John Walsh: God wants you wealthy – and he'd also like your cinema and a fast car

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

An intriguing local-community dispute is simmering along nicely in Crystal Palace. It's a dispute between God and Mammon, with God showing curious signs of being the bad guy. On one side are residents who are worried about the regeneration of the "Palace triangle", three busy roads which have been designated an "at risk" conservation area. On the other side is an Evangelical church.

The battleground is the site of the old bingo hall in Church Road. It started life as a rather beautiful art deco cinema, built in 1928 by the architect George Coles. Like so many other cinemas in the Sixties, its audiences dwindled and it became a bingo joint. Recently it was sold by its parent company, Gala plc, to the Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC), a phenomenally-wealthy Pentecostal church.

The locals learned that the KICC is now preparing a planning application to change the use of the cinema site from a D2 planning use (leisure) to a D1 (place of worship). If their application succeeds, a new church will appear on the site where a generation of Crystal Palatians watched Casablanca and Brief Encounter and Fantasia. The locals have a better idea. They favour the City Screen group, owners of the Clapham Picture House, the Brixton Ritzy and other independent movie theatres which have enlivened some districts of south London in serious need of, shall we say, glamour and community fun. When Gala plc offered the old bingo hall, City Screen put in a bid for it, and lost out to the KICC, and are now presumably kicking themselves that the church has bought the place. The locals are mounting a campaign to lobby Bromley Council to refuse a change of use at No 25 Church Lane. And hoping that the church, finding themselves with an old cinema on their hands that they can't transform into anything more spiritual, will agree to sell to City Screen.

All over Crystal Palace there are flyers and posters and even diamante T-shirts for what's rather cutely titled the Picture Palace campaign. "We've been looking for a cinema for years," says a campaign spokeswoman called Annabel Sidney. "Crystal Palace is in desperate need of something to kick start local regeneration, and a cinema is perfectly placed to do that. It will help trade and be a unique cultural asset. We'd be devastated to lose the site to a church. We already have seven churches in the area, of which two are evangelical, and I don't know where the KICC will draw its congregation from."

Though Ms Sidney is too polite to say, many people have been wondering about the KICC. Its leader, Matthew Ashimolowo, is a controversial figure for preaching to his flock that "God wants you rich!" He should know. His church is a financial phenomenon. It has assets of £23m. It made a profit of £4.9m in the last 18 months. Its wealth (which dwarfs St Paul's Cathedral's foundation by a factor of three) comes from worshippers, who pay tithes (ie a tenth of their annual salary) and are given forms so they can pay by bank transfer rather than putting coins on collection plates. It contrives to avoid a large tax bill by its charitable status. "It has been very exciting to see God move the ministry from one level to another," Mr Ashimolowo has said, "as we witness the increased manifestations of his glory." The Lord's divine assistance did not stop Mr Ashimolowo being investigated by the Charity Commission three years ago; he was stripped of his role as chief executive and ordered to pay back £200,000: it seems he had appropriated church assets to buy himself a timeshare in Florida and a £80,000 car.

His church is still an amazing success story. A year ago, it attracted over 90,000 visitors to the Excel centre in London for its International Gathering of Champions, who queued to hear a lot of inspirational talk about self-development and the message to the faithful that God Wants You Wealthy. Their glittery website carries the slogan: "Building Champions. Taking Territories."

Taking territories? The church has bought up operating quarters in Hackney, Wimbledon, Walthamstow (a disused cinema) and other bits of the metropolis. The site in Crystal Palace will be a wholly-owned home. It is not, perhaps, surprising that the locals would rather have a modest, retro-fitted, independent picture-house in their run-down back street, than the headquarters of an evangelical, money-spinning Temple of Mammon. Which would you prefer?

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