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St Mary’s Church, Hitcham Lane, Burnham

St Mary’s Church, Hitcham Lane, Burnham

Publisher: Church Building Magazine Issue 114


Author: JBKS Architects

I have come so that you can have real and eternal life, more and better life than you ever dreamed of

These words of Jesus (John 10:10, The Message) are quoted on St Mary's website and inspire their vision which says, 'Drawing our community into a loving relationship with the living God'. The design of any church building project must always begin with a clear understanding of the Church's vision. Although the Christian Church worldwide shares common beliefs, each church is unique in its calling and specific mission. Each church is made up of individually gifted people, with God-given commissions to reach out to local communities.

Hitcham is a hamlet a mile to the west of Burnham in Buckinghamshire. The little church is idyllic in its setting. It is built of flint, stone, and brick, with a red tiled roof. It has a pretty brick tower and sits sweetly in the open countryside, with only an ancient characterful low wall separating the churchyard from distant views across the fields beyond.

The inside of the church was set up in the traditional arrangement with pews on pew platforms in the narrow nave, choir stalls in the chancel, and the sanctuary at the east end.

St Mary's was like many traditional churches. Although very beautiful in their way, they are often cold and damp, and can only be used in one way. Often they have acquired clutter over the years, and speak of past centuries. Many people find them threatening.

St Mary's was too dark, too small, too inflexible, too cold, and too damp to suit its modern-day function. It was in need of change and an update, but one which was respectful of the intrinsic beauty of its ancient building.

Change began four years ago when the Church agreed that their problem – one of growth and success – had reached the point when something serious should be done. Sunday morning services were at capacity in the modest 70-seat church and there was immense pressure on the adjoining church room for use by a wide variety of Church and community groups throughout the week.

Interestingly, being filled to capacity did not stop the growth. It continued. The Church needed to be very inventive to find short-term solutions. The local Methodist Church has allowed them to use some of their room for Sunday morning children's activities, and other venues have been found for weekday functions.

Church growth is a good problem to have. St Mary's active community involvement, and meeting people's practical and spiritual needs has led to dynamic growth. Accommodating the growth in its modest buildings was quite another problem. The church is an 800-year old grade I listed building in Buckinghamshire greenbelt. Presumption is against change.

In 2004 the Church approached Robert Maguire, the highly acclaimed church architect. He proposed extending the vestry and re-ordering the church to suit modern worship.

After considering Robert Maguire's initial proposals, the Church approached the Oxford Diocesan Advisory Committee, and statutory amenity societies for their informal opinions. They were cautiously supportive of the principles. The Church was greatly encouraged and the PCC decided first to focus on the internal reordering of the church, to make an impact right away. To the great credit of the Church, mostly through sacrificial giving by the congregation members, they raised the necessary funds.

JBKS Architects were commissioned to do the detailed design and the implementation stage, after Robert Maguire's retirement. Stan Randell and Co, a building firm based in Christchurch Dorset was engaged to do the work. Although they came from so far away they did the work brilliantly, and completed it just eight weeks after making a start in April 2008. The church has been transformed into a beautiful bright new place, free from clutter, spacious, and with the vivid colours of the stained glass windows shining through the clean white lime-washed walls.

The pews and pew platforms have been removed, and the floor has been levelled. Ceramic floor tiles of dark slate colour unify the floor into one surface, making the church feel spacious. Underfloor heating warms the floor and offers an economical solution to the major problem of heating a large uninsulated space. Wall mounted up-lights brighten up the roof structure, giving the white ceiling a warm glow. Down-lights sparkle down the side walls.

The tower has been screened off from the nave by means of a frameless glass screen. The reflections in the glass add brilliance to the feel of the space. Behind this is a new mezzanine floor, built as a bell-ringing platform, so that the lower tower room is freed up as a crèche or a small meeting room.

The chancel has been freed of the choir stalls, and now reads as a wide clear space, adding a sense of grace and spaciousness to the whole church. The altar is moveable now, within the chancel, and can be positioned traditionally at the east end, or further forward near the chancel arch.

The dedication service on the 6th July 2008 was delightful. The 90 chairs were arranged in gentle curves. Every one was occupied. Children participated in the service from the new mezzanine floor. The discreet projector shone onto the electrically operated screen and the new sound system helped fill the space with the celebration of praise and worship.

After the service the chairs were rearranged around tables in the church and the worship space became a splendid banqueting hall. Lunch was served and fellowship continued well into the afternoon.

This wonderful Church family occasion was a fitting illustration of the way in which the newly reordered space will provide for the variety of needs and styles of worship that suit this thriving 21st century church. The large open space, all on one level can be used in many different ways. It is not only practical but also beautiful. It speaks to those in it of their worth in their loving relationship with God. The Church has gained more than just space. Their building communicates their vision. Ancient beauty and modernity combine to flourish together.

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