In a letter sent to all participates to the Church's proposed Redundancy Scheme for St. Peter's Church, Swingfield, the Bishop of Dover has outlined what he sees is the way forward for this historic building.
After analysing all the options, their practicalities with their costs, he has come to the conclusion that the best way of conserving St. Peter's fabric is to allow it to become a private
residence with certain provisos.
Contained within the report below are his reasons behind rejecting the bid from 'The Friends of St. Peter's'.
THE BISHOP OF DOVER'S LETTER
The Bishop in Canterbury
The Right Reverend Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover
The Bishopâ€™s Office, Old Palace,
Canterbury, Kent CT1 2EE
To Anne Griffiths
Redundant Churches Division
Pastoral Measure 1983
Redundant church of Swingfield St Peter: proposed redundancy scheme
Thank you for your letter of 18th August asking for my comments on the above scheme.
You are well aware that, like other dioceses, Canterbury has a Diocesan Redundant Churches Uses Committee, which is made up of people who care deeply for the rich heritage of church buildings, and seek imaginatively yet realistically to enable these buildings to be retained. The Chairman and Secretary in particular are people who spend enormous amounts of time on these matters and have a proud record of promoting schemes that are successful in every sense of that word. I pay tribute to them, and continue to be more than happy that they represent me and the diocese on this particular matter.
Let me briefly, if only for my own satisfaction, rehearse the story so far.
It was in 1988 (eighteen years ago) that it started to become clear that St Peterâ€™s was not viable as a parish church. The community that it serves is tiny as was the congregation. It was declared redundant (closed for worship) in August 2000 (after 12 years of thought, prayer and debate) and, as I understand it, those who wish to express their faith in worship now do so elsewhere. Pastoral and spiritual care continues to be given by the ministers of the benefice of Hawkinge with Acrise and Swingfield, as it was before 2000.
So, as bishop for the diocese, my primary responsibility continues to be fulfilled: Godâ€™s people in Swingfield receive spiritual and pastoral care.
The issues that remain unresolved are therefore two-fold: the church building and the churchyard. On a personal level, I am always very sad when local feelings do not run high when plans are proposed, as clearly the church means nothing to local people. So I am neither surprised nor saddened by the strong voices that have been raised. It is good that local people really care, and I assure them that we in the diocese care too.
However, there comes a point where to allow discussions to continue, albeit with much passion, becomes self-indulgent. After years of debate, I really believe that the time has come for decisions to be made, however painful, and for life to move on. It is remarkable that we are almost at the point where the formal planning appeal, which was granted in May 2002, expires without even a decision having been reached, let alone work having begun. The diocese which I lead has already had to spend tens of thousands of pounds on the building over these years â€“ money that could have been spent on supporting the buildings we need to maintain and even build to serve those parts of our diocese that are growing. We simply cannot continue to spend money in this way.
The church building. St Peterâ€™s is a Grade 1 listed building with a particular history not only as a local parish church set within a small but coherent community, but as a Hospitaller parish church with links to the Knights of St John. The prime task, therefore, is to ensure that the building itself is preserved, and its identity remains.
Three possible schemes have been put forward. I do not need to rehearse these, nor the most dreadful one: to allow the church to deteriorate and have a long, slow and painful death.
The simplest is to vest the church with the Church Conservation Trust. Sadly, as I understand it, calls upon the Trust are so great and their funds are so limited, that there is no realistic possibility of such a vesting taking place.
The work of the relatively recently formed Friends of St Peter has been outstanding, and I pay tribute to them and to the passion and efficiency with which they are carrying out their task. My heart supports them as they seek to make the church available to people both from the local community and further
afield. My concern, however, is that there is no evidence that sufficient and on-going funds would be available to make it a viable option, and that even raising sufficient funds to do the urgent building work would be well-nigh impossible. There is a letter of support from the Library and Museum of the Order of St John which states â€œOur own organisation would be willing to assistâ€, but there is no suggestion that such assistance would be financial. Further, as a member of the Council of St John Kent, I am confident that they do not have spare funds for such projects. Indeed, like the Church, they are fully stretched trying to support the living work of the organisation and its members. They also state: â€œIt does have the potential to attract visitors from far afield, as well as use by people in the area.â€ As I understand it, the existing chapel of the commandery nearby receives very few visitors, and certainly nowhere near enough to support the maintenance of the building. Sad though it undoubtedly is, Swingfield is not on a footpath nor a heritage trail, and its location is unlikely to attract the hundreds of visitors from outside that would be needed. I am told that last year only six people asked for the church key.
Having paid tribute to the Friends, I must also pay tribute to those who with energy and imagination have pursued the proposal and have stuck with the other plan: to convert the church into a single dwelling. They have remained faithful to their vision, and I am grateful that all these years later they are still prepared to go ahead. The Planning Inspectorâ€™s report spells out just how carefully their plans have been laid in order both to retain the building structurally, and also to enable it to be re-converted should that time and need ever come. Their plan is viable and realistic, and I consider that it is the only way for the building to be retained in its integrity. I am encouraged by the Inspector who in his report says of such a proposal â€œthe most important objective is â€¦ to ensure that the fabric, the special architectural and historic interest of the building and its setting are maintained and preserved in good condition. On the evidence available â€¦ the proposed use would provide the best means of achieving that objective.â€
So I am completely and wholeheartedly in support of the appropriation of St Peterâ€™s to residential use and urge the Committee to enable the plans for the building to be taken forward without delay. As I read it, both the PCC and the Parish Council have given their support to this proposal â€¦ but want to be assured about the second major issue.
The churchyard. This is the second, and much more problematic, issue. If I read the papers correctly, the majority of those who have expressed concern or opposition to the proposals want reassurance on the one hand that they will continue to be free to visit and even maintain graves that are significant to them, and on the other hand do not want to have an area that is visually clearly part of that churchyard to be fenced off and converted into what is euphemistically called â€˜an amenity areaâ€™, but which in practice they fear might be turned into a family garden like any other.
It is my belief that this aspect of the proposal is already being reconsidered leading, hopefully, to the satisfaction of all. Here there may still be a little work to be done. The prospective purchaser of the lease is very understanding of the views of local people. Of course, if the â€˜developmentâ€™ does take place then the new user is going to be living among them, and personal relationships are critical, particularly within such a small community. The proposer wishes therefore to be as amenable as possible, whilst properly wanting local people to understand that the occupants need to feel that they can sit out in that part of the property which is largely un-graved. Becoming a virtual prisoner within the building is not a realistic option!
Clearly any sort of fencing would intrude into an area that for centuries has been a place of peace and reflection among the graves of our ancestors. But such areas have traditionally been places where people have also sat to relax, to talk together, â€¦ and even, in olden days, to write poetry, to enjoy a gossip, a pipe or even a sandwich!
To my mind, the challenge here is for country people to do what they have done for centuries: to live and let live. Those who live in the church/home must accept the sensitivities of those who come to visit and tend graves. Those who have graves of relatives there must accept that the area of land which up to now has been designated as an â€˜amenity areaâ€™ will be used appropriately by the occupiers of the church/home.
A decision not to fence or mark the â€˜amenity areaâ€™ means that there will be no need to fence or mark a means of access. Thus the area will retain its character. Mrs Prebble and her family will have access to their ancestorsâ€™ graves and the assurance that these and any other graves will not be disturbed. But they must equally accept that churchyards have never been places reserved for one sort of activity only, and must accept that appropriate other activities on some of the land neither disturbs, nor fails to respect, the integrity of those whose remains lie nearby.
I hope that this is helpful and look forward to hearing the fruits of your deliberations on 18th October. May I urge the members of your Committee to make a decision at that meeting so that we all know where we are. As you would expect, I encourage them to accept the proposals of my committee!
Cc The Revd David Naumann
Ms Gill Marsh