Our churches, centres, their committees and volunteers, are the beating heart of the SNU and Spiritualist movement. In this new series, we will be visiting and showcasing the wonderful work, excellent achievements and inspiring stories happening across the Union.

For this first instalment, new Head of Communications Kyle headed to Fenton Spiritualist Church, to hear of their inspiring turnaround story, from impending closure to award-winning success.

On an uncharacteristically glorious Monday in February, the central hall of Fenton Spiritualist Church sits bathed in afternoon sunlight. Beams cast through slatted blinds fall on a picturesque podium, adorned with, amongst other curios, a recent ‘Thank You’ card from HM, King Charles III, sent in recognition of the church’s book of condolences for his late mother, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Flora of varying shades of pink and purple inject colour and warmth throughout the spacious, inviting room. They were donated, I’m told, following a recent wedding service that took place here.

“There’s nothing in this building to be frightened of,” explains Fenton’s current President, Sarah Beech, “I was always frightened of going into a traditional church with a stained glass window. There’s something about a stained glass window that I find off-putting.

But there’s nothing like that here. It’s light, it’s airy, the sun’s streaming through the windows as we sit here now.

Even just coming in to the church and sitting here, in the peace and quiet, brings you comfort.”

It hasn’t all been sunshine and serenity for Fenton, though. Indeed, up until fairly recently, the situation looked, for a time, quite bleak for the church.

“We were closed.” Sarah continues, “On the brink of closing permanently.”

The admission is frank, unreserved.

“This church has risen from the ashes, like a phoenix.”

A dedicated, passionate committee, and a drive and desire to place the church back as an integral part of the surrounding area, have all been key elements in Fenton’s revival success story. For Sarah and the team at Fenton, it’s born of a very personal view of the church serving this function.

“I keep going back to this very traditional view I have of the church being the soul of the community. It doesn’t matter how big your church is, and whether you’ve got a car park or not - you’ll still get people in if you offer what they want, and what they need.

But you need your doors open.”

Sarah Beech, President of Fenton Spiritualist Church (image © Kyle Pedley).

There’s no denying that Fenton have indeed done just that. Of course, they offer a wealth of the traditional services you would expect from a Spiritualist church and centre in 2023. Indeed, its regular demonstrations of mediumship, healing circles, meditation sessions, one-to-one bookings and more, all continue to go from strength to strength, emboldened by the drive of its eclectic committee.

“Each week the numbers are building, and the feedback’s amazing.

We’re thinking of having to put an extension in to the council, for planning permission, because our circle has become so huge! And that’s grown from nothing.”

It’s perhaps in its broader community outreach, though, where Fenton’s story truly sings. Born from the touching, personal circumstances of one of their own, a project formed that would go on to see the church receive an award in recognition of their excellent work.

“The grief group was started from a member of our congregation - who’s now a member of the church - telling us that she was suffering from a terminal illness,” Sarah begins, the gravity and personal resonance of the story clear from the outset.

“She didn’t know how to tell her children. They were grown-up children, but she was so worried about how they would take it, and she didn’t know where to go, so she wasn’t telling them anything.

“I’m a firm believer that if you open one door, and somebody walks through that door for one purpose, it will then open another door, and that person will come back to the church for a different reason."

There was a vision that we could do more to help her here. That we could support her now, rather than waiting until after she had passed to support her family.”

What followed was an initiative, assisted by nearby Staffordshire University, that eventually saw the church providing space for grief counselling - including pre-bereavement guidance and preparation - every other Thursday, on a free-of-charge, walk-in basis. Three qualified counsellors use the space provided to deliver the service (and gain further experience and practice in the process), whilst the church is already open, heated and lit for other services.

“I’m a firm believer that if you open one door, and somebody walks through that door for one purpose, it will then open another door, and that person will come back to the church for a different reason, because the church was there for them when they needed it.”

The heartwarming, important project was recognised and celebrated when the church won a community enterprise award, given by local radio station, Signal1.

Pride Of Place: Fenton's recent Signal1 Radio Station award, for their Grief Group initiative, sits proudly on the podium at the front of the church (image © Kyle Pedley). 

“We went up to a very nice restaurant, and we just won! There were no other nominees, it was just ‘and the winner is…’.

It was really nice, as a lot of work went into that. A lot of back and forth, a lot of writing rules and regulations down, all the T’s and C’s that go with it.”

A similar outreach project has seen Fenton hosting a weekly ‘warm bank’ on Mondays, which has has been another case of offering a service and space to those in need in the community.

Volunteer Maxine Knowles - one of the cheery, upbeat Monday kitchen team on my visit - pointed out how important efforts such as the warm bank can be for some in the area:

“There’s a lady who came today, whose husband left her about four years ago. She’s only got her two cats at home, and doesn’t go anywhere.

She’s come today, and because we’ve been chatting, she’s talking about coming to the meditation circle on a Thursday. She’s been made to feel very welcome, and she won’t feel like she’s on her own.

That’s what this is all about - making people realise that they aren’t on their own. They can come and sit by themselves if they want, or they can have a chat. But that’s what it’s about - somewhere to go, where you feel safe and warm, and you can have a drink and something to eat.”

"That’s what this is all about - making people realise that they aren’t on their own."

It’s a story that resonates with church member, Jayne, who had a similar experience in attending Fenton, initially out of curiosity and a pang of loneliness, but has since seen her attendance develop into genuine friendships and a sense of belonging:

“You always feel as if you don’t belong, don’t you?,” Jayne observes, as we stand together in the busy kitchen, which now appears to seem like almost a second home to her, “I was very quiet, I didn’t have any friends around here, but I decided ‘I’m going to go to the Spiritualist Church’.

And I’ve stayed ever since. Now that I come to church, and come to meditation, I have so many friends.

Now I know I belong to something, which is very, very important.”

The human experience, a clear sense of camaraderie and friendship, and the realisation of Spiritualism’s second principle, are all clearly at the core of so much of what Fenton is achieving.

Indeed, some of the equipment for its warm bank and tea room sessions were donated by some of its own members.

Andrew Fisher, a member of the church, explained:

“My partner, who works for an electrical wholesaler, had already donated some toasters, and so I asked Sarah what else was needed. She said a microwave, so I just thought it a good idea if I got one and donated it.

I just feel like it’s a really important cause, especially on cold days. It just helps the community out and it just felt like giving something back.”

A Warm Welcome: Members Martin and Jayne man the kitchen, serving up a cup of tea with a smile at Fenton's Monday afternoon warm bank (image © Kyle Pedley). 

As churches and committees up and down the Country face the realities of post-pandemic pressures, the double conundrum of cost of living and energy crises, there’s a lot to be said for how the team at Fenton are planning and coordinating their efforts so that multiple events and services can take place at the same time. So that initiatives such as the grief group and warm banks can be provided at a time when the church was already open.

Indeed, the warm bank project only became a reality when a change occurred in the church’s healing schedule, as Sarah illustrated:

“The healing used to be on a Monday teatime, but it had to be moved to the afternoon. And you don’t want people coming out in the cold, on an evening, for a warm bank.

So we realised we can move healing to a Monday afternoon, which will then also fall in line with doing a warm bank - great!

It all sort of fitted and slotted into place… and, to use a phrase that someone uses repeatedly around here, “When does a coincidence stop being a coincidence?””

Spending time with the team at Fenton, the sense of fellowship and friendship is matched only by a very tangible sense of drive and determination. Jokes about the President, Sarah, ‘cracking the whip’ may ring around the kitchen, but they’re delivered in jest, and in an environment that feels steeped in respect and love.

The recent spectre of what fate could have befallen the church flickers at the edges of our conversations. It no doubt underpins so much of the excellent work being done here; knowing that in different circumstances, this could have very easily been a church consigned to closure and history.

It’s testimony to the tireless work of its committee, members and volunteers, then, that Fenton is, instead, thriving.

Other possibilities being explored include affiliated efforts with Staffordshire Police’s Serious Violence team, and a completely new approach to the Church’s own internal shop, which has seen an outside retailer come in to restock every 6 weeks on a 25% commission basis, and has proven a runaway success.

Sunnier days for Fenton, then.

“It’s been amazing,” Sarah proudly states. “It’s been hard work, I won’t deny it, but it’s been amazing.

But I’m very much of the belief that we can still do more.”

"We’ve all got our own strengths, but everybody has got their own weakness, too. But by pulling together, those weaknesses become strengths, too, because we learn from each other.”

An aspirational, optimistic note to end what has been a warm-hearted visit visit on, so I feel it only right to ask if there are any notes of encouragement that Fenton can share with other churches that may look to follow its lead?

“A church is only as good as its committee. Sort your committee out.

If you haven’t got a strong committee, or you’ve got a divided committee, you may as well shut the doors now. There’s no point.

I’ve seen it at various points throughout the years, where it all falls on one person, or even one person sort of takes over it all. That never works.

It isn’t what we’re about here, at all. We’ve got our committee in order, and yes, we’ve all got our own strengths, but everybody has got their own weakness, too.

But by pulling together, those weaknesses become strengths, too, because we learn from each other.”

And on a final, prescient note, that same message of not being alone, that idea that resonates through the stories and anecdotes of the warm bank, of grief counselling, of poorly members and even other initiatives in the pipeline, holds true to Fenton, and other Spiritualist churches, too:

“Reach out, to the community, and to other churches, too.

We support other churches, there’s no competition. If anyone wants to give us a ring and ask how we did something, do it.

Give us ring, drop us a message. We’ll certainly help you.

That’s what it’s all about.”

Volunteers and visitors alike leave Fenton Spiritualist Church, as the sun sets on another day of serving both Spiritualism and the local community (image © Kyle Pedley). 

- Article by Kyle Pedley
first published 15th February 2023

You can contact Fenton Spiritualist Church via email at [email protected].

With thanks to the committee and team at Fenton for their excellent work, and for sharing their time and stories with us.

We want to hear all about your own church and committee stories, projects and achievements, too!

Get in touch with either Kyle Pedley, Head of Communications at [email protected], or Adam Berry, Ordinary Director 1, at [email protected]