The story began in the autumn of 1969 when Bob Cotton was called to the pastorate of a small Congregational Chapel in the village of Barrow, 5 miles outside Bury St Edmunds. He had felt God’s definite call to the ministry of the Word and in consequence left his job as a shoe shop manager in Bury to become pastor of the church.
The denominational authorities had regarded the chapel as a lost cause, but the work began to experience God’s blessing on the preaching of the gospel and in answer to much prayer. The cause became an independent evangelical church, affiliated to both the FIEC (Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches) and EFCC (Evangelical Fellowship of Congregational Churches). People were being drawn from the Bury area to share in the distinctive evangelical and expository ministry on which the work had been founded.
The members then began to pray concerning the will of God for the future because so many were travelling a distance out to the village chapel from the town and surrounding area. A concern was born in the hearts of the pastor and the people to plant a new work in the town of Bury itself, which at that time had lacked a distinctive biblical ministry. The town had once known the long and famous ministry of Cornelius Elven, the tanner and leather-seller who was a close friend of CH Spurgeon, but no comparable ministry had continued to the present.
The Barrow Church commenced monthly Bible rallies at Westley Middle School in Oliver Road, Bury St Edmunds in February 1972. Those rallies met a real need among Christians in the area who were hungry for the Word of God. A remarkably high number of younger people gathered attentively under this serious ministry. The nucleus of a local church was thus being formed.
In November 1973 weekly Bible studies were started in the school building and these were quite well supported. The folk involved at times naturally felt fearful and apprehensive about going forward, but the gracious way in which God led them overcame their hesitations one by one. Through these testings there was a corresponding deepening of spiritual life in the fellowship.
The new church began in February 1975, meeting in the Community Centre on the Westley housing estate, and was concerned to maintain a vibrant evangelistic ministry among the local people. The first Sunday services were well attended as whole families met together there for the first time on the Lord’s Day. It was evident from the first few weeks of the church’s life that several folk from the town were becoming interested and starting to attend. The occasion was unusual in at least two respects: firstly, because it marked the inauguration of a new work in days when many churches were declining or closing down; and secondly, because it was the witness in the nearby village of Barrow that gave rise to this new fellowship in the town.
The preacher at the inaugural service was Pastor David Smith of Eden Baptist Church, Cambridge. He spoke on the theme of the church as the light of the world from Matthew 5. He urged Christians to realise the appalling spiritual darkness of the world around them. He showed how some churches hid their light by confining their evangelism to church buildings; while others, by a false interpretation of the doctrine of separation, avoid social contact with unbelievers or fail to communicate the gospel in language which people can understand. If we realise the need of the people around us in their darkness he said, we must take practical steps to make our witness visible in our local community.
In his opening address Rev Bob Cotton spoke of the evident way in which God had worked to gather His people together to form this new church in the town. The monthly Bible rallies continued and at the same time the new church looked to God as they sought to make an effective witness to the gospel’s saving power in Bury St Edmunds.
There were therefore two independent evangelical churches under the pastoral oversight of Bob Cotton. He continued as pastor at Barrow, while seeking to fulfil the same role in Bury St Edmunds where the fellowship was being constituted as a church in its own right. The newly formed Bury St Edmunds Evangelical Church celebrated its first anniversary in February 1976 when the Rt Hon Rev Roland Lamb (British Evangelical Council) preached at both morning and evening services.
During these first eventful twelve months the congregation doubled in number. As the Lord put His seal on the work in this way, the members felt that now was the opportune time to seek their first permanent home. Another factor which led them to think in this way was pressure from the local authority with regard to use of the current meeting place, preventing any development in some spheres of the work of the church.
This young fellowship believed that the Lord was directing them to purchase a building in Hospital Road, only five minutes from the town centre. Negotiations went ahead in faith, trusting that the Lord would bring in the necessary finance as they endeavoured to raise it. The building was originally the stable block attached to the Elephant & Castle pub. The upper room, which was ultimately used for prayer, was the original hayloft. Ownership moved to the Exclusive Brethren and subsequently to the Eastern Electricity Board who used the building as a sports and social club.
The building was not large but had all the necessary amenities, with a sizeable car park and ground for a possible extension and was on the market at £7,000. The church regarded this as a challenge and felt that it would be glorifying to God to reclaim these premises for the preaching of the gospel. The purchase was completed on the 28 May 1976 and the first services held on 5 June 1976.
The building has been enlarged three times since then. The first extension was in 1979 and the second extension in 1983 and both were completed by members themselves. The third extension in 1995 was the most ambitious and resulted in the existing, comfortable building seating up to 150 people.
Now, as in the beginning, the membership is composed of people from different backgrounds and denominational origins. We are brought together by the simple belief that the Bible is the word of God and an earnest desire to share the gospel message.
Pastors who have served the Lord at Westgate:
1975-1985 Bob Cotton
1986-1990 Benny Clark
1994-2007 Brian Freer
2010 -2016 Bernard Every