The House the Church built

by
23 June 2017

To mark the 80th anniversary of Church House, in Westminster, Pat Ashworth researches the building’s eventful history

Grand entrance: the exterior of Church House from Dean’s Yard

Grand entrance: the exterior of Church House from Dean’s Yard

THERE was a marked lack of public enthusiasm when plans for a “Parliament House of the Church of England” were broached in 1886. One opponent, describing it as “the South See’s Bubble”, suggested that it would be a clergy club — or, worse, a lazy lounge for bishops, with “penny-slot machines selling ready-written sermons”.

Two previous proposed schemes had failed. But, as Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee approached, the Bishop of Carlisle, Dr Harvey Goodwin, seized the moment and suggested in a letter to The Times that this could be the Church’s official memorial.

With the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Edward Benson, an architect was commissioned: Sir Arthur Blomfield, the son of a former Bishop of London, who envisaged a building “somewhat like Hampton Court”. The Finance Committee’s target was £250,000 for a site and buildings, to be raised by public subscription. Dean’s Yard was purchased — large enough, the Bishop of London, Dr Frederick Temple predicted, “to meet all wants for the next two or three hundred years”.

 

THEY did not have vacant possession of all the buildings, however. Among the many leaseholders was the Abbey Choir School, as was a Miss Allen, who ran a lodging house for single gentlemen. The last of the tenures was not due to expire until 1932. Acquisitions were piecemeal; the money was hard to raise.

Despite the setbacks, the foundation stone was laid in 1891. Donations had eventually come in, although debts were incurred, and there had to be new fund-raising appeals for every new block. Churchmen were urged to join the new Corporation of the Church House for a guinea a year. Basement rooms were let to church societies, and the Great Hall was for hire.

But falling membership and diminishing subscriptions ensued, although some offers were refused: the secretary was instructed “civilly to decline” the offer of a benefit performance made by Albert Pilgrim, of the Walworth Palace of Varieties.

Before the First World War, 45 societies were renting offices, and there was an increasing demand for accommodation; so the building was obviously fulfilling some of its purpose. There was no money, however, to proceed with the further stages of Blomfield’s plans. When the war came, the Great Hall and Little Hall were both commandeered by the Australian Imperial Force.

 the Church House foundation stone laid 80 years ago

THE building did then provide offices for the new Church Assembly, which held its first session in June 1920. The future of Church House was reviewed the following year, with calls for a restaurant, a comfortable reading-room, a reorganised library (it had proved to be seldom visited), prayer and meditation facilities, and “adequate spring-cleaning”.

But big decisions had to be made in 1926, when the foundations of the original houses were found to be insecure. The chosen architect, Sir Herbert Baker, concluded that all the buildings on site must be demolished. He submitted his sketches in 1933, advocating no radical departure from “the sombre yet familiar face of the old Dean’s Yard”.

He would be working in collaboration with the sculptor Charles Wheeler. Certainly, the new design was to be expressive of lofty ideals. Baker, in a booklet he entitled The Church House: Its art and symbolism, waxed lyrical about Wheeler’s work, characterised by sculptured reliefs such as The Immortal Acts of Man depicted on the 32 supporting vaults of the Assembly Hall Dome.

Raising the money was not easy this time, either, although they avoided public subscription and instead encouraged private donors. Opponents argued that this was a time of economy and restraint; supporters retorted that the money was not coming out of the Church’s own coffers, and would earn income in time.

 Cover ImagesThen and now: Queen Mary of Teck and Archbishop Cosmo Lang at the laying the foundation stone (with an editor’s crop mark)

SO IT was that, 80 years ago, on 26 June 1937, Queen Mary laid the foundation stone of the new buildings. As the Church Times reported, the singing of “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven” on that occasion was “sadly bungled”: a fact attributed to the invited audience’s knowing the tune so well that they failed to follow the band. Baker observed that the steel frame of the dome was “like a red crown” over the proceedings.

War was imminent, though, and air-raid shelters were already being constructed in the basement. In 1940, a high-explosive bomb fell on the inner edge of the buildings, inflicting great damage on the Assembly Hall. The 300 people who were in the basement shelter were uninjured, but six others died from falling masonry. The steel construction withstood damage to the building in general, which so impressed the Government that it requisitioned it two days later as an annexe to the Palace of Westminster, should the need arise.

Committees were suspended, activities were reduced, and the Church House Club was closed down. Parliament assembled there at various times, including July and August 1944, when London was threatened with flying bombs. Historic announcements made there included the sinking of the battleship Bismarck, and the loss of HMS Hood off Greenland, and Church House was dubbed “the Churchill Club” in some quarters.

 

MEMBERS of the Church Assembly, impatient to return after the war ended, were to be disappointed. Commissions of the new United Nations Organisation moved in, followed by the War Crimes Commission, and the British War Crimes Executive, and the building became a collecting-point for documents and testimonies to be submitted at the Nuremberg trials. Space was handed back to the Church over a very long period.

But compensation from the requisitioning gave financial security to Church House at last. The Assembly Hall was restored and reopened in 1951. The building became a venue for important press conferences, including those before the Coronation and after Churchill’s death. The mortgage was paid off in 1966, and the Assembly Hall was further rehabilitated in time for the opening session of the new General Synod on 4 November 1970, attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Prominent government inquiries were also held at Church House, including those into the Brixton riots, and the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise. From 1974 onwards, the Government leased all the conference space, and some of the office accommodation, at a very modest rent.

 Then and now: the 1956 spring session of the Church Assembly

BUT the approaching expiry of these leases prompted nervousness in 1987 that, with a choice of conference facilities now existing in Westminster, the Government would not want to renew the leases, and the building would become an expensive liability.

On that assumption, the Standing Committee proposed selling the building and transferring the offices to the Church Commissioners’ premises in Millbank. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Runcie, was a strong advocate: he believed that the lower profile would send out a strong message to the parishes about servanthood.

There was also debate about whether the offices should move out of London altogether — one suggestion being Doncaster, which had offered itself as a location.

Opposition to the sale began to swell, until, at the July Synod of 1988, a lay member from Liverpool, Roy Lyon, brought a private member’s motion that the Assembly Hall and historic meeting-rooms should be retained for the Synod’s use (an engraved window round the outside of the Assembly Hall now bears his name in tribute). He requested that the Standing Committee urgently review the possibilities, and was strongly supported.

The ensuing commission, chaired by Dr Christina Baxter, proposed instead a refurbishment of Church House and the creation of a high-class conference centre, and also suggested that the Church Commissioners should move out of Millbank and into Church House. The abject Standing Committee declared themselves “heartily sorry” for getting it wrong the first time, and “firmly purposing to do better and praying of the Synod, if not penance, at any rate advice and absolution”.

 National service: Clement Attlee, Archbishop Fisher, and Winston Churchill unveil a plaque in April 1948 to commemorate the use of the Hoare Memorial Hall by the House of Commons 

WORK began in 1989 on a massive refurbishment to bring the conference facilities up to a modern — now award-winning — standard, paid for by the Corporation’s funds. The Government retained one third of the office space, and leases were renegotiated more in keeping with commercial rents in Westminster. The refurbished facilities were expected to generate long-term income, so that, while the Synod would be charged a realistic rent, the Corporation was likely still to continue its generous subsidy.

The Commissioners managed advantageously to let their remodelled space, allowing the Synod a reduced or waived rent for a number of years — an arrangement that continues to this day.

Dr Baxter, who now chairs the Council of the Corporation of the Church House, concludes: “It is a delight to chair the Corporation in order to continue maintaining Church House for the good of the national Church, and to provide a first-class conference centre in the centre of London.”

The Assembly Hall is now an award-winning conference venue

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