Argus title : Save this wonderful church
Religion is on the agenda these days. People are thinking about spiritual and ethical issues in a way that has not been true for many years. In addition, an influx of migrant workers, many of them from devout Christian backgrounds, is challenging and changing British society. The time seems ripe for growth and renewal in faith communities.
According to the 2001 census, Brighton & Hove is the British city with the largest number of people without religion. The city also has one of the smallest numbers of declared Christians – only 59.1% of the city’s residents, in comparison with 72.8% elsewhere in the South East.
This being the case, you might expect leaders of the churches to be doing all in their power to strengthen their communities and renew their mission to the city’s people – not least because while 146,466 of the city’s people describe themselves as Christian, very few of them find their way into church.
You could assume that the Church of England, as the established Christian church in the UK, would be leading efforts to build the Holy City on the south coast. However, you would be wrong. The Church of England is in the process of closing churches – including St Peter’s, the Parish Church of Brighton.
The Diocese of Chichester accepts the building must remain, but says the congregation may not retain any part of the building as a worship space. Closure is seen as a development opportunity.
This is not an ancient church, but it is a fine one, built when it became clear that the mediaeval parish church of St Nicholas was too small for the growing population of Brighton. Charles Barry, its 28 year old architect, later became famous as the designer of the Houses of Parliament. St Peter’s is one of the earliest and finest examples of Gothic revival in England.
In 1828 St Peter’s was consecrated and in 1873 became Brighton’s Parish Church. Since that time it has become Brighton’s best-known church, the closest thing it has to a cathedral.
Over the generations thousands of Brighton’s people have worshipped in the church. It has been a symbol of unity in war and peace, a timeless place of baptisms, weddings and funerals, witnessing life and death, grief and joy.
The dead of British wars have been commemorated there. Mayors have chosen their chaplains from amongst its clergy and political parties have prayed for electoral victory within its walls. Of recent years, concerts and vigils have taken place there to highlight issues such as AIDS, poverty, homelessness and violence against women.
And throughout, its ten magnificent bells have rung out across the city like old friends, marking the timeless rituals of the church’s year, day after day, year after year. They are the city’s beating heart, as familiar to those who live in central Brighton as the sound of the seagulls. But they are soon to be stilled.
Two months ago, Ashley Leaney, a local resident, wrote to me: “I cannot believe that closure of this important place of worship and historically important building is even being considered. My grandparents were married there; my grandfather is commemorated there (killed in 1917 in Ypres) and I was christened there.” He added they are “ripping the heart out of Brighton”.
The Diocesan Pastoral Committee states bluntly “the pastoral provision for the people of the parish…is not best served by the retention of the building as a parish church”. Committee members have agreed that “the most appropriate way of preserving the building for the future (is) to find an alternative use.”
The people of St Peter’s congregation do not agree – none more so than 13 year old chorister and organist Theo Frazer. Theo is in Year 9 at Newman School in Hove and has been attending St Peter’s Church since he was 2 weeks old. He was baptized there, became an active member of the Sunday School and then followed his brother into the choir.
His mother Caroline says he has only to hear a piece of music to be able to play it. As a St Peter’s chorister he receives help with some of the costs of piano lessons, but it is the organ which fascinates him most.
A while ago, a 93 year old parishioner came to hear of his interest. She bought him a small second hand organ from the charity Emmaus, which he taught himself to play.
Though he has had no formal organ lessons, Theo has progressed to such an extent that he has recently played the organ at Newman School’s Christmas celebrations. And this Christmas Eve, at the 4.00pm Crib Service, Theo will make his debut on St Peter’s famous Father Henry Willis organ.
Theo said: “Instruments like this are usually found in cathedrals, so it’s an honour to play it. I’m quite nervous, but Jon Hunt, the organist has been helping me. I like the Crib Service. I’ve been going to it and singing at it for most of my childhood.”
I asked Theo what the church means to him. He replied “Most of my life has been here. I can’t imagine it closing. I want to do what I can to keep it open. If it’s still here when I’m older I’d like to be the organist here.”
Theo isn’t some goody two shoes choirboy – though like all the choristers he’s had to commit himself to the discipline of twice weekly practices and 2 church services per week. He’s learning the electric guitar and enjoys rugby, playing winger for the Brighton Rugby Union Under 14s team. I asked him what his team mates thought of his singing in a church choir. He laughed, slightly nervously “I haven’t told them”.
On the evening I met with him, Theo introduced me to two other members of the Choir.
Kevin Williams is 14 and attends Falmer School. He followed his brother Liam into the choir and has been singing for “4 or 5 years”. The church is helping him to learn the violin, but he also plays the drums and bugle.
Every Sunday morning Kevin sings at St Andrew’s in Moulsecoomb which is his local church and every Sunday evening he sings Evensong at St Peter’s. He’s quiet, but speaks about music with real passion. I asked him what else he enjoys and he replied shyly “computer games”. When I inquired about his future, he said “I want to stay involved with music.”
Barnaby Paine is 20 and has been in the choir for 10 years. He laughed when I asked him how he came to join the choir. He said “I was bribed. Well that’s what I thought it was. My music lessons were paid for and I got £4 a month. After about 3 years I just fell in love with the music. It’s a kind of addiction. I can’t imagine being without music. I study at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music and play the drums in a band.”
I asked Barnaby what St Peter’s means to him. He said “This place is a part of my life. The friendships you build here are rare. It’s like a family. I’d like to help save the church.”
Mary Woodhouse is one of the church’s 2 churchwardens. She has been involved with the choir for many years, both as a singer and as a chorister’s mother. She believes that St Peter’s choral tradition is one of Brighton’s greatest assets and rejects any suggestion that choral singing is intrinsically elitist.
She said “In the past 2 weeks we have had over 2000 people from various schools through those doors to listen to Christmas music.” Director of Music, John Ross agreed: “Adults and children have a voice test to sing in the main choir, but there’s no audition for our junior choir where the emphasis is on fun.”
Mary explained “We’re determined to make church singing inclusive without compromising standards, so we’ve set up the “Pebbles” choir for girls and boys aged 6 – 9. The children love it and we hope that some will graduate from the Pebbles to the main choir.
“We are planning our musical activities as if we are to stay open. We must have faith. We know we have to adapt and change, and we are open to other community uses, but we also want to keep the best of our traditions. They’re too precious to lose.”
At Christmas hundreds of people visit St Peter’s. This year they will receive discreet questionnaires inviting them to support the Church in its struggle to adapt and stay open.
Write to me at the Argus about St Peter’s Church or comment via my archive weblog jeancalder.wordpress.com.