St. Peter’s Church

Argus Title : A parish full of potential

This week I read 2 interesting documents. The first was an invitation to attend a consultation session about the regeneration of the London Road and Lewes Road in Brighton. The second was a report about the future of St Peter’s Church, which lies on the island between the two.

I was given the first document by my husband. The second was offered to parishioners after last Sunday’s service at St Peter’s. A London consultancy firm called “Urban Initiatives” has been appointed by Brighton and Hove City Council to prepare a Regeneration Strategy for the London Road and Lewes Road areas.

It is holding a drop-in session and guided walkabout from 4.00 – 8.30pm on Tuesday 12th September at the Brighthelm Centre, to discuss “the issues and opportunities” facing what they call “the London Road and Lewes Road corridors.”

More than once, I have written despairingly in this column about the deterioration of the London Road, damage to The Level and the probable negative consequences of the planned closure of the Co-op department store. In common with others who work or live here I have been frustrated by the absence of local consultation about the future of the area.

So I was pleased to see that a consultation event is to take place, though concerned that the invitation list seemed not to include many individuals and organizations from the London Road and Lewes Road area.

I spoke with Becky Beer, who is leading the process for Urban Initiatives, and she assured me she is very anxious to speak with all interested individuals and groups from the affected neighbourhoods. It seems a golden opportunity for local residents and workers (including local parishioners and those facing redundancy at the Co-op) to learn about any proposals and give their views about what they think should happen. Becky can be contacted on 0207-380 4545.

The document about St Peter’s Church is very different from the first, but just as significant. St Peter’s is a major landmark, one of the first major buildings visitors see as they enter the city. As a consequence, both the Council, which owns the surrounding land and the Diocese of Chichester which owns the church, want to preserve it.

One might suppose that it would be the City Council which would be resistant to St Peter’s continuing as a place of worship – and that the Diocese would be fighting for its retention. However, this is not the case.

This week a representative of the Council’s economic development department told me that the Council would be “very happy” if the Church managed to retain part of the building as an active parish church and reassured me that the Council had no covert money-spinning plans for the site.

In contrast, the minutes of the Diocesan Pastoral Committee of 25th May, which have just been given to parishioners, state baldly that “the pastoral provision for the people of the parish…is not best served by the retention of the building as a parish church”.

Though the Committee’s members apparently “recognized that St Peter’s is a very significant part of the townscape of Brighton and it is (their) conviction that it should remain as such” they have agreed that “the most appropriate way of preserving the building for the future (is) to find an alternative use.”

The minutes add somewhat grudgingly “There is a possibility of a small area for a reconciliation or multi-faith meeting area, although the Committee was clear that this should not be seen as a worship space for the existing congregation.”

While the minutes speak of St Peter’s Church’s “value to the city’s skyline” and refer to the “burden” upon the parish of maintaining what the Committee calls a “a huge and deteriorating asset”, they say nothing of the church’s actual and potential role as a centre of community and religious activity – or about the parish as a living breathing community.

Many of St Peter’s parishioners have already faced close of their parish churches, in some cases twice. Many are elderly and frail and have difficulty getting to St Peter’s. They have been told that there are 8 churches within a mile of St Peter’s and they must go to one of these. In practice this means that many – including my own mother – will not get to a church.

In March 2005 the Diocese published a report which proposed the closure or partial closure of several churches in Brighton. At that time the favoured option for St Peter’s was for the church “working in partnership with others” to be adapted “in whole or in part” to “better serve the needs of the local community”.

When I telephoned the Diocesan Office to ask why the decision had been reached to propose full closure rather than dual use, I was informed that the church is not financially viable. I was also told that over the past year none of the parishioners has written to object to closure. I was astonished by this because most of the parishioners to whom I have spoken want the church to be retained.

It occurred to me that the reason parishioners haven’t contacted the Diocesan Office to object to closure may be because they have not been formally invited to do so or told to whom they should write. Certainly, local residents have not been asked their views.

The Diocesan Office clearly accepts there is huge social need in the area, but seems to have little conviction that this church can and should help to meet it. There is apparently also a view – inaccurate in my opinion – that St Peter’s parishioners themselves are unwilling to take on that commitment to the community.

I have been surprised at how little awareness there appears to be in the Diocese of the potential of this parish and the goodness of its people – and how little faith there is that this could once again become a vibrant centre of the community. Still less is there acknowledgement that decisions made by the church hierarchy – not least to sell St Peter’s Vicarage and require a single priest to take responsibility for both the Chapel Royal and St Peter’s – might have led to reduction in church numbers and the parish’s apparent failure to engage with the community.

The Diocese could have offered support. The 2005 Report states that the Diocese in partnership with English Heritage and others will “be funding a field worker” to help churches “broaden the use and availability of some church buildings for the benefit and use of the wider community”. Eighteen months on, there is no fieldworker in post and St Peter’s, which has urgently needed assistance with both development proposals and community-building, is proposed for full closure. According to the Council, no bids for development funding have been made or even discussed.

The Diocese is committed to a use of the building which is “viable, seemly and sustainable”. However, there seems to be no particular commitment that it be used to meet community needs. I was told that if, say, a well-known hotel chain “decided they wanted to buy it to provide a hotel, we would try to get as much as we could”.

There is no such proposal on the table and if there were English Heritage would almost certainly not accept it. However, it does give a sense of apparent difference of perspective between the parish and those responsible for diocesan assets.

There are many possible options for the church. It seems the Council plans to develop this area as a cultural centre for the city. This being the case it might be sensible to develop St Peter’s as a working church which is also a performance space for concerts and theatre. There would also be the option of developing a restaurant (as has been done in St Martin’s in the Field in Trafalgar Square). Another possibility, given the church’s proximity to a range of different community facilities and charities, would be to use it for meeting or even office space.

My personal preference would be to develop it as an active parish church with a focus upon work for justice, peace and human rights, building its congregation by involving the large local student population and the diverse community which surrounds the church and actively seeking co-operation with secular human rights groups and other Christian and faith communities.

Such a use would allow traditional and non traditional forms of worship to co-exist and would not rule out any of the income-generating proposals suggested above.

However it would signal that this most prominent of the city’s churches has not forgotten its duty to live out the gospel.

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