When Alex Hughes was nearing the end of his time at theological college, he had to fill in a form. It contained a list asking him to state his preferences for the type of parish in which he would prefer to serve.
He laughs ironically: ‘I ticked every single box except ‘‘inner city’’. I’d had no experience of inner city life and I suppose if I’m honest I was probably prejudiced against it.
‘I’d heard stories about what inner city life was like and having had quite a privileged background I saw myself in that context.’
No wonder it makes him grin, for today the Rev Alex Hughes is the vicar of St Luke and St Peter, two parishes now merged and one which includes one of the poorest parts of Portsmouth – Somers Town.
Indeed his vicarage in Playfair Road is in Somers Town alongside the cavernous Victorian St Peter’s Church. It was built to hold 750 worshippers, but which he says now attracts about 30 communicants on a Sunday morning.
He has now been in the job for nearly four-and-a-half years and says: ‘Somers Town has a worse reputation than it deserves. The people here have been generally extremely welcoming, but of course there have been challenges.
‘We’ve been burgled and we’re constantly cleaning up dog poo from our drive, those sorts of anti-social things.’
Now 37, he was ordained aged 24 (the average age is 42) and after serving as a parish priest in Oxford became chaplain to the late Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev Dr Kenneth Stevenson, a job he held for more than five years.
‘I was very junior when I got the job. I think I was the youngest bishop’s chaplain in the Church of England and the youngest priest in the Portsmouth diocese.
‘But the time came when I knew I needed to get back to what I’d been called to do, which was getting immersed in a church in a community. My wife, Sarah, and I looked at a number of parishes. They were all quite leafy, well-to-do, nice places to live, but we both felt rather flat about them.
‘So I had a closer look at these two parishes as they then were, talked to people who knew the area well, took a deep breath and went for it.
‘Of course it is challenging, but everywhere has its challenges, whether you’re in Chelsea or Somers Town.’
Alex was appointed to develop new ways of worshipping in the inner city and so immediately his biggest challenge emerged – what to do with two old, large churches which were not drawing the numbers to be viable.
The answer, after much agonising and with support from the current bishop, is to eventually demolish both and build a new church, possibly on vacant land in Winston Churchill Avenue as part of the regeneration of Somers Town. Controversially that includes St Peter’s Church hall in adjacent Fraser Road and the theatre upstairs which has been home to some of the city’s leading amateur dramatic groups. It was shut last month.
Alex points to the roof of St Peter’s. ‘Do you know how much it costs us just to replace one slate up there? Nearly £1,000 by the time we’ve hired a scaffolding tower. We can’t even replace a light bulb in the church without hiring scaffolding because they’re so high. I suppose the Victorians would have simply sent a young lad up there...’
He continues: ‘There’s a lot of talk in the Church of England at the moment about whether we should invest our money in maintenance or mission – do we pour our money into buildings or activities which will promote church life?’
He continues: ‘The Church of England spends £100m a year on its buildings. Wouldn’t it be interesting if one year the Archbishop of Canterbury said ‘‘this year we’re not going to spend that £100m on buildings, but £100m on people’’. Just think what could happen.
‘I want to blur the boundary. I think we should spend money on maintenance as long as we understand that that’s about building people, building them up and how their gifts can be developed for the good of the community and the good of the church.’
He says ‘deep’ structural and health and safety surveys of both churches and St Peter’s hall have revealed that in the next 20 years about £1.3m needs to be spent to keep them viable.
‘This is a vast amount of money in what everyone knows is a poor community. We simply don’t need two massive buildings. We can meet in a community room or in one of the tower blocks of flats.
‘Your buildings have to work for you all of the time to be sustainable. You can’t have them there just for special occasions. It’s a bit like the old front parlour that no-one ever touched unless the vicar called. Those days have gone.
‘What’s the point in having a huge church lying empty, one that is often used for just one hour on a Sunday morning?’
St Luke’s has a capacity of 350 and, according to Alex, sees single-figure numbers there on Sundays. And St Peter’s could hold those 750.
‘I’d love to tell the bishop we need seating for 1,000, but life in Somers Town has changed beyond recognition since the Victorians’ grand visions.
‘The old way of trying to gather large numbers of people together to do the same thing at the same time in the same way, is a fantasy of a bygone age. What we’re looking for today is a much more bespoke church.
‘Of course I regret what has happened to the groups that used the hall and the theatre. It’s been terrible for them. But as the trustees we couldn’t allow risks to be taken with the public’s health and safety.
‘I make no apology for what we’ve done, but when you’re a leader you have to make difficult decisions, ones which will prove unpopular.
‘But if I’m going to leave a legacy here – and I’m not planning to leave any time soon – I have to make these parishes sustainable, hopefully for the next 50 years.’