There’s something special in the air at Portsmouth’s brand new church.
Opening up at the start of last month in the city centre, Harbour Church is finally ready for the public – and they are flooding in.
It has been set up as the express wish of the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev Christopher Foster, to revitalise a formerly derelict department store from the 1950s in Commercial Road.
Within months, it has been transformed into a welcoming, sophisticated and inspiring facility.
The church, thanks to £50,000 of refurbishments, now consists of an auditorium, complete with a stage, lights, TVs, a sound system and a pop-up coffee bar offering pastries from popular Southsea cafe Bread Addiction.
It also has rooms catering for young children with a small bouncy castle, a room for older children to learn and play as well as a social space set up for young people and students.
It wasn’t until last November that the location was decided upon and, for the church’s core group of staff, it meant a major change of destination in their lives.
For Vicar Alex Wood, 32, it meant moving his wife Liz, 37 and their daughter Annie, three, from Brighton across to Portsmouth. Liz gave birth to his second daughter Florrie earlier this summer, just a few weeks after they moved.
According to Alex, Rev Foster had been utterly convinced that the model embodied by Alex’s former church, St Peter’s Church in Brighton, would be ‘a perfect fit’ for Portsmouth.
The church, grounded in a logic based around a community space to act as a social, spiritual and family-based environment for all ages, had taken huge steps in becoming a perfect fit for the city’s young people to discover or rediscover God in a creative space.
‘The Bishop was convinced that the model of thinking at St Peter’s was just what was needed here in Portsmouth,’ Alex says.
‘He told me that with the massive influx of students coming to the city, this was a strong opportunity to provide them with a place to come and explore or re-explore their faith. To act as another home away from home.’
Alex adds: ‘He told me that this parish, here in the city centre, is one of the top 50 for deprivation across the country, that this area really needs a spiritual rebirth.
‘A place for people to come where we can help them. There are big problems in this ward, which we really want to change.’
This desire to aid a spiritual rebirth in the area is something that seems to fuel the church and the very foundations upon which it has now been built.
The space, dedicated to young adults and students (ages 14-29), will provide them with a place to really call home.
Discovering home has been part of Alex’s and so many of the church’s core group’s journey over the past couple of months.
The number of staff and worshippers from St Peter’s Church who have moved over to Portsmouth is in double figures.
For most, this would seem as a major uprooting exercise, to move 50 miles along the south coast, to change job and home.
But this group has moved as one.
They’re all friends, closely bound by their love for Christ and therefore this is not a request, but more of a calling.
They are a huge part of the congregation. Parents, children, brothers, sisters, they have all come to make a home for worshippers in Portsmouth.
‘We didn’t know a lot about the city at all when we came here,’ Alex says.
‘However, even being here for just a few days, you get such a buzz from the city.
‘There are quite a few similarities between Portsmouth and Brighton, but one thing that’s really blown me away is the people.
‘They reach out to help at a moment’s notice and they’ve really made us feel very welcome here and we want to pay them back with this church.
‘We know there are problems in the area with unemployment, so we’ll help sort them out with work opportunities, get young people off the street and into work.’
Rev Foster was there at the church’s opening on September 4.
He said: ‘We’re pleased to welcome everyone here, especially those from this locality. If you did just happen to pass by, wondered what was going on and came inside, then we’re thrilled that you are with us.
‘I want to pray for God’s blessing on all that lies ahead. I pray for all who will come here to explore, to learn, to discover God’s harbour of peace and joy and hope in a troubled sea.’
The church was set up thanks to a grant from the Church Commissioners for England, with £929,000 available for new churches and congregations.
Harbour Church forms part of the Diocese of Portsmouth’s £2.4m plan to create worshipping communities across the south east during the next five years.
The church is also planning set to up a bakery nearby which will be run by vulnerable people in the community.
Alex adds: ‘We just hope that we can be that place where people in need decide to come to.
‘At the end of the day we know that some might be put off by the fact that we’re a church, but they may really need our help.’
It becomes clear from my time at the church that there really is a different feel to the way things are run.
It is commonplace around the country to see a smaller turnout at Christian churches, perhaps due to a perceived stuffiness and repetition of sermons and hymns.
Harbour Church breaks this cycle and, during the service, there is a fixation on knocking down the aforementioned walls between the church and worshippers.
A large percentage of the service consists of performances from the church’s band, with nearly all worshippers joining in and singing along.
It’s almost a carnival atmosphere at times, full of dancing, new age Christian anthems and, most importantly, a very welcoming environment.
When Alex gets up to give his sermon, this feeling continues.
He understands that some worshippers are likely to be first-timers or people that may have never been to church at all before.
Alex says: ‘I never went to church until I went to university. I came home from Manchester and found out my parents had become Christians.
‘I thought great, it’s another reason for me to laugh at them. I went to church with them and my first prayer was for money, as I was a student and didn’t really have any at the time.’
He gets surprisingly candid about his early years as a Christian and talks about how church came to become another ‘home’ for him. By the time his sermon is finished, you feel convinced by his words.
For those that maybe brushed religion aside earlier in life or for those that have always been curious but never entertained that curiosity, it might be time to take a look at Harbour Church.
Being part of Harbour Church was something Sam Honour could not miss out on.
The 24-year-old, who works at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham, says he was convinced after meeting with the new church’s Vicar Alex Wood.
He explains: ‘I know Alex from St Peter’s Church in Brighton and as soon as he started talking about the opportunity, I was very excited about the idea of the move.
‘It’s such a lively place down here and I really wanted to be involved and help the church get on its own feet.’
Alex serves coffee and other refreshments at the church.
He adds: ‘You just can’t beat the level of excitement here.
‘Everyone here is so excited about making a success of the church, we hope that we bring something new and refreshing to the city.’
CURATE BEN BRYANT
Harbour Church’s new curate says moving his family to Portsmouth has been an ‘amazing decision’.
Ben Bryant, 32, who moved with his wife Martha, son Jonah, three, and daughter, Rae, one, from Brighton to the city, says he really believed in the church from day one.
He says: ‘Rev Foster (The Bishop of Portsmouth) is pioneering in the way he wants this church to be.
‘The vision is perfect for the city and I couldn’t wait to really get started on setting it all up and moving here.
‘We just want to be able to get as many people involved in it as we can and I hope that this will be the start of great things here.’
A move away from home is never an easy thing, but when Sophia Marlow, 24, was told about Harbour Church, she packed up her things and left Brighton behind her.
A regular at St Peter’s Church, the establishment upon which Harbour Church is based, she made the decision, knowing that she could continue her studies in Southampton.
She says: ‘It’s gone really well here so far.
‘When I first heard about the church being set up here, it was a good time to make a move and I thought I’d just go for it.’
Sophia, who now lives in Cosham and works at the church’s coffee bar, adds: ‘I thought it would be interesting thing and the thing about this kind of church is it’s so informal, lively and just full of people that are just so excited to be here.’
For more information, go to http://www.harbourchurchportsmouth.org/