THE church, in Albert Hill, was torn apart when a significant number of its congregation left earlier this year.

Dozens of members of the congregation, as well as their vicar, Father Ian Grieves, left to join the Ordinariate, a structure within the Roman Catholic Church that allows former Anglicans to join but retain elements of their Anglican tradition.

Early last year, it became clear that a significant number of parishioners at the church, which was built in the 1870s, wanted to join the Roman Catholic Ordinariate.

Not everyone among the congregation agreed, however, with many keen for the church to continue in the way it had for more than 130 years.

The result was an inevitable, but amicable, split.

In February, Father Grieves and those who were about to leave offered their final Mass at St James the Great before transferring to St Anne’s RC Church, in Welbeck Avenue, Darlington.

Now those who have remained are looking optimistically towards the future.

The departure of the 55 has left 73 registered in the congregation, including some whom have returned to worship since the split.

David Warren, who became parish church council chairman after the split, said: “We knew for a year that they were going to leave and it was a difficult time.

“We were a congregation divided, some committed to St James the Great, some committed to leaving.

“What happened was difficult at an individual level, because some friendships were fractured. Some relationships suffered.

“When the others left, there were times when the viability of the church was questioned, but we lost fewer people than we expected and a hard core remained to continue worshipping at St James the Great.

“We have also seen some people return after having kept away. I sat at the back of a service not long after the split happened and thought ‘this looks pretty much as it looked before’.”

Because of its nature as an Anglo-Catholic Church, which takes in elements of both churches, St James the Great has a congregation comprising one third local people and two thirds who travel from further afield because they are attracted by the tradition of Anglo-Catholicism.

Mr Warren said the church’s commitment to the idea remains strong.

He added: “When something like this happens you are obliged under the rules to reconsider whether or not you would like to stay as an Anglo-Catholic Church and we have reaffirmed that. We have always been an Anglo-Catholic Church and we wish to remain so.

“We have changed some things. Previously, we had a daily Mass. Now, we have three a week, which are reasonably well attended. The previous ones were not always well attended.

“We see what happened to us as an opportunity and our message is that we are still here. We are open for business.”

Fellow church council member Phillip Patterson said: “There is a feeling of optimism now. What happened has been liberating.

“I think some people are either coming back having previously kept away or are coming for the first time. I am certainly seeing some new faces.”

Along with the new council, leadership of the church rests with The Venerable Granville Gibson, an experienced and respected clergyman who was brought in after the departure of the congregation members.

He said: “There is a real positive feeling about what is happening at the church. There is an energy and an enthusiasm and I am thrilled to be part of it.”