The St Nicholas Church building has always occupied an important position within the town of Sevenoaks.
The current shape mostly dates from the 13th century, though the main part was rebuilt in the 15th century.
The earliest reference to the church is in the Textus Roffensis (compiled c1120). Probably the most famous clergyman from St Nicholas is the celebrated preacher and poet John Donne, who was Rector from 1616 until 1631. Since 1907 the Church has had an evangelical ministry with a clear focus on the gospel. A fuller history can be found in Professor David Killingray’s Sevenoaks People & Faith (Phillimore, Chichester, 2004).
A major building project was completed in 1995 under the leadership of Revd Miles Thomson, which involved excavating under the building to provide more space for activities on site. The story is told in Julia Cameron’s book The Church that went under (Paternoster, Carlisle, 1999).
St Nicholas Undercroft at 25
An event was held at St Nicholas Sevenoaks on 21st February to mark the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Undercroft. We heard how, between 1990 and 1995, the project had progressed from seeming ‘Impossible’ through to ‘Difficult’, then ‘Done!’ In contrast to frequent reports of declining church attendance, this was an encouraging story of church growth over the past quarter of a century. The Undercroft has enabled wider engagement with the community seven days a week, both in sharing the gospel message and in providing practical help to those in need.
After the screening of a video made in 1990, Sara Thomson described how her late husband, Miles, had been appointed as Rector in 1987 with a specific mandate from the Trustees to equip the church for use in the 21st century. It needed to be more practical, flexible and welcoming. She said earlier plans had stalled as a result of planning objections. The vibrant children’s and teenagers' groups, meeting in the Undercroft, in itself shows how it has met these needs.
Brigadier Ian Dobbie, who left the Army to become Project Coordinator, explained the complex archaeological, design and construction challenges of excavating, underpinning and building beneath a medieval structure. It was the first time this had been achieved in Britain, and was not without risk.
Paul Batchelor, Building Fund Treasurer, outlined how over £2million pounds had been raised, very largely by members of the church family giving sacrificially and tax-effectively over several of years. Each speaker gave testimony of the impact of the project on their own journey of faith, as well as in enlarging the teaching and pastoral work of the church.
Julia Cameron, author of 'The Church That Went Under' and former member of St Nicholas, gave a vivid account of how the experience of St Nicholas had provided inspiration to many other churches to embark on major building projects. Some stories are now captured in her book 'Building for the Gospel: A handbook for the Visionary and the Terrified.'
A church is a body of people, not the building itself, but having a building which serves contemporary needs and allows effective outreach to share the good news of Jesus Christ certainly helps.
Prof David Killingray’s Short history of St Nicholas was made available for everyone, and the evening closed with questions from the floor. As David Killingray observes, the growth in St Nicholas has led to two church plants, meeting in Lady Boswell' School. We look forward to what God will do in the next quarter century.
A gathering in the Undercroft