Billingshurst Unitarian Chapel
There are, no doubt, churches with a large enough congregation to handle the occasional absence from a Sunday service.
Where a church goer can occasionally skip the prayers and hymns for whatever reason, or perhaps sneak un-noticed to the back pews mid-sermon without it making much difference. However, if you happen to be part of the
congregation at Billingshurst Unitarian Chapel, your absence will surely be noted!
For this tiny chapel, tucked away along a tiny pathway off Billingshurst High Street, has had – by any standards – a tiny congregation. So small, they could car share and have space for the vicar too. But gradually, things are changing at this most unusual of chapels.
Community-focused activities including meditation, poetry and folk music have not only attracted new faces, but also helped to secure a grant that has helped revitalise the chapel.
After the Eversheds
On Saturday 11 April, the chapel was officially re-opened after extensive refurbishment, and Stuart Coupe, who has been taking church services for three years, hopes it'll entice more people to a hidden gem.
He said: "There was a congregation of four and they had all attended for many years. In the past, the church had been largely considered as the Evershed family chapel, as William Evershed built it in 1754 and his family helped to sustain the chapel over the years.
"They were the dominant force here for a long time and that can work against you if the community think of it as a family chapel. But times change and people move on. Susie Evershed - the last in the family line with a strong association to the Chapel – has recently retired from her work. In a way the dispersion of the Evershed
family could, paradoxically, be the thing that helps to save the chapel, in that it is generally seen as an open community chapel.
"When the chapel was built in 1754 it was a dissenting chapel, and often churches not connected to the Orthodox Church were hidden away because they didn't want to stand out too much. Once upon a time it was useful to be small and tucked away but now we would like to let people know we are here!"
Stuart works full time as a teacher at Shelley Primary School in Broadbridge Heath, and was a member of the
congregation at Horsham Unitarian Church before he decided to take on the Billingshurst Chapel three years ago.
"I wanted to be involved a little bit more in ministry work," he said. "The district minister said that Billingshurst was on the verge of closing and I could try and put some energy back into it.
"When you have nothing to lose you are more prepared to take risks, so that's what we did. What you see today is still a fledgling church. The people who are established in the chapel were very open and said 'Do what you need to do in order to keep the place alive.'
"Now we think we are laying some solid foundations and since we've tried to rejuvenate the Church local people have been really encouraging and thankful that we have been able to keep it going as a community concern.
"People in Billingshurst are beginning to see that it is more of a community centre which was really important in our bid to secure an English Heritage grant.
"They could have said 'You have a building that is falling down and you have no congregation, so why is it worth us investing £60,000?' But we were able to tell them about our meditation yoga classes and folk sessions and they could see that we are trying to make it a building for the community and not just for worship on a Sunday morning. They were able to give us money and that has enabled us to save the building."
The grant has meant that there are three new roofs - on the chapel, hall and the toilets - whilst there have been major improvements to drainage too. The work started in November and was completed in January, at which time the small band of regulars redecorated and dealt with the minor repair work.
A Different Philosophy
Services are held twice monthly in order to make the commitment viable for the small congregation, but Stuart believes that there may be more people who find the Unitarian approach better suited to their own outlook.
He said: "Because Unitarians don't have one set of beliefs, we are not in a position to say 'if you believe X,Y or Z then come here and we will service those beliefs.' We don't evangelise, so our message is a quiet one. If you are on a serious spiritual journey and you want to join other people who think seriously about religion, philosophy, spirituality, then come here and we can form an opinion together.
"We might agree on some things and disagree on others but you are welcome here with all of your doubts and all of your joys. I imagine there are people at home, practising prayer and meditation, not realising that there is somewhere open and inclusive like this.
"The structure of the service here is fairly traditional because we think that an aspect of familiarity is important in worship.Our readings are occasionally drawn from the Bible but may be from any spiritual book or even an extract from a newspaper or magazine that has us thinking about a particular issue.
But we are happy to do things differently if the congregation decides that's what they want."
This quiet approach suits the church regulars just fine. Dawn Voice attended the Horsham Unitarian Church along with her husband, but she likes the small services in Billingshurst.
She said: "I like the fact that it is a small congregation here and you are able to get involved and make a difference. I've recently started a community cafe, which we organise once a month. We need to be open for a certain number of days each year and rather than sitting here doing very little we thought we would start a café with a few family games.
"Our four core values here cover the four C's of community, contemplation, creativity and compassion. All of the activities here have at least one of those elements within it."
As well as music events, the church has hosted art exhibitions and craft fairs too. Mike Reinstein, a regular performer, said: "Stuart and Jan are very welcoming. They see themselves as having a cultural role to play in the community, with the music being one aspect of that.
"Often, Stuart will play a couple of songs and one or two people will sing or read poetry, before the main act takes to the stage. It is just a matter of allowing people to express themselves."
There's even been the occasional wedding. Stuart and Jan were married there and managed to squeeze 60 into the church, which can comfortably seat 50. Stuart now presides over two or three weddings a year but would like a few more.
Stuart said: "I feel we are in-between a registry office and a full Orthodox Church. People really enjoy the setting and the fact that it is small and intimate.
"Because we are open and liberal in the way that we do our wedding services, people can say to us 'Can you mention this or do this for our wedding?' Within reason, we are able to
accommodate people's personal needs."
For more details visit http://thechapelatbillingshurst.com/