The Plum: making Chester's Garden Lane somewhere special

15 November 2023

Uniting Church on Garden Lane has long been part of the community just outside Chester City Walls known as the Garden Quarter. As membership numbers reached a new low, the church looked ready for closure until relationships that had developed locally over many years became a catalyst for change when, during Covid, a new conversation emerged between the church and  the community.

Alan Johnson is the secretary at the Uniting Church, an LEP with the United Reformed Church, “Prior to the pandemic we were starting to hold conversations with neighbours, the local school and the students who study at Chester University.  During COVID we were on Zoom and, in that time when people were allowed to walk outside together, we were able to continue the conversations. Discussions began to revolve around what people wanted from their church in the community.”

When the current minister, Revd Ceri Gardner, arrived in Chester in 2020, Garden Lane wasn’t even on the profile as it seemed destined to close.

“As the conversations became more focused, they developed into what later became known as 'The Plum', the church being on Plum Terrace”, said Revd Christine M Jones, a retired minister who lives on Garden Lane and was one of those who helped engage with the local community.  “The Plum is a group of people, some from the Uniting Church, some from other churches, some unchurched but all neighbours with an interest in making Garden Lane somewhere special with the Uniting Church at its centre.”

the-plumPlum decided to survey the community to find out what they wanted from their church and as a result they began arranging and supporting art, theatre, festivals and events caring for and welcome, refugees and vulnerable people.

Plum became a catalyst for the community to support their new Ukrainian neighbours, hosting summer picnics and celebrations for St Nicholas and Ukrainian Independence days.  ‘Tutti' was a performing arts workshop where UK and Ukrainian children could be together. ‘Art in the Attic’ was a series of visual art workshops for Ukrainian children. As the church began to expand its scope, there was physical theatre where adult sanctuary seekers could share their stories. This year, the Uniting Church will also feature as part of Chester Contemporary Fringe festival which runs through to December.

The church has developed its community worship through the celebration of festivals at Harvest, Christmas and Remembrance said Revd Ceri, “A splendid Harvest Tea was put on by members of our church, this was followed by a community service of Harvest Thanksgiving where 23 people of all ages were welcomed to the celebration, including two local families with young children.”

It had been thought that the church would start to drop its regular Sunday services in favour of alternative or weekday services. But engaging with the community had a surprising outcome according to Revd Ceri, “While we have been doing all these festivals, people just started to walk in on a Sunday morning as well. We thought Sunday morning was finished as it was, we thought our services would have to be very different but people have just started to join us.

“We still have the original members who were there when I arrived. But now we also have a good handful of people aged around 40 or 50. We've had three or four young couples come in. Some of them have stayed. We have a young couple with a baby and a young guy who's finished his masters in Chester enter into membership.” A Methodist local preacher in her final years at Chester University moved in next door this September!

Revd Christine says that the Plum group are still looking to develop the church’s offer to the community, “We have been running pop up cafes for a while now. Next year we are looking at a permanent space where we can offer increased after-school activities for local children, working with a charity to provide work place training in catering and support for intergenerational arts based activities.”

The church is now working with TMCP (Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes) on how it can become even more involved locally by sharing its leadership to see the Uniting Church truly become a “church in the community” with it managed by a mixed team, half from the community and half from the church.

Alan, the secretary, commented, “We look forward to 2024, with conversations around greater sharing between church and community; how the pattern of worship can be adjusted to become more inclusive and how we build on the creative arts activities which prove so effective in crossing boundaries of language and culture.”