Charles Pickstone became the Vicar of St Laurence Church, Catford in 1989. As a curate he had been very keen on the church playing its role in the community, always serving in “impoverished communities where the church was one of the key players.” Arriving at St Laurence’s, at the heart of a parish founded in 1888, he was pleased to join a church that has always “aspired to offer the local community more than just a place to worship”.1
Charles describes the appetite for a community-led focus at the time of the building of the new church and the setting up of Lewisham Council for Social Service (LCCS), the organisation that would later become Voluntary Action Lewisham (VAL). For the church, this was demonstrated in a “community-centred vision of how God worked” that connected to the LCCS vision of placing the community at the heart of its work. For Charles, the spirit of the community, the church and VAL have been inextricably linked.
“After 1968, the world was changing. Community activism was becoming a big exciting place to be. It was the same sense of optimism and sense that things could be transformed if enough people got together and broke down barriers.”
The church’s involvement in community issues can be seen in a letter from the then Vicar of St Laurence’s, the Rev’d Wilfred Wood, dated 1976, in which he outlines a statement circulated to all community groups and the church, requesting support for the Lewisham-wide anti-racist and anti-fascist campaign.
“The church dates to 1968, very much the same era as VAL itself. You can see many parallel sets of values between the church’s approach to the community and VAL’s approach when it was set up back in the ‘60s.”
Arriving at Catford as a new vicar, Charles was keen to see where the local community hubs were, and if possible, “get stuck into them so I could also play a role in building links between this community-oriented church and the focus of community work within the neighbourhood.” He says he very quickly discovered that “VAL seemed to be where it was at.”
Charles was soon invited by VAL to join the management committee, as the organisation was looking for representative from a faith group. Moving to Lewisham was a huge relief, because even in those days the borough “had a much more positive attitude towards faith groups” at a time when there was generally “much more of a divide between faith and community work.”
“It’s the kind of place where people do seem to band together to get things done. It’s strange how it works. But it’s often the unglamorous areas which have the strongest sense of community…I’ve been very happy to be involved with VAL in any case, but also because it has been at the heart of my own parish.”
Charles remembers VAL then as “a much bigger organisation” when it was responsible for many schemes to support the community and voluntary sector in Lewisham. He recalls the popular printed monthly newsletter, ‘Grapevine’, “often quite a big publication with lots of news and activities going on, requests for help, and information.”
During Charles’ long tenure as a trustee of VAL, he has seen a reduction in funding from the local authority, a greater reliance on funding from other sources and a move towards greater entrepreneurship in the sector. He sees both the church’s work in the community and the continuation of VAL as a testament to the ability of each of the organisations to adapt to contemporary challenges, changing communities and new circumstances. VAL’s move to New Cross from Catford in 2018 paved the way, after many years of valuable service, for Charles to step down as trustee.