PCC fails to get consent for exhumations

15 May 2015

ST JOHN'S, STOKE-NEXT-GUILDFORD

Growing church: a service at St John's 

Growing church: a service at St John's 

PERMISSION to exhume more than 1000 bodies, to prepare a churchyard for sale, has been withheld by the Church Commissioners.

The PCC of St John the Evangelist, Stoke-next-Guildford, unanimously supported the transfer of the former burial ground to the Guildford diocesan board of finance for sale. The proceeds were to be used to help fund the building of a new church centre to help mission. The Bishops of Guildford and of Dorking, and the Archdeacon of Surrey, the Ven. Stuart Beake, had also given their backing to the scheme.

But, after receiving 84 representations against the scheme, including a petition with 1234 signatures, the Church Commissioners ruled against it last month. They weighed up the potential benefits, in terms of mission, against the Church's presumption against the disturbance of human remains, and the possible pastoral damage caused by overturning this presumption.

The ruling states that the cost of the disinterment and reburial was not certain: "It was therefore not possible at this stage to assess whether a sale of the west burial ground was likely to provide a significant sum towards the proposed hall-replacement project, and therefore whether there was sufficient justification for overturning the presumption against the disturbance of human remains."

St John's is listed in the Domesday Book. Parish records state that the churchyard contains 1180 burials, the last of which took place in 1939. The petition opposing the scheme, submitted by the Josephs Road Residents' Association, states that, in 1977, when half the burial ground was destroyed to build the rectory, graves were smashed, and the remains were removed or lost, including those of Sir James Stirling, the first Governor of Western Australia.

The Rector of St John's, the Revd Mark Woodward, supported the scheme. The congregation had grown "significantly" in the past nine years, he said. Because the church buildings were used for a courses and activities, there were "huge pressures" on current facilities, and a new church centre was needed.

Several members of the congregation gave representations in favour of the scheme. The Diocesan Advisory Committee had encouraged the parish to continue developing its plans, and Archdeacon Beake said that the scheme had the diocese's "full support".

"While we are naturally disappointed by the outcome of today's hearing, we have been encouraged by the committee's commendation of the vision at St John's, and that the door is open for a further application," Mr Woodward said.

The ruling states that the Bishop can prepare fresh proposals under the provisions of the Mission and Pastoral Measure, at a future date.

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