‘We’re not only offering worship, but also comfort’

FULL HOUSE The congregation at St Jude's Church in Southsea.  Picture: Steve Reid (120333-968)
FULL HOUSE The congregation at St Jude's Church in Southsea. Picture: Steve Reid (120333-968)
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Young children chase each other through the rows of chairs as a group of parents chat. The sound of voices fills the air.

But soon they are all seated and there’s not a spare space to be had. It’s Sunday morning and families have come to St Jude’s Church in Southsea to take part in the weekly service.

The packed church is a perfect example of how attendance has been rising across the Portsmouth diocese. There’s been a six per cent increase in regular Anglican worshippers – one of the biggest rises in the country.

In 2010, 15,100 adults and children worshipped in more than 140 Anglican churches in south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, up from 14,200 in 2009. Half of the increase was children and young people.

In the same period St Jude’s has seen its congregation increase from 209 to 265. Reverend Mike Duff, the vicar of St Jude’s, says it has a lot to do with the church being more welcoming. A £1m project has transformed the entrance and inside of the church.

Mike, who’s been at the parish church for the past four years, says: ‘When I arrived the entrance was on the other side of the building through four wooden doors. The church was quite hard to get into, quite offputting. When we put in a brand new entrance, that made it seem more open.’

When the building work was completed in 2009, it changed the face of St Jude’s. Mike explains: ‘The new entrance connects us to the Palmerston Road shopping precinct and now we’ve been asked to head up the Jubilee celebrations in the precinct. It’s really exciting to be part of the community.’

He adds: ‘People see the church as they walk past and it’s open every day now, so people come in and always get a friendly welcome. I think that’s why more people have been coming to us.’

A lot of the church’s congregation are parents with young children. The much larger and accessible entrance makes it easier for them to bring pushchairs and buggies.

As part of the Sunday morning family service, the church has introduced the chance for people to meet and talk to each other. There’s also coffee afterwards, encouraging people to stay and chat.

Mike believes more people are going to church in general because they feel it offers them support, not just religion.

He says: ‘I suspect it’s that kind of time now where churches excel because when the councils cannot offer as many care services because of government cutbacks, people turn to us for guidance.

‘People discover that there are those in the church who care about any difficult situations they might be in. We’re not only offering worship, but also comfort.’

St Jude’s offers a traditional service at 9am on Sundays and a family service at 10.30am, with an informal service on Sunday evening for younger people, which has encouraged more people to come into the church.

Mike says: ‘It has drawn so many people in. I know that numbers are up across the diocese and it’s spectacular. It’s very encouraging and exciting.

‘We want to draw more people in so they feel like they belong. This is their church, not just a place to visit.’

The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev Christopher Foster, thinks the rise in attendance is down to churches in the diocese being more understanding and welcoming. He also feels that some people who are struggling as a result of the economic recession may come to the church for support.

He says: ‘We think that the encouragement of people in their community has helped us to understand people’s needs, to be able to welcome them into church and to help them.

‘I think people look to the church for all sorts of individual reasons. People approach the church to help them celebrate and to help them at times of challenge and difficulty. In my experience there is not a single reason because everyone is an individual.’

He believes that when people go through a traumatic experience in their lives, they tend to turn to the church for reflection.

Bishop Christopher says: ‘People in pressing situations can turn to the church as a service and for support, which is often important in a variety of ways.

‘Churches aren’t Sunday-only enterprises and offer ways to meet people’s needs every day of the week. They’re responding to people’s lives and what activities they like to do.’

He adds: ‘Different styles of worship, some formal and some informal, are important to people. It’s about them feeling like it’s their church.’