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PCC apologises for inflammatory language in planning row

09 February 2024

Creative Commons

St Leonard’s, Chesham Bois, in Buckinghamshire

St Leonard’s, Chesham Bois, in Buckinghamshire

THE PCC of St Leonard’s, Chesham Bois, in Buckinghamshire, has apologised for the “inflammatory or offensive” language used in a recent sermon, which was interpreted by some parishioners as a direct response to local objections to the church’s recent planning appeal. The PCC denies this.

The PCC, chaired by the Rector, the Revd Laurie Clow, has been seeking to build a multi-functional parish centre to replace its 1930s parish hall, but its application has been turned down three times by the planning inspectorate. The original design incorporated two large meeting halls, a café and day nursery, a replacement rectory, an additional staff dwelling, associated landscaping, and parking for 114 cars. The church is situated in woodland inside the Chesham Bois conservation area.

The first planning application was made in 2020, and rejected by Buckinghamshire Council in January 2021. An appeal was also rejected in April 2022. A third attempt to pass the plans with some changes was dismissed on 11 January.

Local opinion has been largely against the development, with a reported 257 letters of objection and 49 in favour submitted to the Council.

The report of the planning inspectorate in April 2022 was favourable: it acknowledged the level of activity the new centre would generate, and, although it “could not be regarded as contributing to the feeling of rural tranquillity”, the design was of a high quality that embraced the woodland setting. The new centre, it said, would make “a positive contribution to the conservation area and would not harm the living conditions of the neighbouring occupiers”.

The inspector also said that there was no evidence that community dissatisfaction in itself would make the proposal unviable, or that it should be “a factor weighed in the balance in this particular case”.

Natural England, however, had, in the intervening months, issued new advice regarding “significant recreational pressure” on Chiltern Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The Inspectorate acknowledged the “difficult timing” of that advice, but concluded that there was “ insufficient evidence submitted in support of the proposal to conclude that its impact, whether alone or in combination, could be avoided or mitigated so that the integrity of the SAC could be preserved”. It therefore turned down the appeal.

Local press reports have drawn attention to strained relations between the church and the community after a sermon from the Rector’s wife, Wendy Clow, in which she quoted Philippians 3.2, was interpreted as “spiritual warfare”. She reportedly urged the congregation to “watch out out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh”. A New Year card distributed every year to parishioners and visitors to the church also made reference to being “at war”.

St Leonard’s, in the diocese of Oxford, describes itself as “lion-hearted and courageous disciples, a prophetic community”. The language it uses reflects that of the Jesus Ministry, with which it closely engages, and which asserts: “We want to embrace the reality that warfare between the Kingdoms is a central reality to our lives. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. We are called to wage war on the front foot, and to do do without allowing the prevailing mindset of our Western culture to water it down.”

A PCC spokesperson said on Monday: “We understand the planning dispute surrounding our application has been stressful for all concerned. We have listened closely to the community, and have significantly reduced the new development plans while keeping the scheme beneficial to all. We long to see the whole community benefit from all the work at St Leonard’s.

“We are disappointed our application has been refused, and will be taking time over the coming weeks to consider our next steps, and whether to appeal this decision.

“The parish church has sat at the heart of the community for over 800 years, and we are called to love, bless, and pray for everyone in the village. We know there has been some concern within the community about the language used in our sermons and a New Year card sent out earlier this year.

“We would like to apologise unreservedly for the offence caused to members of our community, by the sermon and the card. Neither of these messages were targeted at a particular section of our community, nor in response to anything specific.

“It was not the intent of the preacher, nor the leadership of St Leonard’s, to be inflammatory or offensive. It is common to preach messages based on the rich imagery we find in the Bible, in particular the New Testament, which often includes spiritual warfare and battle metaphors.”

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