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Church and synagogue join forces to oppose proposed tower block

07 June 2024

Development would ‘strip synagogue of natural light and restrict its worship’

ST KATHARINE CREE

The Rev Josh Harris (front row, third from left) with the group in Guildhall Yard on 9 May, after the delivery of the letter to the Planning Committee

The Rev Josh Harris (front row, third from left) with the group in Guildhall Yard on 9 May, after the delivery of the letter to the Planning Committee

CITY of London clergy joined Rabbi Shalom Morris and members of Bevis Marks synagogue in Aldgate, last month, to deliver to the City of London Corporation a joint objection to a planning application.

They object that the proposed development would mean that the building was hemmed in by a 44-storey tower block that would take all its natural light and significantly restrict its worship.

The Grade I listed synagogue, completed in 1701, and the first to be built after the resettlement of Jews in England, is the only non-Christian place of worship in the City of London, and is affiliated to the UK’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities. It is lit by up to 240 candles, supplemented by limited electric lighting, and is cherished as representing the historic connection between the Jewish community and Britain.

The development, Bury House, would, they say, directly prevent the Jewish community from reciting its prayers at the appearance of the new moon, the Kiddush Levana, as this would no longer be visible from the courtyard.

A previous application from the developers, Welput, was turned down by the planning committee in October 2021 (News, 3 September, 8 October 2021) after 1000 letters of objection. Welput came back with a new proposal that reduced the number of storeys to 44. The lost floors would be added to the adjacent listed building, Holland House, which Welput bought with the stated intention of turning it into community space. Charities and other groups from outer London have been invited to use the space for free.

The letter presented by 16 Christian clergy says that the development in its current form does not account for the harmful effect of an inappropriately tall and imposing building in this location. “In particular, the reasonable concerns of the Jewish community at Bevis Marks synagogue should be respected,” they say.

The development “would involve harm not only to the setting of a significant and uniquely important Grade One listed building and heritage site in the city, but the development would actually constrain the Jewish community’s existing religious practice (by obscuring a specific portion of the sky) at Bevis Marks synagogue and therefore directly impinge on the community’s current enjoyment of their religious freedom of worship in the city.

“As Christian leaders of different communities in the City of London, we know first-hand the value which religious practice and the freedom of religion and belief has in a modern global city. There are diverse people of every faith and no faith who live, work and worship within the Square Mile, adding new chapters to the City of London’s history of toleration and civility.”

The Revd Josh Harris, Priest-in-Charge of St Katharine Cree, in the immediate vicinity of the synagogue, said: “City policy has now changed to allow tall buildings in conservation areas. It seems to be one thing after another, which is partly why local churches have stepped in to support Rabbi Morris.

“We wanted to stand with the the synagogue and to say that we do have really quite significant concerns about the treatment of this particular community — and to do that at a time when it’s so important to have good Jewish-Christian relationships, is a surprising moment.

“We have an entwined history for many hundreds of years with the original synagogue, but, more importantly, we really value our present relationship with them: we wanted to show up visibly and stand alongside them at this moment.”

The Rector of Great St Bartholomew, Smithfield, the Revd Marcus Walker, was part of the deputation that walked to the Guildhall. He told the Church Times: “At a time when Jewish communities feel particularly at risk, it would be very unfortunate for the City of London to make the oldest synagogue in the country functionally unusable by the Jewish community.”

He had met many of them at Bevis Marks, and had been particularly struck by a member of the congregation who told him that her grandson had just got married there: the tenth generation in succession to have done so. “This is the synagogue which has had the oldest continuous use in the world, that hasn’t had a period of sustained disruption,” he said.

“You can understand why the developers have come back for a second go, but I hope it can be gently suggested to them that they should look elsewhere.”

The public consultation closed on 15 May, and a decision is expected in October. The clergy group’s request for a face-to-face meeting with the chair of the Planning and Transportation Committee has been accepted.

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