Surplus churches await judgement day: Marianne Macdonald anticipates the conclusions of the Templeman report

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE DAY of reckoning is nigh for City of London clergy waiting anxiously for the conclusions of the Templeman Commission. Today its long- awaited report will finally reveal which Grade I churches are to be closed.

The commission is expected to recommend that a handful of churches - possibly more - are made redundant. There are simply too many churches in the Square Mile, where the resident population is 5,000, about 120 of whom attend services every week - an average congregation of 3.3 worshippers for each of the 36 Anglican churches.

Even allowing for worshippers among the 300,000 business people who commute to the City on weekdays, it is not enough. Physically, the entire congregation could be accommodated in St Paul's.

The commission has been dubbed the biggest rationalisation of City churches - many built by Wren and with important historical associations - since the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed 89 out of 109 parish churches.

Yet the problem it is attempting to tackle began between 1700 and 1801 when the City of London's population fell from 139,000 to 64,615; by 1901 it totalled 10,640. In 1902, Anglican churches in the Square Mile had seating for 22,000 people and enjoyed only 13 per cent occupancy.

Until now the Church has sidestepped the issue - not renewing appointments in underused churches and allying them with more successful ones, as with the Gothic-influenced St Mary Aldermary, St Sepulchre Holborn, the largest parish church in the City, St Andrew Undershaft, St Edmund-the-King, St Peter Cornhill, London's oldest-established church, and St Martin Ludgate, where King Caedwalla is allegedly buried. Others limp along with one or two services a week and few worshippers - St Stephen Walbrook, the Lord Mayor's parish church, and St Margaret Pattens (both Wren churches); St Botolph Aldersgate; St Clement Eastcheap, already occupied by a charity; and St Mary Abchurch.

Others have specific problems. St Ethelburga, the City's smallest church, was hit by an IRA bomb last year and largely destroyed; and All Hallows London Wall, headquarters for the Council for the Care of Churches. It is such buildings which clergy believe could be put to other uses.

The commission's investigation, which began in 1992, has caused anxiety. 'Quite a lot of churches are already digging themselves in against possible closure,' the Rev Brian Lee, of St Botolph Aldgate, said.

Others are delighted by the prospect. 'I hope we get rid of 20 churches. I've just been at a meeting of clergy where we hoped it would be quite radical. I feel very strongly there should be a rationalisation of the buildings,' Victor Stock, rector of the 'Bow Bells church', St Mary le Bow, said. He objects to having to act as 'curator' for the little-used church of St Mary Aldermary.

The City presents a particular challenge to clergy, some of whom have dealt with its peculiar problems - huge workforce, tiny population - very successfully. The Rev Dick Lucas packs St Helen, Bishopsgate with his evangelical services, while Mr Stock has created an award-winning vegetarian restaurant in the crypt of St Mary le Bow and holds popular lunchtime 'dialogues' every Tuesday with celebrities and politicians to lure in City workers.

Some have capitalised on their 'specialisms': St Benet in Queen Victoria Street, where Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen in 1553, holds services in Welsh; St Bartholomew the Less, in the grounds of St Bartholomew's Hospital, cares for patients; St Bride in Fleet Street works closely with journalists, and St Michael Paternoster Royal has strong links with seamen.

These are the successful ones. The Templeman Commission has had to decide what to do with the others. A key debate is whether an empty church is a useless church. Some say they are, arguing for their conversion to offices or flats to save thousands of pounds a year on maintenance.

Others think they have a vital purpose. 'Our doors are open and we provide a place for quiet prayer and reflection for city people with very pressurised jobs even if no services are held,' Preb Alan Tanner, City of London area dean, said.

Another question is how to reorganise manpower - for example, whether to enlist the cheap labour of non-stipendiary ministers - and whether to hand some churches to the Roman Catholics.

But while many of the City's problems are unique, others reflect concerns about the utilisation of money and manpower, which are crucial to the Church nationally.

(Photograph omitted)