‘My First 100 Days As Guildford’s New Town Centre Chaplain’

Guildford’s new town centre chaplain, the Rev’d Noelle Coe, has been in post for 100 days. Here she explains her role, the main issues being faced, what excites her about the job and how people can support the work it does.You head up the Town Centre Chaplaincy, what does it do?

The chaplaincy has been established for 10 years and is supported by churches, businesses and individuals from the Guildford area. With over 130 fabulous volunteers we run three projects designed to offer care and compassion to the vulnerable in the town – whether they are at work, rest or play.

Our much-loved Street Angels project has helped 50,000 people in his first decade of operation, providing a calming presence on the town’s streets, between 11pm and 4am, every Friday and Saturday night.

Our much newer project, Community Angels, tackles the growing problem of loneliness, these Angels befriend and reconnect the most isolated across the town.

Finally, our Volunteer Chaplains provide a friendly independent listening ear within the workplace, working alongside retailers and other employers, where it is needed. We are particularly proud that our work has been recognised by being presented with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the MBE for Charities!

What is the role of the Town Chaplain?

I am effectively the chief executive officer of the charity, responsible for two part-time staff and our precious team of volunteers.

More interestingly, I have the privilege of enabling others to serve some of the neediest people of Guildford. I’m humbled to see our fabulous volunteers committing themselves to go out into our community to give support and blessing.

Our town centre is special. On the surface, it is a wealthy beautiful place. However, its lovely facades also conceal considerable problems after dark and behind closed doors. I am proud to have the opportunity to contribute to making Guildford a safer and more caring place for those who work, rest or play here.

What is your background?

I’m originally from Surrey. I’m ordained and I have served in a variety of parishes ranging from St Martin’s in the Bull Ring in central Birmingham and outer city estates, to my current village church in Newdigate.

I’ve also worked for the civil service, local government and National Express coaches, so along the way I have gained valuable experience in both the community and commercial worlds.

I’m married to Andrew the team rector of the Surrey Weald team and have three grown-up children which still keeps me busy. I love to read, go to the theatre, cook savoury food (my cakes often resemble biscuits!) walk, preferably on routes with tea shops.

Has the town centre changed during the 10 years that the Street Angels have been working in the town?

Guildford experiences issues in common with other busy towns with a vibrant night life. There are still issues around drunkenness, homelessness, drugs and antisocial behaviour, but the real tensions that existed when we first started our friendly patrols has largely reduced. 

Police figures have shown that in the first three months of operation alone, antisocial behaviour reduced by 29% which is a stunning result. 

I am of course anxious about the growth of knife crime across the country. Personally, I would not be unhappy to see the return of properly administered stop and search. If there is nothing to hide, then this is a small inconvenience compared to the dangers of concealed knifes. 

In practical ways our Street Angels role has not changed hugely, nor have the issues that we face. We still hand out lollipops and flipflops for sore feet, offer mobile phone chargers and foil blankets to protect against hypothermia.

Perhaps our most valued service is the non-judgemental listening ear, signposting people to other sources of help and simply making sure everyone gets home safely. 

Many of the people we help are young adults, students away from home for the first time, we aim to be there for them. Over the years we have learnt a lot and I am humbled that many of our volunteers have been serving others, whatever the weather, for many years.

Street Angels pick up some 5,000 bottles and glasses every year, reducing litter, but also reducing the risk of these items being used as weapons, so enhancing the environment for everyone and again helping keep people safe. 

Working with other organisations, the Street Angels have contributed to Guildford being the only town in Surrey to have been awarded the prestigious Purple Flag, a national accreditation scheme which recognises excellent management of city centres at night, and is backed by the government, police and business. 

Towns and cities that have been awarded the Purple Flag have shown that by encouraging a wide range of people into the centre at night, the rate of anti-social behaviour lowers.

What are the main issues facing Guildford town centre today?

It’s a challenging time for the vulnerable in our locality. We have seen huge demand for home visits from our Community Angels over the last year reflecting a nationwide increase in feelings of insecurity in people of all ages. 

Our volunteer Angels seek to reassure, befriend, and re-engage people with their community, to enable them to live a full life. 

We are seeing more people with mental health issues and other complex problems. Our trained volunteers operate in close collaboration with the police and other agencies to ensure that the vulnerable are supported in appropriate ways.

After your first 100 days, what excites you most about your role?

I am very fortunate to be part of a great team of people who are fully committed to the work of the chaplaincy. We all have different talents, we work together, have fun getting involved in community or fundraising events and look to resolve difficult situations through generosity of blessings and compassion.  

I have met many local leaders in my first 100 days and am so encouraged that the people I have met so far celebrate and value our passion and vision. I look forward to getting to know and collaborating with other church, civic and community organisations.

Working in partnership, we have the means to continue to support the community of Guildford by tackling social isolation and vulnerable people within it, in a non-judgemental way. I have also learnt that drinking cups of tea and listening to people is incredibly important alongside all that we do.

How can people help support your work?

There are three main ways people can support our work.  

Firstly, you can volunteer to join our team as a Street Angel, a Community Angel or consider supporting us at a special event – maybe you have specialist skills, we are currently looking for a volunteer treasurer! 

Secondly, you can support us financially, the chaplaincy costs some £85k per year to run, we would love to hear from local businesses who would be keen to sponsor us or from individuals who are able to support us by regular gifting. 

Thirdly, we are an ecumenical charity with a Christian ethos, we value prayer support from churches across the area, additional ‘pray-ers’ always welcome. 

Visit our website for more details or contact me via the website. I would love to meet more people from the area who care about our town and its people. (First published in the Guildford Dragon News )