Vicar fights to continue offering sanctuary to injured birds: A plan for five houses in a wildlife garden has made a clergyman accuse his church of hypocrisy and irrelevance. Peter Dunn reports

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CHURCH leaders will be attacked by one of their own parish priests at a public inquiry today over their plans to build five houses in his vicarage garden.

The Rev Derek Sawyer, 60, vicar of St Aldate's, Gloucester, has spent five years developing the one-acre garden as a wildlife sanctuary for injured swans, ducks and geese. Overlooked by a council estate in a deprived area of the city, it has two ponds, shrubs to attract butterflies and 78 varieties of tree.

School children, benignly supervised by Mr Sawyer in wellies and muddy-hemmed cassock, visit the spooky little woodland in droves to study nature.

Conflict between parson and diocese began when Mr Sawyer took over the parish six years ago. He refused, as freeholder of the property, to support the renewal of an existing outline planning consent to build two pairs of semis and a single house in the vicarage grounds. His stand was supported by Gloucester City Council, which rejected the church's re-application in March last year.

At today's public inquiry the vicar, supported by city fathers, 100 St Aldate's worshippers, 500 parishioners, local schools and environmentalists, will warm to his theme that the church today is 'hypocritical, irrelevant and increasingly motivated by market forces rather than by community care'.

Mr Sawyer said yesterday: 'When I came here the garden was derelict and the parish was in a vacuum. The bishop said to me 'Assess the parish and stabilise it'. At once the diocese pounced on me and wanted me, as parson-freeholder, to sign for their planning application. I asked for a year's grace but they refused and got more fervent in their desire to sell; I got more fervent in my desire not to.

'Then the diocese wouldn't do anything in the way of repairs or improvements to the house because they were annoyed with me. I said 'We'll show them' and I repaired the fences myself.

'They've said they won't do anything about the houses as long as I'm here, which could be another 10 years; but what's the point of me planting trees, creating something of value to the community and its children, if they're going to pull it all down the day after I've gone?

'Christians aren't supposed to go to law before unbelievers, though I'm not suggesting the inspector at the public inquiry is an unbeliever. What he'll get from me is a sermon. Jesus said 'You can't serve God and money' and I'll make use of that. It's been suggested to me that the diocese could get pounds 170,000 selling this property to a developer. Actually, the whole thing's un-Christian; it's not how we should conduct our business at all.

'Five women from our PCC and a councillor went to see the Bishop of Tewkesbury, Jeremy Walsh, about this. As the councillor remarked afterwards, they felt they'd been received by the managing director of the Diocese of Gloucester Inc, not their father in God.'

'Frankly,' the Right Rev Walsh said yesterday, 'I think that's just insulting because I don't believe it to be true. What I've tried to do is to see if a bit of give and take on all sides could not produce some sort of compromise.

'No one has complained about the way he's approached his vicarage garden. No one has actually suggested he's not doing a reasonable job in his parish. But not every incumbent in the future will want to have duck ponds there. It's got quite out of hand. I'm getting letters constantly from people criticising the decision to build houses. If that's what the parish is putting around, it's false information. We've not decided to build houses. All we're doing is keeping the option open. I find it difficult to understand why people can't accept this.'

(Photograph omitted)