Before I write this chapter it needs to be said that I recognise the dangers of writing about my own period at the church. I hope that what is written here reflects the historical truth and not inaccurate personal memories of what I thought really happened.
I came to Stalybridge with very few fixed ideas with perhaps one exception. I believed and still believe passionately in Shared, or as some would say Collaborative Ministry. This meant that my initial objective was to break down the "barriers" between the Vicar and the people and to establish a working relationship that would become the basis for parish planning in the future. By 1980, not only had the incumbent left the parish, but so too had the Readers and so I was very much on my own but fortunately with two enthusiastic and supportive wardens.
It was in the first few months that I felt God was calling me to approach someone in the congregation to help me in my task and so in August of that year I found myself on the doorstep of a rather bemused Philip Brierley who I asked to become a Lay Reader in the church. Philip began training the following January; and so it began.
For 140 years the church had celebrated Holy Communion in the traditional eastward manner with the priest standing remotely at the east end separated by a long chancel. This did not seem right and so in October, 1980 discussions were held in the PCC about the possibility of bringing the altar forward to enable the priest to face the congregation. This was accepted - though not wholeheartedly - for comments like, "you will look as if you are serving fish and chips", or worse still, "it will spoil the service for me", were not uncommon but change we did. People soon saw the value in this and "felt more part of the Communion Service" and so on Advent Sunday, 1980 the first regular westward celebration was held. The prayer desks which had up to this point been in the Sanctuary were moved, along with the chairs, to the rear of the building to form Wardens Stalls.
The congregation at that time was made up of mainly older, more established people, with a few younger members. I made it clear that I would not visit them on a maintenance basis but only from need as the next few years were to be spent in "knocking on doors" and generally bringing the church into a higher profile in the area. Mission is a difficult concept let alone a practice, but with some help from a small band we began to visit the Arlies estate. Very soon numbers increased and the work of "evangelism" became easier as the new, and many of the older members, took up the challenge. Shared Ministry began to bite and I feel it would be true to say that from the end of 1980 the parish never stood still and the desire to change and to move ahead was a characteristic of the whole community.
1981 proved to be a year of considerable change and of new beginnings. People in the church felt that the general condition of the building was in reasonable repair but that the decoration of the worship area needed some radical thought. The PCC debated the issue of a re decoration scheme and it was agreed that a major scheme should be adopted and that a faculty should be submitted to the Diocese for this purpose. This was to be the first step in faith taken during my time as incumbent for we had no idea where the money might come from, but faced with a bill of around £5,500, we decided to put the job to tender.
The walls of the building were in a dilapidated condition and were painted in "battleship grey"; the ceiling was blue with stars painted on it and this was repeated in the hall upstairs. The scheme was for the decoration of the church alone, but this was not in fact what transpired.
Here was the first indication that the Lord was with us, for one member of the congregation was married to a Painter and Decorator who owned his own business. Mr Derek Stout took on the contract and tried to reduce the overall costs to a minimum. Work began in February 1981 and a simple but ingenious scheme was devised by Gladys and Colin Spencer to raise the money. They asked one hundred people to give an extra £1 per week for a year. The idea caught on very quickly indeed and funds began to pour in. With other fund raising activities the "Decorating Fund" was closed in less than a year and by the time the re decoration was complete, we were able to meet the costs in full. Derek did not only decorate the church but, for the same cost, decorated the whole building and gave us a beautiful worship and recreational centre.
The ceilings were in "Huntington red" and the walls in Magnolia. The pillars were slightly darker than the walls and the high arches were in blue relief; this, with the ceiling illuminated by spot lighting, gave the building a warm feeling. It was amazing how such a simple change could alter the atmosphere of a church, but it did.
It was also in 1981 that the old vicarage was sold and a new property bought on Tintagel Court off Astley Road. The old semi-detached Victorian vicarage on Stamford Street was considered to be too large and uneconomical. This caused concern for both the parish and my own family, but in the end it was agreed that a move to a new property would be the best option for the parish. The house on Stamford Street was first used as a vicarage during the time of Leonard Eakins and Kenneth Langton and Robin Morris had lived in the house and it was indeed a shame to leave it.
1981 was also the year the village of Heyrod first had its "worship centre". For many months the "Hall Committee" had been working to raise funds to build, and then to extend, the property on John Street. This was an enormous enterprise, but funds were raised quite quickly from a relatively small community. Negotiations began in January to use the building in a multi-purpose role as a base for worship. This was not to suggest that the building should become a daughter church of St George but an opportunity for those who were infirm or unable to attend the church to have a regular pattern of worship, thus bringing the village together in a spiritual endeavour. The hall was dedicated and blessed on the 11th July, 1981 in an ecumenical service involving the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. It was a very wet Saturday but this did not spoil the festivities.
The first ecumenical service was held on Harvest Sunday, the 29th September, 1981. From that date there have been monthly services, usually of an ecumenical nature, with the only exceptions being on Feast Days of the church when Holy Communion services have been held. Sadly the Roman Catholic Church did not participate in these services but this was purely for practical reasons and the difficulty arising over the times of their Masses. This venture established closer links between the village which, up to that time, had felt isolated from the rest of the parish.
The year of 1982 saw the tragic death of a young man called Colin Press who was killed in a motor bike accident. His family asked that a memorial of some kind be erected in his memory and they finally decided upon a "Book of Remembrance" which now is sited in the north west corner of the worship area. Harry Garnett made the cabinet and this has become a much used feature of the church.
1982 saw significant developments within the congregation of the church both in numbers and commitment. Many new people started to arrive at this stage and became involved in the "mission of the church". This ought to have been a year where the evangelistic activities of St George's should have been the sole concern, but sadly this was not allowed to happen as history repeated itself once again. The winter of 1981-82 was typical of many during the 1980s, where little snow fell but there were periods of very wet days with heavy and persistent rain. The rain continued throughout January and February and into the month of March. This endless rain resulted in a land slip. A portion of the retaining wall at the site of the old church collapsed into the river but this was not a serious incident and no significant damage resulted. What it did do was re-open the whole issue of the responsibility for the graveyard, a debate which had raged for the past seven years.
It was very difficult to determine exactly who was responsible for the maintenance of the yard and for the re-building of the wall but after a great deal of negotiation, it was agreed that the Borough Council would not oppose a "Closure Order" submitted to the Privy Council providing the church would make a contribution to the re building of the retaining wall. This was agreed and designs for the wall were submitted to the Council and to the church. The Diocese contributed £2,000 towards the costs involved and this amount was deemed adequate by the Borough to undertake the building of a Gabion wall at a cost of £12,500. A Gabion wall is a structure of separate sections of wire baskets holding rubble and earth in a fixed position - this allows for drainage and offers considerable strength to the structure. Work was due to begin early in 1983.
The winter of 1982/83 proved no better than that of the previous year, and in January a further land slip occurred exposing the end of a large coffin and taking a large section of the wall and a great deal of earth into the river. It was obvious that immediate action would be needed to repair the wall and reclaim the yard.
Exhumations began almost immediately on a very cold day in February. In all, the remains of seventeen bodies were cremated under the direction of the Public Health Authority, but one fascinating fact was "unearthed". It was discovered that a family vault had been disturbed some years before. Old records show that around 1820 a notorious grave robber called Captain Sellars and his accomplices were known to wait by the old Pack Horse Inn below the church. At the dead of night they would climb up the hill to the church yard and "rob" the graves. This particular vault showed signs of such activities for the coffin lids were off, some coffins were standing on their ends and all were empty.
The work of the grave diggers and of the builders was soon completed and the wall at last made safe with sufficient drainage to prevent, or so we are assured, any further land slip in the future. There we hope the matter will now rest.
1983 saw two other significant events. In this year the "Rose Queen" brought together the majority of her surviving predecessors. The event took place in May and was a happy occasion. The idea of a "Rose Queen" goes back to pre war days and began as a Sunday School event where the holder of the office visited other churches as an ambassador of St George's. The first "Queen" was crowned over 50 years ago and it was especially good to have one of the earliest "Queens", Mrs Dorothy Hall (nee Lomas), in the church at the reunion. The photograph shows the group of former office holders with the then current "Queen" Nicola Clough and her Retinue. Overleaf is a complete list of the 45 people who have held the office of Rose Queen in the church of St George spanning the years 1931 -1989.
1931 Kathleen Cropper 1967 Nan Wadsworth
1932 Dorothy Lomas 1968 Christine Barrow
1933 Annie Lister 1969 Christine Tonge
1934 Hilda Gee 1970 Lynn Roberts
1935 Annie Hatton 1971 Janette Wilkinson
The war years 1972 Ann Dyson
1950 Jean Howarth 1973 Tracey Bradshaw
1951 Irene Whitehead 1974 Alice Clarke
1952 Jean Priestley 1975 Sharon Finan
1953 Enid Newton 1976 Julie Bamber
1954 Margaret Stanley 1977 Janet Davies
1955 Dorothy Butterworth 1978 Karen Clayton
1956 Lily Crompton 1979 Alison Davies
1957 Joan Ridgway 1980 Amanda Williams
1958 Joan Ridgway 1981 Joanne Bradshaw
1959 Wendy West 1982 Nicola Clough
1960 Wendy West 1983 Heather Davies
1961 Jacqueline Moss 1984 Angela Williams
1962 Christine Riley 1985 Tracy Thomson
1963 Irene Ridgway 1986 Wendy Allsopp
1964 Sylvia Tonge 1987 Yvonne Allsopp
1965 Sheila Bailey 1988 Michelle Styan
1966 Ann Neville 1989 Lisa Humphreys
The second event, and some would say closer to the heart of the incumbent, was the beginning of St George's Cricket Club which that year joined the Denton League and which has continued to play in that league, with varied success, up to this time. Unlike my predecessors, I never reached the dizzy heights of the Captaincy but enjoyed playing as a member of the team for all but one year since it began.
On the 25th May, 1984 Philip Brierley was licensed as the Reader of the church and his contribution to the worship and development of the church must be counted as an integral part of its "success". Philip's major interest and gifts lay in liturgy and he was solely responsible for many of the initiatives which have since become the liturgical norm at the church.
In July, 1985 we welcomed to our parish the Revd Christopher Atkinson who became the stipendiary curate. Chris was a Canadian who had studied at Manchester University and then at the Queens College, Birmingham and who brought a whole new perspective of ministry to the parish. Chris was a lively but sensitive person whose personal gifts were welcomed by the parish as a whole but especially by the villagers of Heyrod where he lived. In that village he exercised a most valuable ministry cementing the ties between that small community and the "parish over the hill".
We were fortunate indeed, for Chris was married to Anna Sorensen, also a graduate of Manchester and who trained at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford. Anna hoped to be ordained deacon, but this path was not then open to women and so she chose to wait rather than compromise her principles. Anna was licensed to the parish and this was a new departure for St George's as it welcomed its first female minister in its history. Anna gave good service to the parish in a part-time capacity, taking special responsibility for the housebound. She was eventually licensed as a Parish Deacon in the parish of Holy Trinity, Ashton, in October, 1986.
By this time the church had moved very much along the path of a Shared Ministry, but it was time to take stock of the first five years and to determine what we had achieved and what targets could be set for the next five year period. With this in mind, the Bishop of Middleton, The Rt Revd Donald Tytler, led a Parish Weekend using the newly prepared document "Forward in Ministry" as a basis for our discussions. This proved to be a turning point for the parish and enabled the people to focus on, and face the issues that were most pressing. As a result of the conference new groups were established where people took on greater responsibility and Shared Ministry really came alive. A Worship Group, Bible Study, a Young People's Group and many other initiatives were undertaken, all "staffed" and organised by the laity; eventually House Groups emerged as a natural progression of these initiatives. From that point on the emphasis for the development of the parish and of the community was very different as the church looked at how it might best serve the area in which it existed.
At the end of 1985 following the death of one of the church members, a faculty was applied for so that the church might have an Aumbrey to enable the Holy Sacrament to be kept in the church. The Aumbrey was dedicated during the evening service on 26th January, 1986 in memory of Mrs Alice Brierley who died on the 12th October, 1985 and of Mr Harry Wright who died on the 4th May, 1981. This proved an invaluable asset as the House Communions were then numbering in excess of 70 people each month.
Throughout the years, St George's church has had a good reputation regarding its musical abilities, for the choir had grown and developed under the direction of a series of excellent organists and choirmasters. What had deteriorated was the organ. This was a Wren organ and, following the closure of the old church, became a hybrid of the two organs from within the churches. By 1986 the organ was in disrepair and vast sums of money were being "thrown away" in trying to maintain it. The PCC decided that the organ should be restored at a staggering cost of £26,000. Once again a great step in faith was taken and a faculty was applied for and was granted to enable the work to begin. Following the good example of the "Decorating Fund", the "Organ Pipe Appeal" sought to replicate the £1 per week for a year system but this time involving a much larger number of people.
Once again the people responded wonderfully. The money for the restoration of the organ poured in and many fund raising efforts were co-ordinated, perhaps the largest of these being the Flower Festival. This was a magnificent event and hundreds of people came to view the spectacular scene. The vast majority of ideas for the event must be credited to Mrs Susan Hargreaves and we were particularly grateful to the Ashton Flower Club who constructed most of the displays. Many people took part at various levels of organisation and the event raised hundreds of pounds towards the appeal.
The work of restoration was undertaken by George Sixsmith and Sons, organ builders from Mossley, who completely revoiced the organ. A new console and winding system was constructed, completely revolutionising the instrument but maintaining the high quality of its original sound. By the end of 1986, work on the organ was finished and a recital was given by Mr Ronald Frost, an eminent organist from the Manchester area.
The "Staff" of the parish was increased in 1987 by the addition of the Revd Robert (Bob) Nicholson who was a Non-Stipendiary Minister. Bob had retired some two years previously as a Superintendent of Police and he brought to the parish a wealth of experience. Bob's part time ministry became almost full-time as he took on more and more, but his was to be a short ministry at St George's for he left to serve in the parish of St Michael and All Angels, Ashton in the October following my departure from the church. Sadly Bob became ill at the latter part of that year and suffered a heart attack in the January of 1988. He died soon after and left a big space in this church and in those of St Michael and Christ Church, Ashton where he had served as a layman for many years.
By 1987 the role of the incumbent was that of Pastor and "temporary technical assistant", as the Bishop of Middleton refers to the clergy,- an ideas person, a kind of resource. My final contribution was to suggest the idea of a nave altar and platform. This idea was met with surprise but also with great interest by the PCC who visited other churches so as to appreciate the idea in a practical manner. The shape of the church dictates that the High Altar is some distance away from the congregation, as indeed is the case with the majority of churches built in that period. This did not readily embrace the concept of a collaborative ministry of the order I had envisaged, nor of the centrality, in a physical or spiritual sense, of the Communion service. The PCC applied for a faculty which was worded in the following way:
"To construct a nave platform by extending, in wood, the existing chancel. It is intended that the pulpit should be re-sited in its original position and form part of the platform. The platform will have a communion rail following the shape of the outer edge but not totally enclosing the whole platform. A new altar will be commissioned and placed in the centre of the new platform area.
Necessary furniture (benches, table etc) will be moveable to allow the platform a dual function".
Money for this venture and indeed for re-carpeting the platform area and the aisle of the church was raised by gifts and fund raising activities as well as specific donations to dedicate the platform and altar as memorials in the name of various people. The parish responded magnificently and dug deep, yet again, and found the money.
It would be wrong to suggest that this idea was openly welcomed by everyone for it was not. As one might expect with such a radical suggestion, information had to be given so that people could understand what was envisaged and how it would affect the worship of the church. We were very grateful for a scale model made by David Booth which helped focus our minds. By October, 1987 the platform was finished, the area completely carpeted, including the aisle, but the idea of re-siting the pulpit was delayed. This delay was for various reasons not least because it was not possible to determine the final position in which the pulpit should be constructed.
It was in October, 1987 that I left the parish to take up a new responsibility as Diocesan Director of Ordinands for Manchester.
I left Stalybridge with a heavy heart knowing that my task was incomplete and that there was much left undone, but recognising too that God was calling me to a different ministry. I knew also that God would call someone to Stalybridge who would continue the work with new ideas but with a readiness to build upon, and share in, the collaborative ministry of the parish.
Following my departure an interregnum of four months followed before the appointment of my successor. During this time the parish was maintained by Chris Atkinson, ably assisted by the Church Wardens Alun Davies and John Ollerenshaw. Harry Garnett, in recognition of his loyal service and contribution to the church, had been created Warden Emeritus.