James Hughesdon is not what most people expect when they think of a Reverend, and St Paul’s Old Ford is not your usual church. We chat with him to find out about what goes on at this very modern church.
Hughesdon moved from the Isle of Dogs to St Paul and St Mark’s parish in 2012. He was ordained in 2012 and moved here to be the curate, or assistant vicar. He became the vicar in January 2015.
Now in his mid-30s, Hughesdon is young to be a vicar, but explains ‘I think the days of bearded fuddy-duddy vicars passed about 40 years ago.’ His youth is definitely on his side, and makes him seem far more accessible to a wide range of people than the traditional stereotype of a vicar.
Quoting Bill Clinton, Hughesdon explains ‘When you’re young, you don’t realise you can’t do things, so you do them.’ He has a lot of energy, and works hard to try and make the world a better place.
As well as being in charge of all the administration of the church, Hughesdon upholds all the traditional responsibilities of a vicar including weddings, funerals and baptisms.
He also aims to be out and about in the community as much as possible, and can often be found in one of our amazing pubs. Every week on a Wednesday, he holds bible study at the Eleanor Arms.
‘The Roman Road is a special centre in East London, and the fact that it is so diverse makes me very happy to raise my children here.’ He has two girls under the age of five, and a four month old baby boy. ‘Plus, there is SNAP, and what a great shop that is’ says Hughesdon.
When you enter the church, you will instantly realise that this is far from a traditional place of worship, although it does of course have those facilities. To the left, there is a reception in a cute cubby hole, and to the right a cafe full of mothers and babies. Stretching away opposite the entrance is a modern white room, separated by vast panes of glass.
The church building itself is shared with a variety of community groups who rent spaces upstairs in the renovated eaves. One of these is Ability Bow – a group that supports people with disabilities or long-term health conditions to do exercise. Ability Bow is the only facility of its kind in the South East of England – the nearest equivalent facility is in Birmingham. For the service users who use Ability Bow, this is literally the only place where they can receive this kind of support.
Into University is another group that is based at St Paul’s Old Ford. They are an educational charity that work with children age seven up, to help get them to university. The percentage shift is normally about 15% of children from that group could get to university, but with Into University, that figure goes up to 78%.
As well as the groups that are permanently based at St Paul’s Old Ford, there are spaces to hire. These include a meeting room and worship space which can be opened up into one big room for events including birthday parties, a cafe space, space in the tower and the ‘garden room’.
These spaces are used for and by a diverse range of organisations, including the Bow Bengali Forum and the local Labour party. Over thirty community groups regularly use the space, and the majority of them tend to be groups that focus on people’s well-being.
According to Hughesdon, well-being is a key part of what the church does, and this is not necessarily in a religious context. Having said that, the Sunday congregation has grown from about 20 when the church was reopened in 2004, to regularly 150 people.
It is no surprise that all kinds of people, not just Christian want to spend time at St Paul’s Old Ford. There is a lot going on in the building, and as Hughesdon explains, ‘We have had to get creative. The old, traditional church models don’t work as well anymore, and we have had to change in order to stay relevant. We are all on a journey, including those outside the church. We want to work towards community cohesion and togetherness.’
On the note of creativity, Hughesdon has been instrumental in the development of a new church on a barge in Hackney Wick. 10,000 new residential units are being built in Hackney Wick, and Hughesdon wanted to ensure that the church will be a positive presence in that new part of his parish. Land is hard to purchase in that area, and so from this summer, a 50-person barge will be moored next to Here East to ensure the church reaches that part of the parish.
People of all faiths are welcome at St Paul’s says Hughesdon. ‘It is a great joy to me that by offering generous hospitality people feel welcomed and safe at St Paul’s, wherever they would see themselves on the journey of faith and life. In a time when so many things in the world seem to highlight the differences between people, we hope and pray that St Paul’s, as the local parish church, can be a place where we can together be loving God and seeking transformation.’
St Paul’s Old Ford is part of the Tower Hamlets inter faith network, along with about 30 other Anglican churches. The borough chaplain, Father Alan Green at St John at Bethnal Green is the main Anglican liaison with this network. Hughesdon explains its importance;
‘At times when outside forces, like the English Defence League or some of the American and British media want to paint a certain picture of Tower Hamlets, it is groups like the inter faith network that can stand together and say that is not who we are as a community.’