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Serving God in the shadow of Mammon

01 June 2018

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher drove in the first pile of the Canary Wharf project, Rebecca Paveley investigates whether the Church missed an opportunity


Christ Church, Isle of Dogs

Christ Church, Isle of Dogs

AT 60 feet tall, the new spire of St Luke’s, on the Isle of Dogs, is a potent symbol of a church reborn. Yet the timber spire, which will also function as a street light when the new building opens this summer, is far from being the tallest tower in the area; for St Luke’s lies in the shadow of the largest urban regeneration project ever undertaken in Europe: Canary Wharf.

For the past 30 years, the landscape of the former docklands of East London has changed and changed again, as the old buildings of the docks have made way for towers of offices and apartments vying with each other for ever greater heights. For residents of the area, the change feels unstoppable, although, in the early days of the development, many tried to halt it, and were backed in their opposition by the local church. They failed, and, three decades later, the site continues to grow. The relentlessness of change, of demolition and new building, can feel intimidating, even to some of the area’s newest residents.

ALAMYMargaret Thatcher views the Canary Wharf scheme in 1988

The assistant curate of Christ Church, Isle of Dogs, which includes St Luke’s, the Revd Edward Dix, admits to feeling overwhelmed at times. “At times, when I look up, I am intimidated by the scale of the change and think: can we cope with this level of change as a local community? The change just in the five years I have been here has never stopped, and shows no sign of abating.”

The constant reshaping of the skyline has a psychological effect on the population, the Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, believes. “You can’t escape the Wharf; it dominates the skyline, and I think that has a significant subliminal effect on people.”

The Church’s presence in the area over the past decades has shifted and evolved as it, too, has struggled to keep up with the pace of change. There is no physical church space on the Wharf, although there is a multifaith prayer room and a chaplaincy, which came much later in the development (News, 18 February 2000). In a valedictory lecture three years ago, the last Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, who was Bishop of Stepney from 1992 to 1995, described how “sympathy with vulnerable local communities” had resulted in “sustained opposition to major new developments, notably Canary Wharf, where no attempt was made to establish a Christian presence”.

Could the Church have done more to secure such a presence? Bishop Newman says that, even with hindsight, the answer to that question is not clear.

“In the early days, the Church took a prophetic stance, and saw the Wharf as a threat to the local community. Was it short-sighted, or was it principled? The answer is probably both. It may be that by taking a stance we lost out on opportunities to be involved. . . Thirty years ago, the Church was in the twilight of a particular era when it may have had a bit more influence than it has now.”

ALAMYSt Luke’s, Isle of Dogs, antique print 1868. It suffered irreparable damage during the Blitz

An obituary for Jim Thompson, Bishop of Stepney from 1979 to 1991, describes his “mixed feelings. On some days he would be excited and thrilled by the possibilities for life and gospel, on other days he was anxious about the local people he had come to love, and who were in danger, he believed, of being elbowed aside as their world was transformed” (Obituaries, 26 September 2003).

The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, now Bishop of Salisbury, but Vicar of the Isle of Dogs from 1988 to 1995, believes that the Church acted with the best intentions (“I won’t criticise my predecessors”), and did try to engage when the development became inevitable. Yet the Canary Wharf Group itself — or, rather, its director of strategy, Howard Dawber, a former Labour activist — thinks that the Church’s stance in the 1980s meant that it missed out on a closer involvement and, perhaps, influence on the development.

Mr Dawber refers to Peter Wade, a member of the Isle of Dogs community who led the opposition and organised a mock funeral of a canary to symbolise what was felt to be the death of the community. Yet, when construction began, his desire to ensure that the community benefited led him to accept a position from the developer as a community-development worker.

“The Church could have taken it in the way Peter Wade did: they saw the community were hurting, and didn’t like that; but, once change happened, they could have asked: ‘How can we do our best to serve that community and the new community that will come?’ I think the Church did miss a trick as a result, probably.”


IN THE decade when the Wharf development began, clergy in the inner city were emboldened by the 1985 report Faith in the City, which blamed Thatcherite policies for the growing economic divide. The report encouraged clergy to speak up for the poorest and most disadvantaged in their communities.

In the Docklands area, there were many who fell into that category: half the residents of the Isle of Dogs were unemployed at one point, and 82 per cent of homes belonged to the council. The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was set up by the government to regenerate the area, and, soon, the world’s biggest property company, Olympia and York, took over the site.

ALAMYCanary Wharf, also known as One Canada Square, on the Isle of Dogs, in East London, under construction in 1988

Clergy marched with local residents in opposition. But it was clear very soon that their opposition was futile. Margaret Thatcher dug in the first pile, and, when Bishop Holtam was licensed as Vicar on the Isle of Dogs in 1988, the year when construction began, he was given a clear brief to try to mend relationships and engage more with the developers (News, 28 June 1991).

He recalls: “Bishop Jim Thompson told me: ‘We need to engage better with the development.’ My predecessor had been part of a group on the Island who opposed the development, but, when I came, we knew it was going to happen.

“So my brief was to build relationships with the LDDC. Sir Christopher Benson, the chair of the LDDC, was at my licensing, and the next day he’d got into my diary to see me at 9 a.m., to talk about needing a constructive relationship. But he also talked about prayer, and the significance of the former Dean of Salisbury Sydney Evans on his life, and it helped me no end. It allowed me to see him in a multi- dimensional kind of way.”

The fruits of this engagement did not come quickly, though — and, first, as a priest, his job was to be rooted in the parish community. He soon came to understand the “extreme” sense of powerlessness that the community suffered. “Michael Portillo came to give a lecture in St Paul’s. He described the people as the latest layer of dust on the landscape. It was the sense that people were treated as if the area were an inner urban greenfield site, and yet it was home to 12,000 people. The development happened in spite of them rather than involved them.

“What local communities were bothered about was the lack of power: they were looking for justice, not charity. One of my churchwardens said the only thing he’d managed to change was getting a security camera that pointed right into his garden removed. That was the only effect he felt he’d had. The community did not feel their needs were taken into account.

PAUL WHITEThe new St Luke’s, Isle of Dogs, under construction in April

“There was a massive gap between something that looked so prosperous and so unlike the 1960s council estates around it. It was the gap between the Britain that looked like it was doing really well, and the Britain that was struggling. That gap is still there.”

The turning-point, he believes, in encouraging the LDDC and the developers to become more involved with the community was the election of a BNP councillor in Tower Hamlets in 1993 (Features, 16 September 1994).

“I don’t think the Church could have done much more: early on, there wasn’t the capacity to engage or the willingness to engage from the LDDC. When they became more confident and assured about the project, they saw they needed us, and the election of the BNP made them sit up and realise the needs of the local community.”

Assisting the building of better relationships between residents of the Docklands and the employers engaged in the redevelopment was the East London Community Organisation (TELCO), which was launched in in Newham Town Hall in 1996 with churches as its backbone. When it was announced that two thousand construction jobs were going to the area, it held a jobs and training fair at the Wharf to ensure that local people were not overlooked (News, 7 November 1997).


CRITICAL voices continued to be raised, however: the Revd Ken Leech described Canary Wharf in 2001 as a “monstrous phallic-capitalist symbol” (Books, 12 October 2001). The developers ran into their own problems quite early on. Olympia and York, a Canadian company run by the Reichmann brothers, filed for bankruptcy in 1992 after a property crash, and Canary Wharf was placed in administration. Undaunted, Paul Reichmann put together a consortium of investors to buy back the Wharf from the banks for £800 million in 1995. In 2004, the Reichmanns finally lost control after a takeover battle.

It was in 2004, after years of trying to engage, that the Church and the Canary Wharf Group set up the multifaith chaplaincy. The first appointment as Bishops’ Chaplain in the Docklands, the Revd Fiona Stewart-Darling, remains in post today (News, 18 February 2005).

“It took a long time to work out how a chaplaincy here would work,” she recalls. “From the time I was appointed, I began by trying to understand the context both on the Wharf and how it related to local churches. This involved working at building bridges between here and the local churches.

”So, whilst my primary function was to develop a chaplaincy for the business community and discover what the working community needed, it was also important to help the local churches understand my role. I tried to get the message across that some of those here may be wealthy, but not all, and though there may be physical wealth, there may be spiritual poverty. . .

“Challenges are building relationships with all the companies here, and building a strong multifaith team of chaplains to meet the continuing development and growth of the Canary Wharf estate. Ultimately, Canary Wharf is about people who work in the businesses, and building relationships with those people.”


Another church presence just outside the Wharf is St Peter’s Barge. In the 1990s, St Anne’s, Limehouse, and churches situated near the new Wharf development, including St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, began to organise Bible-study and prayer groups for Wharf workers at lunchtimes in wine bars and cafés. As attendance grew, the lack of a venue became a problem, and, in 2003, a Dutch freight barge was bought. It was refitted in the Netherlands, and sailed into place on the edge of the Canary Wharf estate at West India Quay.

Julian has worked at Canary Wharf for four years, after more than a decade in the City. He attends lunchtime talks at the Barge, and an early morning weekly Bible study, describing it an “an absolute blessing” and “the rocket booster for my faith”. He remembers walking past churches in the City: “It may be because of where I was in my own faith, but churches are often places you walk past and don’t notice - this is distinctive.”

“Would it have made a difference if there was a big Church in the centre of the Wharf? I suppose it might send out a message, but how many people would just walk past? I can see that very built up places, like the Wharf, like Manhattan, present a challenge to the Church.”

The Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Marcus Nodder, has been its full-time senior pastor since 2004. Today, he runs early-morning Bible studies and lunchtime talks, and supports events run by Christian fellowships in the companies on the Wharf. The barge is not intended to be the Wharf workers’ church, he says. He encourages those who attend to also get involved in their local church community.

“It’s a pressured environment to work, with long hours at the desk and often lengthy commutes on top for people,” he observes. In 2008, the barge was on hand to offer support when the financial crash hit (News, 19 September 2008).

“We are not trying to be church for people who live in Kent or Surrey, though we do have a Sunday church for the increasing number of young professionals who are moving into the residential developments in the area. Our issue is still lack of space; it would make a massive difference to us if we could have had a space on the Wharf estate itself.”

But there is little prospect of that. Even in the new Wood Wharf development, which the Church has tried to engage with and influence (the diocese of London notes that it is “isolated from nearby parish churches”), there will be no dedicated church space. There will, instead, be a community facility that can be used by faith groups for worship and prayers, Mr Dawber says.


IN THE three decades of change to the skyline, and emigration and immigration of the communities who call the area home, there has been one locus of stability: Sister Christine Frost.

“Sister Christine and her passion for the area represents one of the few things that is enduring and generous and hopeful and faithful — supporting and speaking up for those who may feel left behind,” Mr Dix says.

Jim Fitzpatrick, the Labour MP for Poplar and Limehouse, and Mr Dawber also pay tribute to her, although they frequently do not see eye to eye with the 80-year-old, whom the local paper has dubbed “The Angel of Poplar”. Mr Fitzpatrick describes her as a “complete and utter champion who is always looking to do more and more for people”.

ALAMYChildren play in the shadow of Canary Wharf

Sister Christine, a member of the Order of the Faithful Companions of Jesus, moved to the area in 1970 from Canada, where she had taught for seven years. Her tireless work over 48 years, setting up two charities to help secure housing for local young people and support the elderly and alone, has earned her an MBE.

“I moved here long before Canary Wharf was even dreamed of, and have seen the community change more than you would have thought possible,” she says. “I am lucky to have a flat on an estate, which meant I could understand people’s fears and concerns much more than if I was living apart. I wouldn’t trade living here for anywhere else, but there is a lot to do — a lot of real challenges for people.”

She believes that the development failed, and is still failing, to meet the needs of the local community, despite statistics that emphasise the Wharf’s 120,000 jobs, ten per cent of which are occupied by Tower Hamlets residents. These jobs, she says, are usually the lower-paid: cleaners, shop workers, concierges.

“The LDDC treated it like there wasn’t already a vibrant community in the Docklands when there was. It was like a mining village, where all employment was related to the one industry — in this case, the docks — and now it has all gone.

“Now you see huge blocks of flats going up — apartments — and I think: where is the room for people on ordinary incomes? Where will the teachers and nurses and carers of the elderly live — the people in thankless but essential jobs? It’s fine they are building more homes for Canary Wharf, but they are not for us; they are not going to solve the housing problem. We lost hundreds of council homes to make way for the big plan 30 years ago; we were promised that the wealth would trickle down. We are still waiting for it.”

The community still feels the same powerlessness as Bishop Holtam identified three decades ago, and the lengthening shadow of the Wharf makes them feel even smaller and less valued, she believes. It is the irony that such poverty and lack of power should exist in the shadow of such wealth which drives her campaigning.

“We work with foodbanks all round here. . . We run a homelessness project one night a week for seven months a year. In the shadow of the Wharf, does that make any sense to you? The gap is just getting bigger. The working poor are working all the hours they can, and still struggling. We are trying to set up a group on social housing, to give people a voice and a sense of power over their lives.”


At the heart of the failure, she says, was a lack of understanding of what community is and can be. She cites one LDDC civil servant who came to visit her and the Docklands community 30 years ago. “She said to me, ‘Sister, wouldn’t it be much better if we pulled all these flats down and built nice apartments?’

“I asked: ‘But where would the community go?’

“She looked at me and said, ‘What is community?’

“I thought then that her view of community was probably inviting her neighbours round once a year at Christmas for a glass of sherry. . .

“The people who make all the rules and regulation for people in this country haven’t the slightest idea of how people are living. The Church, at least, has not been linked to the wealthy — it could have probably done more, but a lot of churches here have closed, and mosques have been opened.”

She has good relations with the mosques and the Muslim community. “I was known as a Bangla-lover a few years ago — and it wasn’t meant as a compliment, believe me,” she says.

Mr Fitzpatrick, who won his seat in 2010, says that, despite being smaller in number, the area’s Muslim community has been more assertive in securing facilities in the Wharf than the Christian community has. He believes that, although it is “not a panacea for everything”, the development has been positive for his constituents. “Ninety per cent of people in the area like it — and the ten per cent who don’t will always hate it, whatever happens.”

DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0The Canary Wharf skyline today

THE rebuilt St Luke’s is the closest church to the Wharf. It will open its doors again next month. Although the old bomb-damaged St Luke’s had to be demolished to make way for the new building, the community has been supportive of the new build, Mr Dix says.

“I went round and knocked on doors to tell people what was happening with the church, and people were excited to find that a new-build on the doorstep of the Wharf was not just another residential tower block, but a community space. People are proud of it already.”

Bishop Newman says that the church — although reborn with decidedly 21st-century architecture — will provide an important sense of continuity. “Churches provide that continuity: they are the threads that hold local history in its place”.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, has been to see St Luke’s already. She says that, under her leadership, the diocese of London will continue to seek a “conspicuous presence for Jesus Christ in regeneration areas. . .

“This may manifest itself as a presence in a school, or a community centre, or the creation of an entirely new place of worship, depending on the local priorities and framework — as we saw in Tottenham Hale last year, when the diocese created the first new parish church in the capital for 40 years” (News, 21 November 2017).

Perhaps the lesson of Canary Wharf for the Church is one of physical adaptability rather than ideological compromise. There will be many more opportunities for the Church to test its engagement with urban regeneration in the area, and beyond, as dioceses prepare for the construction of entire new towns under government housing plans. As Bishop Holtam observed after going back to the Isle of Dogs and the Wharf last month: “We have to take the long view, and see how the development will work out over more decades — and it’s not finished yet.”

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