Christian body always has, but they were unencumbered with the need to raise great amounts of money to keep an unnecessary plant no matter how beautiful in operation.
Sunday School with Fr Bunker
What days those were, the church always seemed crowded, with 100 in the Sunday School and 80 - 90 communicants, 14 choirboys and 16 servers we could outstrip the parish church which was a great Gothic edifice by [John Loughborough} Pearson and always a charge on the Vicar’s nerves, always having great turnover on the choir and never having as many servers and servants as the ‘daughter church’.
Mass at the old St Hilda's - Fr Bunker assisted by Fr George Channell
Then of course there were the house groups which met regularly. There was much to get one’s teeth into: Honest to God, Evanstone, the Liturgical Movement, Biblical Theology, New Ways of Looking at the Bible, Men’s Groups for non-believers, groups for questioning believers.
This may seem to be a nostalgic look at the past. But I think not. For what the Parish and People movement now propose as being very radical we worked out as a norm in the situation we found ourselves. The only thing we did not have to do was to demolish ha church building that was unwieldy. And that was the cause of our success.
We did of course build a new church on the avant-garde lines that we had been working out, both liturgically and evangelically. The new church catered for a greater number of bodies at worship. I wonder now whether were right in building such a big building in the hope of a large congregation. Ought our church worship rooms to be smaller than can accommodate the congregation? Far better a full house with people standing than a barn seating 500 with 30 scattered around the area. I am not advocating a community centre with worship room tucked away somewhere but just what we had to put up with Marden all those years ago. A church worship area with a meeting hall on top, plus a toilet and kitchen. No more is needed. It is cheap to run and allows people to put their energies where needed in daily living. Psychologically it gives a congregation hope for the church is always full, and if it is full then they are more likely to turn out to study groups and house meetings because they might be missing from the gang.
See also: Fr Bunker in Halifax (1989) (click on link)