A Free Church congregation in the heart of Edinburgh hopes to embark on an ambitious £300,000 renovation project at the beginning of 2016.
St Columba’s Free Church, which is a stone’s throw from the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle, has sourced funds amounting to around £200,000, but the congregation has launched a public appeal in a bid to raise the £90,000 shortfall before the end of the year.
The renovation works would see the wooden pews gutted out in the galleries and replaced with the current leather pews, the floor raised in the main sanctuary and refurbished with comfortable and flexible seating and other modern facilities.
A caretaker’s flat in the lower ground floor will also be converted into an office space, leaving extra rooms for youth groups, meetings and general activities.
It is the first major interior works for over 100 years for the B-listed building which is steeped in church history and counts Sir James Young Simpson – who pioneered the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic – as one of its former elders.
Above: St Columba's Free Church in 1909
The need for extra space, in particular for Kids Church activities, is a remarkable turnaround from 15 years ago when St Columba’s was at a very low ebb.
Minister Rev Derek Lamont explained: “At St Columba's, we have been very aware of God's amazing grace and the wonderful core of committed and gifted people.
“The work here began redevelopment in 2001 with a core group of just over 30 people. There were no children.
“Today, we have over 140 members, more than 50 children and we are gearing for growth.”
Mr Lamont (pictured below) continued: “Our vision is to have a strong church community that meets in the building to worship God and equips our people to live out and share their faith in Edinburgh.
“We want to start new churches in local communities, with core groups sent out from St Columba's, so that more people hear and see the Gospel at work.
“We also have the opportunity to reach out to the thousands of visitors who come to the city every year, through our partnership with Christian Heritage Edinburgh.
“We would like to see the building become a more useful resource for the wider Christian community in Edinburgh and for our denomination nationally.”
The foundation for the building was laid in 1843, and took just 18 months to build at the cost of £6,500. It hosted Free Church founding father Rev Dr Thomas Guthrie and his Free St John’s congregation following the Disruption.
In 1905 the building was allocated to the Free Church in the Churches (Scotland) Act of 1905 to be used as their Assembly Hall and to house the congregation of St Columba’s.
Three years later the church underwent large renovations to make it more suitable for use, including the introduction of the current pews in the downstairs part of the sanctuary.
In more recent times, in 2000, the majority of the congregation along with their minister left the Free Church of Scotland to form the Free Church Continuing.
That left a core group of around 30 people – but, since the redevelopment began, the numbers have grown steadily to almost 200 on Sunday mornings with a large number of students and an ever growing crèche and Sunday school.
St Columba’s hosts the Free Church’s annual General Assembly as well as the Christian heritage centre over the summer months attracting many tourists and members of the public.
This means the building itself has an estimated annual footfall of around 15,000 people.
In the last few years St Columba’s Free Church has helped to plant a new church in Morningside, called Cornerstone, and hopes to do the same in Midlothian.
Its long-term aim is to see many more new churches planted throughout the city of Edinburgh.
As well as providing necessary improvements to help the work of the congregation, the improvements will benefit commissioners and spectators at the General Assembly, and a renovated St Columba’s building could potentially be offered as an overflow resource or large lecture theatre for Edinburgh Theological Seminary, as well as providing conference and meeting facilities for other churches and organisations.
Rev Derek Lamont added: “We are committed to seeing the project through and praying that the funding gap will be met by the appeal we are making.
“Our aim is to do the work quickly and effectively so that we are not distracted from our primary calling to be a community of believers focused on Christ and the progress of His Kingdom.
“We recognise the building as an important resource, and we are keen to see it upgraded to be the best it can be for at least a generation.
“However, we know it is no more than a resource and that the spiritual community of people that we are seeking to build is much more important.
“More than anything we long for God to work in the hearts of people in this city to bring them to Himself in salvation power, and that is our vision and prayer.”
Interested parties can donate to the building appeal online via the St Columba’s website.