Published: 06:00, 18 August 2019
Hundreds of parishioners, residents and schoolchildren joined forces in a seven-year mission to save their church.
They took on the Diocese of Rochester and the Church Commissioners in a battle to keep St Barnabas’ Church in Gillingham open. And finally, their tireless efforts were rewarded - and people power won the day.
Now the tight-knit community is united again in a bid to raise £80,000 to get new heating installed in the historic building.
They have less than a year to get the cash or risk losing a £20,000 grant from the diocese towards the project.
The church, which dates back to 1888, was deemed not viable because of financial problems, a dwindling congregation and its proximity to other places of worship.
The diocese felt St Barnabas should therefore close, but the people of Gillingham disagreed.
Having emerged as victors, the church in Nelson Road is thriving and an integral part of the community.
Their fundraising has already kicked off and they have about £35,000 made from boot fairs and coffee mornings. And last Saturday, a further £526 was raised at an international gourmet food drop-in session.
Stalwart campaigner and church officer Belinda Beckhelling said the community had saved the church five years ago and was confident it would once again rise to the occasion.
She said: “We have done it before and will do it again. We have proved that there is a place for St Barnabas in the community. This not a particularly well-off area, but we have shown that people power can work.”
During the campaign to save the church, Mrs Beckhelling, a former primary school head teacher, invited the Church Commissioners to St Barnabas so they could could see first-hand the strength of feeling locally.
A delegation compiled a 600-page dossier and a 500-signature petition and went to their offices in London to plead for a reprieve.
The influential Church of England body was persuaded to refer the impending closure back to the Bishop of Rochester for reconsideration.
Children from nearby Napier Primary School bombarded them with letters after carrying out a survey of people at an afternoon club.
At the time Mrs Beckhelling said: “I’m sure the children made a difference. You can’t tell children what to write and I have written to them to say thank you.”
Today, the church is going strong - it has a well-attended pre-school, PCSOs hold a surgery there and it supports the Medway food bank and night shelter in the winter.
Mrs Beckhelling said: “As you can see it has now become an active church with a real presence in the area.”