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History of St Mary's Church, Horsham

Guy Bridgewater, Vicar of Horsham

Canon Guy Bridgewater, the vicar of Horsham, has a passion for a diverse range of music. But he is not a fan of rap.

He didn't go into specifics, but we can assume that covers such sub-genres as Gangsta rap, grime, G-funk, east coast, west coast and probably electro freestyle.

Whilst you may not find too many Wu-Tang Clan records in his collection, the vicar has demonstrated his own rapping skills at St Mary's Church.

It's not even an isolated incident!

He has two styles; a contemporary rap and one '17th Century' style of rapping, which suggests The Sugarhill Gang, who released Rapper's Delight in 1979, were not the rapping pioneers they are perceived to be!

You may find the thought of a vicar rapping at an ancient church in the historic heart of Horsham cringe-worthy, but the vicar knows what he is doing. "I do it as a bit of fun, and if you do it knowingly people really enjoy it," he said. "I do have feedback from the congregation, and they like there to be laughter in church.

"Even when you are wearing robes and conducting a liturgical service, there is an opportunity to be warm and informal.In the end, the church is about a community of people with God at the heart. That's about sharing our lives – the good and the bad – caring for and encouraging one another. It needs to be fun, so there's no need to be po-faced.

"It's much better to acknowledge that something weird just happened, rather than everyone being embarrassed about it!"

Guy Bridgewater, who is married with two grown-up children, arrived in Horsham seven years ago, having previously been the Residentiary Canon at Gloucester Cathedral. For nine years, he worked there with the Bishop to help grow the church across the county.

But there came a time when he was ready to work with people in a parish of his own. Guy said: "Everything was being delivered second-hand. I was always one step removed - giving advice, training and a sense of direction to the local clergy. I was ready for my own adventure, rather than helping others with theirs.

"I did visit Horsham and had a look at the church. When there is a vacancy, clergy will often go and sit amongst the congregation, but you are always spotted!

"We are a team parish of five churches here in Horsham, and these cover most shades of the rainbow, in that there offer a variety of styles of worship. You have an Anglican style of worship, one that is more Anglo-Catholic, so more formal in its worship style, and two that are more contemporary and evangelical.I'm also Rural Dean for the area, so I oversee the smaller parishes too.

"So there is a lovely spread. It's the Church of England in miniature here in Horsham, and part of the attraction of coming here and being the team rector was to maintain some of the diversity I had experienced in Gloucester."
Canon Guy Bridgewater is 'Team Rector' of five churches. They include St Leonard's Church on Cambridge Road, St Mark's in North Heath Lane (built to replace the original church, of which only the spire remains within the Royal and Sun Alliance offices) Holy Trinity in Rushams Road, and St John's Church in Broadbridge Heath.
He is, however, the vicar of only one – the ancient parish church of St Mary's at the bottom of The Causeway.

Upon arriving in Horsham, Guy's first big challenge was to re-assess the structure of the five churches to ensure they worked together as a parish team.

He said: "For some time, the structure has been that we have a team parish with vicars in place at the other four churches, with the team rector based at St Mary's. But in the past, St Mary's perhaps had a paternalistic attitude and that caused tension between the churches.

"Most of the principle office holders were based at St Mary's, and there was a sense that although we had said we were equal churches, it didn't feel like that to everyone. Some of the other four churches had grown strongly in the years before I arrived and were asking if it was time to break up the team and for each to be more autonomous.

"When I arrived that was clearly something I would have to resolve. We appointed an external consultant to listen to everybody's views and came up with a plan of action that we have been following ever since. Now, we still have the team parish, but in the case of each church we give as much autonomy as possible and as much genuine parity as possible. Although I am team rector, I don't use that title very much. We are the vicars of our
respective churches.

The Oldest Building in‚ÄąTown

When AAH first walks into the church, more than a dozen people are decorating the church in an incredible floral display, ready for the Flower Festival.

Just as cobblers display a talent for cutting keys, it would seem that church goers have a talent for flower arranging! But it certainly doesn't date back to St Mary's origins...

As far as is known, St Mary's started life in the Norman period, and remains of the original church can be found in the tower, the west door and the north west wall. It has been suggested that a timber Saxon church may have preceded it, but no trace of this building has ever been found.

However, the church that we see dominating the landscape today was built and dedicated to St Mary the Virgin in about 1247. At that time, tithes were endowed to the Benedictine Nunnery, founded in Rusper in 1190, and it was nuns that in 1231 appointed the first vicar of Horsham, Robert of Wallingford.

Not a great deal has changed in terms of the church's exterior appearance over 800 years. The clerestory roof over the nave was raised to its present height in the late 13th century, the chancel arcades were rebuilt in the 14th century and during the next 100 years or so the porch was built and new chapels were added on the north, east and south sides.

St Mary's escaped much of the desecration that was common during the religious upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, mediaeval wall paintings were whitewashed over. The west wall was painted with murals of the Last Supper and Annunciation and scenes of the Passion decorated the north wall of the nave. There were further New Testament scenes along the south wall.

They were lost to white paint during the reign of Edward VI, and although some reproductions were created in 1865, these also have now been painted out. Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the church's history came in 1615, when the steeple was struck by lightning and set on fire. A large bell was damaged and a girl called Elizabeth Strode, who was standing near the belfry door, was killed.

Horsham was also relatively untouched by the military struggles of the Civil War, although it has been suggested that close examination of the angels below the arches of the chancel shows their heads had been sawn off at about that time. They were restored in the 19th Century.

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, the church building became unstable. The pillars began to lean to the north east, partly due to sinking foundations. Temporary rescue measures were adopted, including truss girders across the nave and chancel, and the strengthening of the exterior buttresses.

8,000. An architect, S.S Teulon, well-known for building and restoring churches, was sympathetic to the history and went to great lengths to preserve its mediaeval architecture.

Teulon corrected the precarious lean in the nave, added a new south aisle, and threw open various chapels to the main body of the church. At the same time, the roof was repaired and re-adjusted, the east window was rebuilt to a 15th Century design (financed by the Ladies' Committee) and the tower, spire and belfry were also restored.

The Church re-opened on 14th November 1865 in the presence of the Bishop of Chichester, and a sermon was preached to a congregation of 1,500 people by the Bishop of Oxford. Recent renovations have included the refurbishment of the Holy Trinity Chapel, containing memorials to the fallen of two World Wars, and in 1991 the 1865 'Father' Willis organ was restored.

Anyone walking by the church cannot fail to notice the Bethany, which in 2004 became only the second addition to the church in almost 500 years!

It was consecrated by the Bishop of Chichester, the Right Reverend John Hind, and houses a choir vestry, two meeting rooms and various offices. Building was delayed by an extensive archaeological survey, after which human remains were reverently re-interred elsewhere in the churchyard...

Today, St Mary's has a membership of about 750 people

That is about half of the total membership of the five parish churches. On a Sunday morning, about 280 adults and 50 children will form the congregation.

Whilst St Mary's may have been the first church in town, there are numerous others, all offering different styles of
worship. But Guy says that they all work together for the good of the community.

He said: "I would say that Horsham is quite religious. There are a lot of churches, at last count over 30 and many of them are thriving.

"Our churches are doing really well compared to other parts of the country, and that would be true of the Roman Catholics, it would be true of the Baptists, it would be true of the Methodists, and we have two large 'house' churches with Kingdom Faith and Kings Church.

"The lovely thing about Horsham is that there is genuine collaboration between the churches. To me, it doesn't feel as though we are all 'competing' for people. 'There's a whole variety of personality types and cultures in the parish and we need to provide different styles of worship that suit all people.

"It may be that large, lively churches feel quite threatening to some people who think 'can I handle that amount of public display of emotion?' Some find that very attractive and inspiring, whilst others don't. I don't feel threatened by other churches doing well, as we are doing very well ourselves. If we were losing numbers hand over fist and finding people were not coming here, I might think 'Is God in this? Should we pack up, go home, and join this other church as that's where things are being blessed?' "But that's not the case.

"Interestingly, in terms of church growth across the country, cathedrals are growing strongly, as well as lively new churches with contemporary music and worship bands. There are plenty of people who prefer to slip into the back of a quiet, formal service and be reflective without anyone pressing the flesh and wanting to welcome them.

Being a parish church means being all things to all people. You can't focus on one age group or one cultural group, as a parish church is not defined by its regular congregation but by the area it is serving. At St Mary's, we have a range of services. We have some services with old fashioned prayer, carrying out the liturgy as beautifully as possible with a fantastic choir. We can do the formal stuff, like Evensong, which hasn't really changed and is still very popular.

"But we have the informal stuff too. We have an interactive service twice a month, with guitars, action songs, lots of fun and games. We see about 150 young families for this service, so we provide a whole range."

Horsham Churches Together

HCT is a group that is doing incredible work in the community. It's a collaborative effort between 32 local churches and organises food banks, a night shelter, offers debt advice, pregnancy advice, and helps people from all walks of life in the community.

They even run a successful shop, Horsham Matters, selling second hand furniture and household goods to raise money for local projects. It is one of the many ways that the church is helping to reach people in the town and district.

Guy said: "What sometimes happens in churches is that they can be self-serving. They worry about paying the bills, or worry about an ageing congregation. But it seems to me that in Horsham that is not the primary focus. There's focus on what we can do together. I can't take any credit for that at all. HCT is a shared enterprise running across the churches and it was established long before I arrived."

This communal approach to promoting Christianity could be one of the reasons why so many churches remain so vibrant in the Horsham district. If you start by preaching the gospel, and try to explain to people who God is, then you will find that we live in a culture that is very resistant to this form of advertising.

"Like in advertising, it is better to give an impression of what a lifestyle would be like with something in their lives.
"If we stand on the street corner and start proclaiming Christian doctrine, I think most people would cross the road just to avoid us. I don't like the thought of selling a message. The message is wrapped up in people being together and discovering God along the way.

"If you attempted to drag along an average man to a church service, the chances are he will find something else he'd rather do. But if you say to him 'The church is arranging a five-a-side football tournament on Bank Holiday, would you come along and help referee or run the barbecue?' then he may well agree.

"It may be that he starts thinking that we are doing good things in the community, all voluntarily, and senses that this is something valuable. It may not be church-focused, but it may lead to something else that is a step closer to what the church is doing.

"Men in particular want to do things. They want to roll their sleeves up and bring their strengths to something, rather than sit there singing hymns. They want to be part of something. Our motto at St Mary's is 'A church
inspired by God's passion for the world.'

As churches, we ought to be looking outwards to serve the people amongst who we live, to demonstrate God's love and put into practice what we believe."

There are many, of course, who do not believe.

In modern times, a wave of prominent atheists has presented views that have resonated with young people.
The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, has sold over two million copies of his book The God Delusion, and his lectures have reached many more on video sharing websites.

Rather than dismiss such views, the vicar of Horsham has explored the work of Dawkins and found his own perspective. It's interesting the proportion of people who have actually read the books compared to the people who have heard a strong set of arguments.

you realise that Dawkins presents a form of fundamentalism that doesn't, in my view, carry an intellectual argument on its own grounds. There are a lot of Aunt Sallys being set up just to be knocked down by people like Richard Dawkins. It is hard line
fundamentalism being pushed, and I have just as much of a problem when such fundamentalism is pushed at the religious end of the scale too.

"I don't believe that biblical accounts such as the story of Noah, Adam and Eve with a talking snake and so on, were ever meant to be taken literally. In my view, they were written almost as picture languages, a different kind of literature.

"These are simple stories that every culture has been able to engage with throughout history, and find meaning and purpose. I personally find meaning in many passages in the Bible.

"I particularly like 'Out-do one another in showing honour.' If we could do that, the world would be rather a different place."

This article was written by Ben Morris, with photos by Toby Phillips for AAH. We are indebted to The Friend's of St Mary's Church, particularly Jane Bowen, for historical documents and information relating to the church. You can find more stories from the church's past, as well as details of services and local projects, at https://www.stmaryshorsham.org.uk/

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