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Plant Stories: St Saviour’s Finsbury Park

In October 2019 a team from KXC London planted into St Saviour’s Finsbury Park. The church had always been a vibrant and welcoming multicultural community in North London and although its numbers had dropped, a core community remained. Eighteen months later, St Saviour’s has now grown to over 100 people and the church site has undergone an amazing transformation.

We spoke to St Saviour’s new leader Matt Seymour and churchwarden Dennis Hylton to hear about the deep friendships and growing faith that have sprung up in this revitalisation project and how they are honouring the church’s past as they look to the future.

Matt Seymour: Even though we planted a team into St Saviour’s in the autumn of 2019, the stories of connections and amazing friendships actually started months earlier. It feels like we’ve been discovering the heart of God through relationships and these gifts of grace. One morning, I was cycling to the HTB Leadership Conference from Finsbury Park and prayed, ‘Lord, speak – I need to hear your voice’. As I was locking up my bike at the conference, the first person I bumped into was Anna. Anna is one of my fellow ordinands at St Mellitus so she knew that my placement church was St Saviour’s. As we stood talking, she showed me a picture on her phone of an Asian boy standing outside St Saviour’s in the early 1970s, and she said ‘This is my husband Jonny’.

Years before, Tony Norton, the incumbent of St Saviour’s had been a missionary to China and had married Mary, a Chinese lady, before they returned to the UK. They were unable to have children, but next door to St Saviour’s was a maternity hospital. One day, a Cantonese lady arrived at the maternity hospital and the hospital knocked on the vicarage door to ask Mary to help with translating. Tony and Mary Norton ended up adopting this lady’s baby, Jonny, and Jonny grew up at St Saviour’s and he’s now married to Anna, my fellow ordinand. So I invited Jonny and Anna to the St Saviour’s pre-launch service in July 2019.

At a similar time, my wife Anna and I were at a service at King’s Cross Church (KXC) in London and someone said, ‘There’s an amazing man who’s visiting today who used to be part of St Saviour’s and you should be introduced.’ Dennis had also grown up at St Saviour’s and he’d come to faith there when he was a teenager. As soon as I met Dennis, it was like meeting an old friend – there was a familiarity and a deep sense of connecting in faith. He prayed for us that morning and we invited him to the pre-launch. I’ll let Dennis tell the rest of the story…

Dennis Hylton: Yes, as Matt said, when we first met at KXC, we had this instant connection and Matt invited me to the pre-launch service in July 2019 at St Saviour’s. 42 years ago, my father was the lay reader at St Saviour’s and it’s where I came to faith when I was 14 – I’m now 61! Matt had also invited his fellow ordinands at St Mellitus, Anna, and her husband Jonny Norton. Jonny and I had both moved away from St Saviour’s and we don’t remember meeting, but when I arrived at the pre-launch, Jonny had brought pictures of the congregation from years earlier. I suddenly spotted a picture of my whole family and me, including my dad holding Jonny as a baby, in the St Saviour’s vicarage. I’d never seen it before! The photo reminded me how St Saviour’s was an amazing microcosm of the different communities and ethnicities in Finsbury Park all worshipping together. It was a place where you were made welcome – it didn’t matter where you came from or what your ethnicity was. You could come, belong, believe and participate. And it’s still the same today. When we launched in 2019, we were a disparate group of people of all ages and demographics but it’s been wonderful how we’ve come together to start this new chapter.

MS: That’s right. We wanted to share these stories of God at work to raise faith and to remind ourselves that we don’t come into a blank space. It reminds me that God is the one on mission and He’s the one that builds his Church. In some ways I don’t feel any pressure as I know God has been at work here for many years – the church was planted originally 130 years ago and stories like Dennis coming here as a teenager and becoming churchwarden years later remind us of God’s faithfulness. My vicar at KXC, Pete Hughes, taught me that our destiny is always connected to our history. If we want to know what God is doing in a particular place, explore the history of the church or area. Look at God’s faithfulness and goodness through the generations and see how God has been at work in the past.

Even though the church looked a bit run down when we arrived, there was a core community of about 20 people who had been faithfully praying. This core team welcomed us in unbelievable ways. The spiritual DNA is this church has centred around welcoming and providing a refuge and a home, as shown by the story of Jonny. It felt like we came home and like we stepped into a place that had been prayed over and consecrated for many years. Even though it looked like things were decaying, like the building or the garden, it felt like there was still incredible life and that we are seeing the outworking of this community’s prayers in what’s now happening. It reminds me of the Easter story – new life comes out of the tomb.

DH: We’ve also been amazingly blessed by the community around us in Finsbury Park. It reminds me of Acts 2, when God was moving in power and people saw the love and compassion of the new believers. It says that these believers had favour with those around them. It feels like God has also given us favour in the community. For example, the garden at St Saviour’s had not been tended to for over 20 years. Telford Homes [who oversee the multi-million pound Finsbury Park station redevelopment] offered to help to sort it out, clearing it, levelling the ground and removing skips full of rubble.

MS: Yes, Telford Homes offered £5k of in-kind support, sending ten people over five days, along with at least two 20-yard skips and a huge digger, to clear the area of the enormous amount of stuff collected over years of dereliction. They then went on to clear decades of overgrown foliage, clear the church hall and clear the rubble gathered by the volunteers over three months of digging up the ground, equating to £10k of in-kind support. Part of a grant from the Church Commissioners also enabled us to employ a part-time caretaker and operations manager to take on various aspects of the site development, including the garden. As a result, we were able to gather volunteers to further dig up the ground, clear more rubble, level the soil, re-seed the earth and wait for the grass to grow, which it did! At the end of the summer in 2020, exactly one year on from launch, we were excited to host our first prayer and worship evening in the garden, filled to the point we could not have everyone there due to Covid-19, all giving thanks to God for His incredible provision of a new garden at the heart of the church. Islington Council’s London Initiatives fund went on to award the church £2.6k for the planting of new trees and the garden’s revitalisation for the community. It’s been transformed into a green, open space in the heart of a densely urban neighbourhood. The Diocese of London has also been incredible in supporting us in this new partnership.

DH: We also have a church hall that has the potential to be something great for the community, but it had not been used for 20 years and is over 120 years old, so we thought it would cost a couple of million to sort it out. But God again provided for us. Telford Homes came back and helped clear the hall, removing all sorts of paraphernalia; and a local building company helped to sort out the roof and make it secure without charging for labour costs or scaffolding. In total, we’ve been given nearly £100,000 in grants in a year. It reminded me of when the children of Israel returned after Babylon after 70 years, and the kings gave them resources to rebuild the temple. God’s favour has been on us with the people around us in the midst of London to do this work on St Saviour’s.

MS: Sometimes we can feel that the Church is failing and we wonder if communities want us. But I think there is a call on the Church in this generation from our communities for us to be salt and light. They might not come to our churches every Sunday or believe exactly what we believe, but they want us to thrive and play our part. We’ve seen this through the help given by Telford Homes or other foundations or local people helping with the garden project. It’s a challenge for us but I think this call for us to be the Church is coming from culture.

DH: Yes, when the Church steps up to be what God has called us to be and we stop hiding, and we reach out to the community with God’s mercy, love and grace, God brings people to us. Even though we might look like a disparate group of people from the outside, I feel that St Saviour’s will be a hub in this area where people will be able to experience what God is like – his power to set captives free and open blind eyes. We can begin to model God’s love and mercy for the world, which is what God always intended the Church to do, and I’m excited.

MS: In some ways, I don’t think God is looking for people with incredible faith. I think he’s just looking for people who are prepared to put their hand in his hand and not let go. Sometimes we have no idea why God’s called us, but I think that’s ok. We just need to stand where he’s called us to be.

DH: That’s right – it’s about availability. Will we make ourselves available? Once we say ‘yes’ to God, he can do the rest.

DH: There have been aspects that we had to work through in the transition. The long-standing members had to adjust to having a leadership team and no longer making day-to-day decisions. Things happen a bit faster in bigger congregations – sometimes we need to move forward more quickly so we had to learn to let go and trust the leadership team to make the best decisions for the church. Starting to build community together was crucial. At the beginning of the revitalisation, we had various gathering events with guest speakers like Andy Flannagan, and in the first term, we ran host evenings where we’d regularly meet and eat together in each other’s homes to build community. Matt put food, friendship and fire (the Holy Spirit) at the heart of what we’re doing. We have daily Morning Prayer on Zoom on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays every week and over Lent we met together every evening for Evening Prayer on Zoom too.

MS: Yes the launch was the end of one journey and the beginning of another journey of building trust and community. We prayed, ‘Lord make us one’ as we were essentially five communities joining together. It took time but it feels like God is answering our prayers. We’ve grown to 100 people in spite of Covid-19 and the rapid rate of transformation at St Saviour’s since the new partnership began is astonishing – we can’t wait for what’s next.

Article by Philippa Guy