St Peter’s Church – The Future

Argus title : The Church must have faith in flock

One night this week I dreamed I was in an old building in the country.

I don’t know why I was there, but I remember that I was thirsty and wanted a drink of water. I knew where to get it, but thought it would be polite to ask the robed men in charge. To my surprise, I was directed brusquely to a room I’d never seen before.

It was a large room. To reach a tap at the ancient sink I had to cross floorboards so rotten that I could see into the room below. As the boards bent and shook under my weight I grabbed for some chains which were hanging from the ceiling. As I hung there precariously listening to the wood splintering beneath me, I realised that I could fall through the boards to a concrete floor far below.

I saw an old couple by the doorway who told me “It’s not worth the risk, just for a drink of water”. I left the room. We tried to tell the robed men about how dangerous it was. The old man shouted “You’ll be liable if anyone’s hurt”, but they didn’t listen. They went into a steam room and the sound of hot air and water drowned out everything we said.

It was a strange dream, but I know what it meant. I’m sure it was about St Peter’s Church and my real fear that the Diocese of Chichester will make it redundant – despite the strong desire of the congregation and the community to secure its future.

On 18th February St Peter’s congregation met to discuss the threatened redundancy. They were asked to consider 3 options: to do nothing: to set a date for closure; or to fight to stay open, and if so what for. The result was overwhelming. All but 3 of the 80 people present wanted to fight to keep St Peter’s open.

The short meeting did not have time to address the complex issues of how St Peter’s might change in order to survive – though there is no doubt that people were willing to look at different options. The question I heard most often was not “What’s next?” but “Will they listen to us?”.

I can understand parishioners’ scepticism. In September 2006, when I was researching an article about the possible closure of St Peter’s, I was informed by a spokesperson for the Diocesan Office in Hove that the congregation hadn’t objected to proposed closure. I was astonished because the parishioners to whom I had spoken had stressed that they wanted the church to be retained.

At the time I thought parishioners might have been over reliant upon official responses or reluctant to contact the Diocesan Office. Church structures give limited opportunity to ordinary churchgoers to influence decisions.

What I did not know at the time was that apart from official responses via its Parochial Committee, the congregation had responded – and more than once.

In April 2005 they submitted a petition of the congregation calling for retention of their worship space.

They held meetings with Fr Andrew Manson-Brailsford, who master-minded the redevelopment of historic St George’s Church in Kemp Town, itself once threatened with closure. St George’s survived by developing a community centre within its crypt and is now both a thriving church and a regular venue for concerts.

In 2005 Andrew Manson Brailsford met with the churchwardens and other members of the congregation over a period of months, looking at ways the church might be developed to facilitate community use.

The congregation undertook a major survey of local opinion. Of the 642 people surveyed, just under 90% wanted to “retain a permanent area for worship” while 84% thought St Peter’s should continue to be able to hold “large services”. Just over 90% said that, if redeveloped, St Peter’s should host “community centred projects”.

Respondents were asked their opinion on the suitability of various types of community facilities. The most popular options were: a concert hall (327 people), an art gallery or museum (314) and a youth or community centre (280). Other suggestions were a crèche, an interfaith centre, a visitor centre or a café or restaurant.

The congregation began to explore options for generating income, such as leasing part of the premises for use as a restaurant. People hadn’t reached agreement on the precise way forward, except that there would need to be mixed use of the buildings in order to preserve St Peter’s as a parish church. A feasibility study was planned and things looked hopeful.

It was at this stage that something went badly wrong. The Diocese abruptly halted the work. Planning meetings ceased and Fr Andrew returned to his own parish.

Andrew Manson Brailsford will not expand on this episode except to confirm that he “worked on the project” and that his “opinion at the time was that St Peter’s could survive as a church by developing multi-purpose community use”. Many people believe this is still a realistic option – for St Peter’s is situated in the heart of a proposed urban regeneration area.

A consultancy firm called “Urban Initiatives” has been appointed by the Council to prepare a regeneration strategy for the London and Lewes Roads. Urban Initiatives held a consultation meeting this week, in which it spoke of creating “an Arts Quarter focused around St Peter’s Church and building on the Circus Street campus of the University of Brighton.” I was assured that this strategy is fully compatible with St Peter’s remaining a working church.

Given that there is significant social need in the area, potential for regeneration and a congregation willing to embrace change, it is a mystery as to why the Diocese wishes to close the church. There are those who suggest the decisions are money-driven. Others say it is because of personal rivalries or theological differences between powerful and theologically conservative Anglo-Catholic opinion on the one hand and the rather old-fashioned progressive traditionalism of St Peter’s on the other. It is difficult for anyone on the outside to know.

In the past when I have asked the Diocesan Office its reasons for closure rather than dual use, I have been informed that the church is not financially viable. However, the church can meet its day to day running costs. Its difficulty is that, without reserves or additional income, it has no means to deal with major unexpected repairs to the building.

At Brighton & Hove’s next council meeting the leader of the Conservatives, Cllr Brian Oxley will call for agreement that the church to be retained for religious worship.

Cllr Oxley said: “St Peter’s is of enormous importance to great numbers of the city’s people and has the informal status of a cathedral to many. It’s of unique symbolic significance not just as an iconic building, but also as a centre of Christian worship. We are asking the Council to write to the Bishop of Chichester and Church Commissioners highlighting the positive contribution St Peter’s makes to the city. The Council should support continuation of St Peter’s as a working church, although we recognize, as does the congregation, that the buildings may need to be adapted to additional uses.”

Cllr Oxley’s initiative is very much to be welcomed, but it could go further. I would like to see a commitment by the Council to work with the congregation and the local community, the Diocese and, if necessary, the Church Commissioners to secure St Peter’s future as a working church, developing its role in the community and exploring means of generating grant aid or other income.

I put this to Cllr Simon Burgess, the Labour Leader of the Council, who said: “St Peter’s is located at the very heart of the community and it is vital it retains its function as an important place of worship. However, it can offer the community so much more in terms of community facilities and as an arts venue. I believe the Council should proactively engage with and support those involved in planning for an enhanced and viable future for St Peter’s.”

A wise priest once told me “no congregation can thrive if it isn’t loved”. It is a principle which applies to any community. Though the church will need the practical support of the Council to survive, it deserves the moral support of its own leaders. I urge the Bishop to have faith in the potential of this parish and the goodness of its people.

All St Peter’s really needs is to be given a chance.

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