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St Mary le Strand in row with Archdeacon over plans to convert the church into a museum

08 December 2017


Dispute: St Mary le Strand, in central London

Dispute: St Mary le Strand, in central London

THE Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, has been accused of “gerrymandering” in an attempt to convert a church into a museum against the wishes of its congregation.

Archdeacon Miller has been at loggerheads with St Mary le Strand, in central London, over a proposal to turn it into the UK branch of the Museum of the Bible, which opened last month in the United States.

Earlier this year, the PCC engaged an ecclesiastical law firm to check the legality of the proposals. But in July, the churchwardens discovered that eight clerics had suddenly been licensed to the parish, outnumbering the existing members of the PCC. At its first meeting, the PCC decided that ongoing legal advice was no longer required.

Margery Roberts, a churchwarden at St Mary’s, is clear that the eight were licensed in an attempt to pack the PCC with supporters of the museum scheme, although this is strenuously denied by one of the eight, the Dean of King’s College, London, Canon Professor Richard Burridge.

“We were shocked at the appointment of extra clergy,” Mrs Roberts said, “which was clearly to force the laity to accept the proposals that they were unhappy about.”

St Mary’s has lacked a full-time priest for many years, and has relied on retired ministers and others to cover services for the congregation, which averages 15 people on a Sunday. Numbers attending have fallen away since the loss of the church’s director of music, after a choral eucharist was halted by Canon Philip Chester, who was appointed Priest-in-Charge in 2014, but seldom attends.

Mrs Roberts said that, none the less, the parish remained solvent and was able to pay its parish share each year.

It was in 2016 that the diocese of London began discussions with the Museum of the Bible. According to a formal proposal document seen by the Church Times, the museum wants to remove all the pews and other furnishings from the Grade I listed Georgian church to convert it into an exhibition space — initially for an 18-month trial period, with a view to entering into a decades-long lease and turning the building into a permanent museum. None of the heritage bodies has yet been consulted.

During the trial period, the Museum has agreed that services could continue in the chancel of St Mary’s, although these would need to take place before 8.30 a.m. so as not to interfere with museum opening times. If the museum arrangement became permanent, a maximum of six services a year could be held, the proposal states.

Mrs Roberts said that the museum’s plans were deeply unwelcome to the existing congregation, who were seeking to minister to residents and workers in the parish through a eucharist on Thursday lunchtimes as well as ordinary Sunday services.

As well as Canon Burridge, the group of eight clerics contains four chaplains from King’s College, which is just across the road from St Mary’s. They have been joined by chaplains from the London School of Economics and University College London, and a non-stipendiary minister from St Matthew’s, Westminster. The eight were licensed at a staff meeting in King’s, without the foreknowledge of the churchwardens or the congregation.

Canon Burridge said this week that he and his chaplaincy colleagues were licensed so that they could help to cover services at St Mary’s. He and others among the eight had “regularly” taken services in the past to cover vacancies. “The large number of chaplains is so that we can all do one Sunday service every couple of months.”

But Mrs Roberts said that this was to give a misleading impression. As churchwarden, she helps organise the rota of priests. Canon Burridge and some of the others had taken two or three services each, at most, over the past decade, she said. Some of the others were entirely unknown to her and the congregation.

Another of the eight, the Revd Dr James Walters, the LSE chaplain, maintained that nobody from the diocese had asked him to vote in any particular way on the PCC when it came to the museum proposals.

Alarmed at what they saw as a lack of due process, and in an effort to have the proposals thrown out, Mrs Roberts and others from the church sought a meeting with the acting Bishop of London, the Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent.

As a result, a compromise was suggested, and in October the PCC voted to set up a working group, including both the churchwardens and the clergy of the parish, to examine all ideas for future re-ordering.

“We are very grateful to Bishop Pete for intervening, and are looking forward to the restitution of the proper PCC body without the extra clergy,” Mrs Roberts said. “I don’t want to have an enormous row, but I do want good governance.

“We are still very concerned about a PCC being gerrymandered in this way, but we are looking forward to a healthy outcome.”

A statement from the diocese of London, issued on Tuesday, said that the church was at risk of being made redundant, and that Canon Chester had been working with Archdeacon Miller “to rejuvenate the church”.

When this “reached an impasse”, however, Bishop Broadbent licensed the additional priests to the church, “all of whom had a strong association with the parish”.

As well as the museum proposal, which the diocese “would be happy to support”, other ideas were being explored, the statement said. “Any final decision on the future of the partnership would only come after a trial period. We fully recognise that the current plans should be properly considered, but we hope that, through collaboration and support, we can together create a chance to secure the future of this important church.”

Further concerns have been raised about the propriety of those running the Museum of the Bible in the US. The museum, which opened in Washington, DC, last month, is the creation of Steve Green, an Evangelical billionaire. His company, Hobby Lobby, won a Supreme Court case in 2014 to create religious opt-outs from the former President Barack Obama’s health insurance laws.

Hobby Lobby was also required to pay a $3-million fine to end a case brought by the US government over Iraqi artefacts, which, federal authorities said, had been illegally smuggled and deliberately mislabelled.

The diocesan statement simply said that “following careful research”, the diocese would be “very happy to support such a partnership” with the Museum.

Canon Burridge said that he had good relationships with the academics leading the museum project, and had visited the Washington museum. The organisation’s provenance policy complied with both international law and academic best practice, he said.

As for St Mary le Strand, he said: “As far as I know, no agreements or commitments have yet been made or given to the Museum of the Bible, other than for the exploring of possible options — so no one from the diocese can have asked us ‘to join the PCC to help push through the Museum of the Bible proposal’ as you erroneously suggest.”

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