28 October 2014

Can People Power save treasured London churches?

Two thirds of the Anglican churches in the City of London should be closed, said a 1994 commission chaired by Lord Templeman. His com­mission was one of many set up to solve the problems which arose when 36 churches served a small city region, with a permanent residential population of 7,000 and a weekday workforce of 300,000. However Lord Templeman made it clear that churches should not be demolished for lack of a congregation. He said 'the buildings are magnificent. They belong not only to the Church of England, but to the City and to the nation. It is out of the question to pull them down.'

He suggested that only 12 churches be retained in active service. The other 24 churches should be transferred to the Reserve List and could be used for libraries, for music, or for business purposes. The com­mission also proposed that the historic endowments of the City churches be redistributed among all the churches of the diocese. At present, the City Churches Fund has an annual income of 3 million pounds, of which a million is spent on the 36 churches of the City, and the remainder distributed among the 1,000 other churches of the diocese of London. In 1994 the then-Bishop of London, Dr David Hope, said he was totally committed to implementing the lively and bold Templeman report.

Coffered dome and supporting arches
St Stephen Walbrook Church
built 1672-9
by Sir Christopher Wren

Historians and architects paid particular attention to the planned moth-balling of those churches designed and built by Sir Christopher Wren. The Great Fire of 1666 had devastated the centre of London, with a loss of old St Paul's and 86 parish churches. Wren, working with commis­sioners appointed by Parliament, was responsible for rebuilding the cathedral and at least 50 of these parish churches.

I realise that not all Wren churches had survived into the current era. St Christopher-le-Stocks was demolished in the late 18th century so that the Bank of England could be located in a perfect position. (Money 1, God 0). Some were lost to Victorian parish rationalisation. Many were destroyed during WW2. But those (23?) Wren churches that remained were historically precious. The Templeman Report wanted only four of the existing churches (none by Wren) to be retained as parish churches in the City of London. Conservationists were offended.

Painted internal dome pierced by windows
St Mary's Abchurch
destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666
rebuilt by St Christopher Wren 1681-86

Could a public outcry save these historical churches from being used as an insurance company or school library?  Friends of Friendless Churches, a charity that saves listed, medieval churches that have been declared redundant in England and Wales, resuscitated itself and launched a vigorous campaign. Regular opening of reserved churches to visitors became possible when responsible persons started watching over them at least weekly. The National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies joined The Friends to organise the watchers serv­ice, starting with St Sepulchre Without Newgate and St Mary Alder­mary. The Friends made repair grants for bells, vestments, pews and visitors’ guides. Signatures were collected, newspaper articles were written and politicians were lobbied. SAVE Britain's Heritage, which itself champions the cause of decaying country houses, redundant churches, old mills and warehouses, town halls, railway stations and asylums, became involved. 

The affected churches also responded. St Lawrence Jewry stopped being a parish church after WW2; instead it became a guild church and the official church of the City of London Corporation. Some of the so-called redundant churches have introduced yoga classes in their spaces - exercise with some of the best ceiling views in London. Others, like St Martin’s, have started jazz nights, one further east offers sea bass and other delicacies in the crypt. One local church, the historic St Sepulchre, is enjoying operatic performances; they love La Traviata apparently. In St Andrews Holborn, the priest set up a counselling service after the financial crisis. St Ethelburga’s Church reopened with a renewed focus and vision; it is now St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. St Andrew Under­shaft, a fine City building dating back to the eve of the Reformation, has been completely refurbished for religious services, bible study classes and an enormous hospitality mission.

St Lawrence Jewry
destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666
rebuilt by Christopher Wren between 1670-87.

What is the status of the Templeman Commission Report now? Has People Power finally won? Only one brief mention suggested that "the proposals were dropped following a public outcry and the consecration of a new Bishop of London".


Andrew said...

Churches do have to find new roles when they no longer have a congregation, but they also need to remain publically accessible and not turned into private housing or businesses.

Deb said...

The Blitz caused such catastrophic loss of people and buildings, you would think that any surviving 17th century building would be cherished.

Hels said...


I absolutely understand that the Church needs to realise its assets in the most profitable way, and the City Council needs to maximise its rates base. But I agree... the survival of important historic architecture needs to be protected by legislation and used aptly. Why not convert two of these treasures into 1] a Museum of Religious History and 2] a Learning Centre for The Great Fire of London and its Renewal, for example.

Hels said...


Australians are used to not having old architecture and, worse still, destroying that that we had. But we expect Europeans to be more historically sensitive.

Re the Blitz, the History Channel said the most notorious raid took place in December 1940 on the City of London. The area from Aldersgate to Cannon Street and Cheapside to Moorgate went up in flames. 19 churches, including 16 built by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London, were destroyed. What a tragedy.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is hard to believe that London is so lax with its Wren buildings--the very symbol of architectural London. Not a single one of these should be considered expendable, regardless of any rank or current condition/situation.

Did you know that there are two Wren buildings in the U.S.? The first is the beautiful Wren Building at the College of William an Mary, which is not exactly 'first draft,' but very possibly might have been designed by Wren. The other is a genuine London Wren church which had been bombed, and was moved to Fulton, Missouri and restored. Here is the whole story:


Hels said...


what an amazing story! Thank you. I particularly liked in 1946 "the idea of transporting a London church to Fulton — inspired by a recent Life magazine article on Wren’s parish churches, many of them now ruined —was raised. Remarkably, the plan was realized. It was done so with the involvement of many people on both sides of the Atlantic, most notably Churchill himself. 6 Several damaged churches by Wren and others were considered before St. Mary was selected. Between 1965 and 1969, the building was dismantled, transported in six 100-ton shipments to Fulton, and painstakingly restored."

Of course the author noted that both restoration and relocation wreak havoc on contemporary notions of authenticity and heritage. But I think in the post-war situation, the decision to save St. Mary Aldermanbury was correct.