Originally published by the Church Times
LAY PCC members at St Mary le Strand, in central London, have resigned en masse in protest at what they say is an attempt to wrest control of their church.
The laity have been at loggerheads with the diocese of London for months over proposals to turn the historic church into the London branch of the American Museum of the Bible.
Last year, one of the churchwardens, Margery Roberts, accused the Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller, of trying to “gerrymander” the PCC and outvote the congregation’s representatives by suddenly licensing eight additional clergy to the parish (News, 8 December).
At the time, a compromise working group was set up to seek a way through the impasse. But after meeting only once and offering what Mrs Roberts described as essentially the same proposals as before, she and her fellow churchwarden, Akua Kyei-Mensah, decided that they would resign in protest.
“I knew that once they had gerrymandered the PCC that I couldn’t serve on a body that had been compromised in that way,” Mrs Roberts said this week. “I made every effort; I wrote to Bishop Pete [Broadbent, the Acting Bishop of London] and Archdeacon Luke asking them to un-gerrymander it. They both refused; so that left me with no other option.”
St Mary’s has, for many years, not had a full-time priest, and has relied on retired ministers and others to cover services for the small congregation, which averages 15 people on a Sunday. But Ms Roberts said that the parish remained solvent, and was able to pay its parish share each year.
For some years, Archdeacon Miller has sought to reimagine ministry at St Mary’s and, in 2016, the diocese of London began discussions with the Museum of the Bible — who recently opened their flagship institution in Washington, DC — to turn the church into their UK home.
Under the scheme, all the pews and other furnishings would be removed from the Georgian building to convert it into an exhibition space for a trial period of 18 months, with a view to taking a decades-long lease and turning the building into a permanent museum.
The proposal was strongly opposed by the congregation of St Mary’s, but, after the inclusion of the eight new clergy (most of whom are chaplains from King’s College, London, and other universities near by), the PCC had a majority in favour of the Museum of the Bible proposal.
After several more months spent trying to persuade the diocese not to proceed, Ms Roberts said that she, Mrs Kyei-Mensah, and almost every other lay member of the PCC had now resigned.
“I don’t think the PCC’s decisions are valid,” she said. “I feel really sad; it’s heart-breaking really. It’s an abuse of the laity and a misjudgement of them . . . treating them as so much pew fodder. I don’t think most of the clergy have shown much moral backbone. They seemed to count the laity’s feelings as nothing.”
But this suggestion has been strongly rejected by Archdeacon Miller, who insisted that in none of the proposed reorderings would worship cease at St Mary’s.
“It is deeply regrettable that the lay members of the PCC have taken the decision to resign without discussing plans for St Mary le Strand with myself, the diocese, or the Priest-in-Charge,” he said. “We must, however, focus on the future.
“The future for St Mary le Strand is that of a church, open to the public on a daily basis and serving all the community. It must use its resources wisely and engage in partnerships.
“The area surrounding St Mary le Strand, often referred to as the North Bank, is an area that sees hundreds of thousands of students, tourists, workers, and residents every day. It is a 24-hour hub for London that, for many years, has not been properly served by its parish church.”
This week’s diocesan area council meeting was due to consider a formal proposal to declare St Mary’s redundant, which David Roberts, Mrs Roberts’s husband and the council’s lay vice-chair, said was a surprise to him.
But Archdeacon Miller said that it was simply a legal preliminary to considering “options for major changes that would allow a sustainable future for this church”.
“The proposal was tabled last year and should not be a surprise for anyone. It will not result in the church closing its doors. For the first time in many years the church will be open and serving its community.”
But Mrs Roberts and her lay colleagues remain unappeased. She said that she would ask the new Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, whose election was due to be confirmed yesterday, to launch an inquiry into the affair.
“I will ask the Bishop to set up an inquiry into the culture of intimidation and bullying that has no place in the Church of England.”
She is also in conversation with revision committees of the General Synod in an attempt to revise the Church Representation Rules to prevent what she considers to be gerrymandering happening elsewhere.
“It would set a terrible precedent: if you have got a lot of awkward laity, create some extra clergy,” she said. “But the fight goes on.”