St Mary of Charity, Faversham, is the second largest parish church in Kent, reflecting the prosperity of Faversham in the medieval period. The distinctive elegant, soaring spire designed by Charles Beazley c1797-9 is a delightful variation on Wren’s at St Dunstan-in-the-East. It is an important landmark and can be seen for miles around. (Observant readers amongst you may have spotted we’ve used it for our logo.) Visitors from all over Britain and abroad flock to look at the interior, which is a thrillingly rich amalgam of fine architectural details, handsome monuments, brasses and a myriad other delights, including several carved medieval misericords, thought to have been salvaged from the Abbey after the Dissolution, and the celebrated late 13th century painted column.
As it has done for centuries, the church is rightly intertwined with the town. Shepherd Neame holds its annual AGM in the church, it hosts many of the local schools carol services, and in 2014, marking the 25th celebrations of the Hop Festival, Jonathan Neame and other brewery staff rolled a barrel of beer into the church. ‘I like to think that the sacred meet the secular in the church,’ says the Rev Simon Rowlands, vicar since 2012.
Simon is eminently approachable, clearly energetic, imaginative, and determined to ensure that the church plays an important role in the town’s community. ‘My job is being alongside people for the everyday occurrence or loitering with intent.’ The church is open daily from 9–5.
Unlike so many 21st century vicars who increasingly are becoming ordained in middle age, Simon took orders aged 30 after working as a Highways Engineer with Kent County Council for ten years. ‘I was involved in Operation Stack – I have plenty of things to seek confession for.’ In 2013 he was deployed to the military hospital in Camp Bastion in Afghanistan as a Reserve force Army Pastor with the Princess of Wales Regiment.
‘I witnessed daily the miracle that is modern medicine and often was surprised and heartened by people’s everyday stories. Its effect was to make me unfazed by the role of the unexpected.’
Perhaps these experiences explain his openness to new ideas. Undaunted by modern technology, he proudly told me about a recent christening of a baby born to an English father and a Polish mother. ‘We had three Skype windows open so that the Polish grandparents and relatives could witness the ceremony.’ The church has WiFi because of the administrative office in the rear of the church. He is also planning to make podcasts of the church services so that they can be listened to by residents of nursing homes. Beginning in the New Year there will be a Funeral Administrator working five days a week from 10-3. ‘I am struck by the fact that even today there are many people who have lived their whole lives in Faversham.’
Not surprisingly Christmas is the busiest time of the year. More than 1,000 people will pass through the church over a couple of days – no doubt partly drawn by the superb choir directed by James Brown.
8-9 Early am Prayer in the Trinity Chapel followed by coffee.
5 Crib Service
11.30 Midnight Mass
10.30 Christmas Eucharist
Text: Amicia. Photography of St Mary’s Church: Lisa