So, on the 19th July 1971, the Rev. Frederick R. Skeet formally announced his resignation from the pastorate at S.B.C. I say ‘formally’ because that year Robin and I were busy planning our wedding for September 1972 and Mr. Skeet had already agreed to officiate at same. As a couple, we responded with some trepidation when he asked to see us privately as soon as I came home from college at the beginning of the summer of 1971. We wondered what we could possibly have done wrong, but ended up feeling very privileged to be let into the secret that he had accepted the call to Ferring Baptist Church, Worthing: this, he explained, was a smaller church that he thought would be less stressful for both himself and Beat as they approached their retirement. Finally, he assured us he would be back for our wedding – which, I’m pleased to say, he was! This was, however, by no means certain because at the time of the Deacons’ meeting on the 13th September that year, when plans were being made for his farewell event, he was, in fact, in hospital. At that same meeting, the deacons also agreed to recommend to the churches that the Rev. R.J. (Reg) Walker, the retired minister of Central Baptist Church, Southampton, who had recently been received into membership at S.B.C., should be recognised as a supplementary minister of the Shirley & District Group of Baptist Churches.
On the 14th October 1971 the churches agreed to begin to seek a co-pastor for the group to work alongside the Rev. Richard Bennett. Fred Skeet was inducted into the pastorate of Ferring Baptist Church on the 2nd November 1971 and, at that point the membership at SBC stood at 359.
It seems that our forefathers did not let the grass grow under their feet when appointing a successor for Mr. Skeet. The Rev. Richard Steel from Chingford Mount Baptist Church in Essex was invited to preach at SBC on the 9th January. Presumably he was also invited to visit the other churches in the group because they made a unanimous decision to call him as co-pastor of the group on the 13th January 1972. His induction followed on the 20th May 1972, and he and Hazel, his wife, and children Adrian, David & Helen moved into the Pirrie Close Manse.
Initially, the group functioned well. At the AGM in November 1972 the secretary was able to say, “For the first time in the 9 years that I have been called on to make this report there has been an increase in the number on the roll.” (367 i.e. +8 over 1971); she also reported that the Luncheon Club, which had started in September 1972 at the request of the City Council, was now meeting each Thursday and that a new group, The Wednesday Club, had begun to meet during the year. (I have a note from Ruth K that may cause you to smile.) Freda Bennett, having spent a large proportion of her life as a missionary, often had a rather ‘quaint, old-fashioned & innocent’ way of expressing herself.; it therefore caused some amusement when she had said to the likes of Ruth K and Sylvie B (younger women of the world) that she wanted to start this group ‘for the loose women’ of the church. By this she was actually referring to those women who attended on a Sunday, but were not able to attend/had not engaged with the other established women’s groups at Shirley such as the Baptist Women’s League, and so Young Wives’ and Mothers’ Club, or the Women’s Evening Group came into being. Another significant event for the fellowship, was a church weekend away at Park Place which was reportedly a great success. However, despite all appearing to be well, deep down there was some friction.
In February 1973, the Rev. Reg Walker moved to join the fellowship at Redditch in the Midlands, and the differences in style of leadership between the two full-time pastors of the group began to cause a few problems. As I see it, Richard Bennett’s style of ministry was more traditional and, some would say, in keeping with SBC, whereas Richard Steel’s was more relaxed. It was certainly welcomed by worshippers such as those found on the nearby council estates like Colne Avenue and Shirley Warren. This may be an over-simplification on my part, but it seems that possibly the church leadership at that time, in their haste to appoint a second pastor, may have been mistaken in appointing both men on an equal footing i.e. there was nobody ‘in charge’ humanly speaking.
During the course of 1973, Richard Steel went on an exchange visit with the Rev. Fred Jewell from Canada for 7 weeks during July and August; there were significant changes of role on the church leadership team when, following the resignation of Charles Montague, Mrs. Overton took on the role of Church Treasurer, Mr. Beris Head replaced her as Church Secretary, and the church embarked on the ‘One Step Forward Campaign’.
In addition to the above, on the 11th October 1973 at a Special Group Church Meeting, 3 years after the formation of the group, it was reconstituted. It was agreed that, in future, Dick Bennett would be responsible for S.B.C., with Richard Steel taking responsibility for the other three churches. At the SBC AGM the following month, it was noted that, following a revision of the church roll and the formation of a non-resident roll, the membership of SBC now stood at 326; also, at that meeting, significant growth in the Sunday School and Church Youth Organisations was noted.
At a Special Church Meeting during May 1974 an evaluation of SBC’s commitment to the group was carried, out and it was agreed that Colonel Head and Charles Montague should meet with the BU General Secretary to discuss and agree funding for the group. Obviously, things were tight financially, and they wanted to discuss whether the Home Mission Fund might be able to support the second minister to some extent. It would, however, appear that no help was available from this source, and on the 17th October 1974 the church took the decision to continue with the group as at present, and then review the situation in 6 months.
At the AGM in 1974, it was reported that the church membership stood at 310. Things, it seems, were not improving sufficiently financially, however, and in January 1975, Richard Steel moved to Castlehold Baptist Church at Newport on the Isle of Wight to take up what was to be a very successful and fruitful ministry there.
Memories of an erstwhile teenager…
During the early 1970’s I was attending the church at Colne Avenue where Richard Steel was the pastor. One Sunday in 1973, after he had delivered a particularly challenging sermon I, having decided at the age of 14 going on 15 that it was time for me to give my life to the Lord, attempted to find him after the service. Imagine how I felt when I eventually located him in the vestry talking to my brother Kevin who had been equally challenged by his words. (It must have been a truly powerful sermon!) He subsequently ran baptismal classes for us. together with two girls from SBC, Claire Mullineaux and Debbie Staples. Richard later said that the church at Colne Avenue had little to offer young Christians at that time, and strongly advised us to move to Shirley where there was a thriving Young People’s Fellowship led by Peter and Janet Sharman. We were amazed to find so many young Christians meeting there, and we were made very welcome. We were baptised by Richard Steel on the 13th April 1973. I was just 15. The service was taken jointly by Richard Steel and Dick Bennett and, as I recall, additional chairs were put out in the aisles as the pews were all full. (This was in the days before many of the church pews were removed!)
I also remember a Church Meeting, in the Keeble Hall, I think, in 1974 when Alf Chaplin stood up and pointed out that there were a number of young people who were attending the meetings, but were unable to vote because they were under the age of 18. It was therefore agreed at that meeting that the voting age should be reduced to 16. This displayed how the young people were regarded, and welcomed in the church at the time.