The Co-op and the Church

Argus title : Co-operation will keep our church safe

I’ve had a hard week.

Last Thursday our boiler pump broke down amid bashing and crashing and the stench of burning plastic. On Friday I arranged for several members of the congregation of St Peter’s to be interviewed for television. None were screened.

The same day, for the first time ever, my column was pulled for fear of legal action. I’ve had articles trimmed by lawyers before, but never killed off, so it was a blow.

In the wake of all this, I completely forgot to go to an event I’d promised to attend. Believe it or not it was a talk to a charity about “How to Use the Media”. I could have wept when the poor woman organising it telephoned me tactfully to ask if I was “on my way”. I wasn’t and by then couldn’t go because by I had to look after my mother – a late “shift” rescheduled from earlier in that chaotic day. Feeling a complete inadequate, I grovelled, promised a donation and hoped they’d invite me back.

The next day I really did shed a tear. I stood in front of the Co-op Store in London Road, closed down with just a few workmen hammering and sawing inside it. I’d been told that Saturday would be the last day of operation, but in fact this was incorrect. It closed for business the day before.

I was upset about this. I’ve shopped there almost every day for the last 30 years. I wanted to say goodbye to the old place, to mark its ending in some way. I also wanted to say good bye to staff members and thank them for all they have done for me and my family over the years.

I particularly wanted to say good bye to one of the assistants in the wool department. Over the years, she’s put up with me meandering around her wools, looking at patterns and rarely buying. I wish I could have spoken to her again.

Sixty staff members have lost their jobs. The majority of them were women, many of them over 50 and a significant minority with disabilities. Several had worked there all their lives. Few will easily find alternative employment.

Despite the human cost, the loss to the community of a varied retail outlet and the consequent damage to the entire London Road area, the closure of this store has taken place almost without comment. Despite the fact that the City Council is paying London consultants, “Urban Initiatives”, to speak with local organisations about the regeneration of London Road, there has been virtually no public debate about the Co-op.

It must seem to the now-redundant staff that nobody cares. And yet, in the short while we were standing there last Saturday, we watched several former customers arrive and gaze at the sealed doors and empty windows with shock and real grief.

Not for the first time, I have been stunned by how powerless the city seems to be to protect services, facilities and buildings which have served our community for generations from plunder or sale. Since I’ve lived in Brighton all of the true department stores in the city have been lost, first Vokins, then Hanningtons and now the Co-op.

There was a time when a closure of a store like the Co-op would have resulted in angry resolutions and even demonstrations from trade unions and the Labour Party, many of whose councillors and M.P.s have direct links with the Co-operative Party. Remembering the radical aims of the original co-operative movement, the workers themselves might have threatened to occupy the building and members of other co-operatives and local students would probably have joined them.

These days, however, the trade unions are a flaccid shadow of their former selves. Employers bully their staff with impunity, while employees hang onto their redundancy payments and keep their mouths shut. And the City Council showed little sign of resistance.

It would have been on dodgy ground if it had. After all, the City Council has let its own West Pier slide into the sea and sold off Stanmer House and the Engineerium. It’s also just attempted to sell off its council housing stock, and most unwisely launched an expensive and often inaccurate publicity campaign to persuade tenants to accept this.

The proposed sell-off of council housing was a step too far. The council received a bloody nose from the tenants, nearly 80% of whom voted against it. The “Defend Council Housing” group are now asking the council to support the national campaign to persuade government to relax financial constraints on councils’ use of rental income and receipts from right to buy. It seems that change is in the air and the city’s people are stirring.

Another sign of sea change is the groundswell of objection to the closure of St Peter’s Church. The Diocese of Chichester has unashamedly referred to St Peter’s as a “huge and deteriorating asset”, but the people of Brighton & Hove refuse to see it like that. Just as council tenants were supported in their opposition to the sale of council housing by people who have never lived in it, so many people who are intermittent churchgoers or of other faiths or none have come together with St Peter’s congregation to oppose the church’s closure.

Last Sunday, the congregation of St Peter’s met to discuss its response to the Diocese’s proposal. Though some were pessimistic about the church’s future, the vast majority were anxious to fight the decision. Young and old alike agreed that they want the church to remain as a place for worship, while expanding its use by and for the community and thereby increase its income.

I have spoken to politicians of all parties and there is remarkable unanimity that St Peter’s must not be allowed to close as a working church, whatever other community uses may be undertaken. Among ordinary members of the community too, on buses and in shops when the subject of closure comes up, there is agreement that St Peter’s must be saved.

There are similarities between the Co-op and St Peter’s. They were founded years ago, one in obedience to God and the other co-operative principles, and both in the service of the people. Both have been under threat from distant regional authorities, who it seems have thought more about money than about those they have a duty to serve and the principles upon which they were founded. Both have been let down by leaders who have failed to fight for them.

The Co-op was surrendered without resistance, but as far as St Peter’s is concerned, there is everything to hope for. In the struggle to save it, sections of the community are likely to learn much about each other. We will also have to face our own failings.

The truth is that it wasn’t just the politicians and trade unions who failed the Co-op, it was the churches as well, for the closure seemed to pass them by.

I hope that in the struggle to save St Peter’s we will travel at least some way to build a city in which people really care about each other, a community in which churches offer help to workers threatened with redundancy and workers stand on picket lines defending churches from property speculation.

This would be a far cry from what usually passes as church activity, but perhaps a little closer to what Jesus would have wanted. After all, not so long before he was executed, Jesus went into the temple at Jerusalem and drove out the money lenders and profiteers, turning over their tables and saying “Scripture says “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”, but you have turned it into a robbers’ den.”

The Diocese of Chichester should perhaps remember that.

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