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S Norfolk church overcomes Goliath task of rebuilding

With faith, joy and unity, the congregation of a small Baptist church in rural South Norfolk has overcome the enormous financial and practical challenge of rebuilding their chapel after it was found to be at serious risk of falling down. Jenny Seal reports.

Carleton Rode Baptist Church in South Norfolk sits on a country road linking Bunwell’s hamlets and the village of Carleton Rode. A string of horses its nearest neighbours, the timber-framed chapel is surrounded by picturesque farmland.

Somewhat surprisingly, given this unlikely location, the church currently being in-between ministers and their building having undergone major structural work, Carleton Rode Baptist Church is thriving. 

On the overcast morning of Saturday, May 11 around 80 people gathered in the courtyard of Carleton Rode Baptist Church to see and give thanks for the reopening of the building after an 18-month quest to replace the chapel’s rotting timber frame.

Addressing the gathering the church’s Moderator, Rev Neil Walker, said: “The story of how this place has been restored is legendary. What a refreshing change when so many country chapels are being sold off to become private houses. This one is not only up and open but very much in business.”

Architect Rob Pearce, before cutting the ribbon to great applause and declaring the building open, said: “When I was asked for an interview in August 2017, Richard Chapmam [of Carlton Rode Baptist Church] had set a very, very tight deadline for the project. At the interview I said to Richard that it was not impossible, but it was very, very unreasonable!”

Rob continued: “When I said to Richard it wasn’t impossible you guys here made this project possible by raising all the funds, and that is a fantastic achievement.”

In 2017 the timber frame of the chapel was found to be disintegrating and the building unsafe. The timber work, including the base plate and windows needed to be replaced.

But it wasn’t a straightforward task for the builders from R&J Hogg. The timber structure was hidden beneath brick cladding. In the service of thanksgiving that followed the ribbon cutting ceremony, Barry Gotts explained: “We couldn’t take the walls off to get to the timber because the whole place would’ve fallen down. The walls were holding the roof up but they weren’t ever designed to do that.”

The chapel building had to be closed and in September 2018 the congregation of 50-60 people moved to Bunwell Village Hall for Sunday services as the work was carried out.

Carleton Rode Baptist Church has a precedent for overcoming adversity. In 2009 an arson attack devastated the church’s adjoining stable and school room. The church took the opportunity to convert the stable into a community coffee shop. Now open on a Tuesday afternoon, Thursday morning and Saturday afternoon, it can sometimes welcome over 80 people a session.

The cost of the current rebuilding project was just under £106k. While this was initially a daunting prospect the church met the challenge with characteristic faith. Rev Beth Powney, the Regional Minister for the Eastern Baptist Association (EBA) recalled: “The first encounter I had with this church, when I was very new to this job, was sitting in a Leader’s meeting where they were describing this problem. I said: ‘You have a church that is falling down, are you serious? It’s going to cost a lot of money and you’re quite small’. It was just the faith of that leadership and Richard [Chapman] in particular, saying, ‘Well the Lord will provide’.” 

She continued: “There is a verse in Nehemiah which says, ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’. And I think that is such a strong verse for this church. This community of people have the joy of the Lord, and that is their strength. And that’s why this building is still standing.”

In an emotional introduction to the thanksgiving service Church Secretary Angie Bennett said: “God’s been here, and he has provided for us. As a fellowship we really have united together; it has been amazing. The people who have stepped up, come forward and gone over and above their jobs, thank you to all of those. I’m just overwhelmed. I’m just amazed and just so grateful to be back here.”

The church raised the money from a range of sources. Almost £34k was raised from seven grant making bodies, a Gift Day saw church members donate £8k, the EBA’s Project of the Year fund raised £2k and members of the community including customers of the café filled up small bottles with coins and raised an additional £2k. Along with Gift Aid, legacies and existing reserves, the cost of the repairs was met.

Beryl Dawson, Church Treasurer said: “People have just been so generous in supporting us in this way. Thank you so much for everybody for the support you have given. We are just so grateful.”

She continued: “This is more than just a building. It is a building, where through the ages, people have come together to learn about God and to try to follow in his way. And more than anything else our prayer is that we will continue to learn about Jesus, to follow him more closely and to be a building that is open for everyone to come and feel God’s love and God’s welcome through everything that we do.”

Photo: Rev Neil Walker looks on as Architect Rob Pearce cuts the ribbon on Carleton Rode Baptist Church's renewed building