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Growth Conversations: St Martin’s Church, Gospel Oak

St Martin’s Church NW5 describes itself as ‘a community of faith, hope and love in Gospel Oak’ in North London. The Vicar, Mother Carol Barrett Ford, spoke to CCX about her own role and how the Grow Course played a part in encouraging St Martin’s to reflect on depth of discipleship as well as to adapt and innovate post-Covid.

For St Martin’s Church—which is in the modern catholic tradition of the Church of England—the sacraments, teaching and fellowship are key. Alongside this they work with local partners seeking to transform the community through practical acts of loving service. This is integral to the church’s ministry in expressing God’s love for all. 

Two women in robes praying at an altar in a churchAs the parish priest at St Martin’s NW5 in North London, Mthr Carol Barrett Ford is well known in her community and responsive to the needs of those in her area. She is often stopped on the street for a quick prayer and acts as a listening ear for people’s worries and concerns. ‘This is an area of significant deprivation’, she says, ‘serving in an area like this is a particular type of ministry. Every church has its own unique identity and challenges; that’s why I believe we have to start with knowing our context and approaching those committed to our care with love’.

Before training for the priesthood, Mthr Carol worked in education for 25 years, training as a teacher in Ireland before moving to London in 1991. She went on to serve two deputy headships before the call to ordination. Mthr Carol served her curacy in the urban priority area of Cowgate in inner city Newcastle upon Tyne, followed by three years as a chaplain to St John’s College, Cambridge. Her return to parish ministry at St Martin’s Church began in September 2019.

‘My own vocational call to priesthood is based on the incarnational ministry of the priest who is present in the community seeking to show God’s love in the complexity of people’s lives’, she explains, reflecting on the public nature of her ministry. ‘I tell people that they are loved by God and precious in his sight, whoever they are. It is something that some people might only rarely hear and I believe it can make a real impact in people’s lives.

‘When I’m out and about I wear my clerical collar. People know who I am and that when they talk to me, they are talking to a priest—that’s helpful for me and for others. It’s a way of being transparent with people. I’m seeking to be a public witness but also a human being—so in my dress I bring my sense of self. People may sometimes have an image of a priest as stuffy or boring but that’s rarely the truth!’

Mthr Carol says that the last few years have been both challenging and surprising at St Martin’s. Some regulars, including some older members of the church, have not returned or come less often since the pandemic. But the church is attracting new people: ‘We’ve seen an increase in 25 – 45 year olds,’ Mthr Carol says, ‘it’s an age bracket that can be hard to attract and includes some who are new to the area, some with a church background and others with no experience of church. We’re                                                                                                                       finding they come here because they can                                                                                                           just “be”.’

While old patterns of church attendance are slow to re-emerge, Mthr Carol isn’t discouraged. ‘In this context, numbers don’t tell the whole story. What is exciting is that we’ve noticed a growth in spiritual depth, amongst those who are part of the church. As Anglicans our central act of worship is Holy Communion, and it is a joy to share this with whoever we have at church. We are encouraged to praise God through the sacraments and from there we can also find new ways to engage with each other, with people from all backgrounds in our community, sharing God’s love and acceptance with them.’

Mthr Carol says that attending the Grow Course encouraged her team to assess, plan and act, helping them focus on growth in faith and discipleship and help shape their vision for the parish—for those who come to church and those who don’t.

This includes starting two new discipleship initiatives. Mthr Carol explains: ‘After looking at what might work we’ve started the Pilgrim Course which is open to everyone. The course looks at the central things that we believe and works through various topics such as The Creed or The Lord’s Prayer, linking everything to our liturgy. This has led to profound and meaningful conversations for a wide range of people.’

Another new group—aimed at the new 25-to-40-year-old age group—is also flourishing. The ‘Upper Room’ is a short service of night prayer with contemporary music in church, followed by a pub discussion on a theme.

‘This group is refreshing and a lot of fun,’ says Mthr Carol, ‘we’re making space for those who may be university educated but with no faith background, or those who have not explored their faith since they were children, but who are “theologically curious”. The topics discussed have included God, creation, human purpose, incarnation… the list goes on. They are really enjoying it!’

In both these new groups and more widely in the church, Mthr Carol would love to see lay people taking on leadership roles and she is actively seeking to engage and empower others, encouraging potential leaders to consider stepping up in this way at the moment.

As for the church’s role in the community, St Martin’s is working in partnership with local organisations to share God’s love in a variety of ways. ‘Cooperation Town—a national food cooperative—moved into the area and we immediately reached out to say hello. This led to us forming our own food cooperative—Cooperation St Martin’s,’ she says, ‘encouraging households to join with others is a more effective way of shopping and using food surplus. We are enabling 20 households to save money in this time of rising food prices.’

‘For the last two years our community partners have been the readers at our annual Carol Service. This opens it up to people who might not normally come to church. We believe that this is a part of what we are called to do and be.’

Reflecting on her own role and spiritual health, Mthr Carol says: ‘For me it’s all about being present with people, being with them in the good times and the bad, meeting people where they are. It is emotionally demanding and I rely on God to give me the physical and spiritual strength to keep going. It’s also important to recognise your need for re-charging; for me that might be taking my annual retreat or just finding some time to be silent with God’.

‘I learned this during my curacy. My incumbent had a spiritual practice of 30 minutes silence between Evening Prayer and Holy Communion each day. I did this with him for three years. For the first year, it seemed impossibly hard, by year two I was getting it, and by the third year it had become one of the most nourishing and sustaining things in my spiritual life’.

‘In that silent, spirit-filled time God holds all the difficulties and makes it possible to stand before Him knowing that—no matter what—you and all those around you are loved.’

The Grow Course has been part of St Martin’s Journey, helping Mthr Carol and her team to assess, plan and act, resulting in parishioners exploring their faith deeper. Want to explore how the Grow Course could help you and your church? We’d love to hear from you, to see if we can work with you too. We work with churches from different traditions and denominations.

Please get in touch with CCX by emailing Grow Team member Katie Lysak at