The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in High Street, has received £118,000 from the Lottery to spend on developing a master plan for the conservation and refurbishment of the church and attached congregation house.
Plans may also now get the go-ahead for a new learning and education centre.
Church staff are planning to submit a capital bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £3m towards the project.
They have been told that 80 per cent of churches which are successful in getting development cash will go on to get substantial funding.
St Mary’s vicar Canon Brian Mountford said: “This is a most wonderful boost to our development programme, enabling us to realise long-term plans for this church which stands at the centre of Oxford and its history.
”We want to provide a building and a ministry fitted for the 21st century.”
There has been a church on the site for 900 years and the current building with its famous spire dates back to the 13th century.
So far, St Mary’s parochial church council has raised more than £1.8m towards the scheme, including the Heritage Lottery Fund cash, with substantial contributions from Oxford University and the Clore-Duffield Foundation.
The church is among the most visited places of worship in England, attracting 300,000 visitors each year, plus a Sunday congregation of about 150 each week.
Associate priest the Rev Dr Craig D’Alton, who has been leading the fundraising campaign, said the development would transform the church.
He added: “It will completely alter the way we do business and, most importantly, will transform the visitor experience.
“At the moment it is a building that hasn’t had much attention paid to it for a long time.
“You get a lot of people wandering through, a little bit bewildered about what they should be looking at.
“The aim is to bring the whole thing up to spec.”
He hoped the application for major funding would be ready to submit in six to eight months.
If the money can be obtained, it is hoped work would start early next year.
The major part of the project, which includes restoring the entire stonework of the church and the interior, would take 12 to 18 months, while the whole project would take about five years to complete.
For the first time, a dedicated education centre would be constructed, telling visitors about the history of the church and its place in Oxford.
A church has been on the site of St Mary the Virgin for 900 years, and it was adopted by Oxford University in medieval times as its centre.
It continued as a parish church but by the early 13th century became the seat of university government.
All university business was removed by the middle of the 17th century but it remains the place where the institution formally worships.
The three Oxford Martyrs, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, were partly tried at St Mary’s in the 16th century and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, often attended sermons.
John Henry Newman was a vicar there in 1828 and it is closely linked to the Oxford Movement — an attempt to revive Catholic spirituality in the church and university.
Its tower offers some of the best views of Oxford’s dreaming spires.
Heritage Lottery Fund south east head Stuart McLeod said: “St Mary the Virgin is one of England’s most popular churches and a well-known part of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ cityscape.
“We are pleased to be supporting initial plans to restore this historic building and to open it up much more widely for everyone’s enjoyment.”
To donate to the development campaign, contact Mr Mountford on 01865 515778.
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