HC Deb 11 December 1967 vol 756 cc144-50

8.42 p.m.

Mr. Albert Murray (Gravesend)

I beg to move,

That the Supplementary Scheme to give effect to the proposals of the Diocesan Reorganisation Committee of the diocese of Rochester for amending and making additions to an original Scheme for the rearrangement of the pastoral supervision of the parishes of Gravesend (Saint George), Saint James, Gravesend, and Holy Trinity, Milton-next-Gravesend, which was laid before this House on 14th November, be disapproved.

The matter concerns a Reorganisation Areas Measure affecting a church in my constituency, with which I should like to deal as objectively as I can.

I have been very grateful during my researches for the help of Mr. James Benson, who is well known in my constituency as a historian. I hope that in the time I represent Gravesend, both in the past and in the future, I shall have a tenth of the knowledge he has of the ancient town. I also thank the Rev. Michael Beek, who became Rector of Gravesend when some of the moves on the Measure had already occurred.

All of us receive a great many letters about different things when matters come before Parliament, but I have received as many letters about the Measure concerning St. James's Church, Gravesend, as I have ever received on any constituency matter.

One of the rectors of Gravesend, the Rev. Robert Joynes, and his brother, the Rev. Richard Joynes, walked one day in tie 1840s from Gravesend down to the village of Cobham, which is in my constituency. They asked the Earl of Darnley if he would give some land for them to erect a church. He did so, and the Church of St. James was opened in 1852.

Since that time the Church of St. James has become a landmark in my constituency. It is very well situated at the corner of the main road from London into Gravesend. Its posters are seen by every person leaving Gravesend, and those who signed the Petition felt that the posters in the sight of the Church were silent witness and that they were challenge and cheer.

In 1952 it was decided that the Church of St. James should become the parish church of Gravesend and that the Church of St. George should become a chapel dedicated to Princess Pocahontas, who was one of the first American visitors to our shores, and also become a mayor's chapel. The Church of St. George then last its former importance in ecclesiastical terms to the town of Gravesend. In 1964 it was decided to spend a large amount of money—about £8,000—which had been raised in various ways, and included a bequest, on installing a new organ at the Church of St. James and doing a great deal of re-roofing.

I am told by the objectors to the scheme that the bombshell was then dropped on them—that the Church of St. James was to be closed. They adopted various methods of stopping that plan coming about. In doing so they obtained 1,600 signatures to a Petition which stated: The undersigned, being residents of Gravesend I, wish by this memorial to register strong protest against the contemplated demolition of the Church of St. James, Gravesend, for both varying and unitedly-held reasons. For some of us because the demolition will remove from a dominating position in the town a place of Christian worship convenient for attendance by those residing within a half-mile radius of its south-western, southern and south-eastern sides; there being bus halting points from all directions, except the north, within a few feet of its doors, this fact affording opportunities to the less mobile to attend public worship:

The Church is listed by all the buses using this as a stopping point. Everyone knows that the Church of St. James is on this corner. For others of us because the silent witness of the existence of the church on a prominent corner site near to its shopping area, with its large notice board carrying frequently changed messages of challenge and cheer, has been an important inspiration to passers-by and would be greatly missed: For others because the church's contribution to the visual aspect of the western end of Gravesend at the corner upon which it stands by the existence of a dignified structure which supplies a welcome break from the architecture imposed by the necessities of commercial activities upon neighbouring buildings, as well as the reminder of its principal function. For yet others because they feel that St. James's Church can become, and can be, a rallying point for future religious activity in the direction of evangelisation. For these and for other unenumerated reasons, the signatories signify their strong opposition to the proposed demolition.

The objectors also say that because of the uncertainly about the future of St. James's Church the congregation has been dropping in size not because people do not wish to worship at St. James's Church but because they feel that the future has been jeopardised by the plans.

Not only have I received letters from many constituents but a letter from a person in Australia. I am certain that this person would not be able to appear every Sunday morning for worship but the letter shows that, even in a far part of the Commonwealth, people feel strongly about St. James's Church.

The point made by the letters concerns the question of the application of the Reorganisation Areas Measures, 1944, to St. James's. The objectors contend that it cannot be applied in this case, since St. James's comes within the exclusion provisions in part I of the Measure.

Section 1(ii) states that a parish shall shall be excluded where it appears to the committee that, by reason of causes attributable to the war, or as the result of planning or replanning schemes, the number or situation of the population has so changed, or is likely so to change, as materially to affect pastoral supervision; ". They feel that while there have been changes in the area and a certain amount of movement from it, the town plan shows that there is likely to be a movement back towards this area. The objectors also feel that the parish church designate, as it were, St. George's, is in an area which will not have so much residential as industrial occupation.

I ask my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu) if, on behalf of the Church Commissioners, he will reconsider this scheme, together with the possibility of a public inquiry being held. The objectors feel that their objections have not been heard as well as they might have been. They feel that had there been a public inquiry, the objections would have carried the day and that the diocesan authorities would have reconsidered the plan to demolish St. James's.

I thank the House for its indulgence on what is a purely constituency matter. I felt that the House should hear the objections before it accepted the scheme and I hope that the Church Commissioners will reconsider the scheme in the light of these objections.

8.55 p.m.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu (Brigg)

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Murray) has moved the rejection of the supplementary scheme in tones which make it extremely difficult to criticise him. He has been extremely objective and has tried to put both sides of the question.

This supplementary scheme lies before the House for acceptance or rejection under Measures which have laid down the procedure in these matters, the Reorganisation Areas Measures of 1944 and 1954. They laid down that certain areas must first by Order be designated reorganisation areas. This area was so designated, quite correctly, under the Measures. Secondly, schemes have to be presented showing in what manner the pastoral reorganisation of the areas once designated is proposed.

At all stages in these procedures there have to be requisite consultations and these were all carefully carried out when the original Order was put forward, and there has been no objection whatever to the designation of this area as such an area. It was only when schemes came to show details by which the reorganisation was sought to be effected that there began to be criticisms, as was only natural, because the details of the scheme are far more likely to produce some sort of criticism than is the Order itself in principle.

When the scheme for these parishes in Gravesend was first put out, there was anxious consideration by the Diocesan Reorganisation Committee for 18 months and, as a result, as long ago as 1950 the scheme was put forward as a proposal. Even then there was some objection and criticism, because part of the scheme was that St. George's, the ancient mother church of Gravesend, which it is now sought to make the parish church, was thought to be about to be closed down and there was considerable objection to that. Indeed, the borough council objected to it strongly. An amended scheme was therefore put forward in an effort to meet the objections, and when that was put forward in 1951, there was no objection and the scheme came into operation in 1952.

Eleven years went by and it was found that one of the churches of the trinity of churches in Gravesend with which we are dealing had become dangerous and had to be demolished, so it was said. Another scheme had to be put forward and again no objections were received. The supplementary scheme now put forward is for the name of the benefice and the parish to be altered from that of St. James's to that of St. George's Gravesend and for St. George's Church, excluding that part of it which is a memorial chapel, a chapel of unity in memory of Princess Pocahontas, should become the parish church and that St. James's Church should be closed down. This scheme was initiated by the former incumbent and rural dean and he obtained the consent of his parochial church council to the scheme, that which is now on the Table. A resolution of the parochial church council accepting the scheme was passed by 18 votes to five.

I have mentioned the consultations which have to take place before a scheme comes before the House for acceptance or rejection—the bishop, the rural dean, the parochial church council, Gravesend Borough Council, Strood Rural District Council, Kent County Council and the planning authority, the Ministry of Public Building and Works, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Central Council for the Care of Churches all had to be consulted, quite apart from local consultations of a more informal nature.

On the very eve of the institution of the new incumbent, there was held a further special parochial church council meeting, as a result of which, by thirteen votes to five, a resolution was passed which most certainly did not oppose the scheme, but which used these terms: In view of the present financial state of the country in consequence of which all major planning schemes are deferred, and in view of objections raised to the closing of St. James's Church, the Parochial Church Council proposes to the Church Commissioners that the scheme be indefinitely deferred ". That was slightly contrary to the previous resolution passed by the Parochial Church Council. But on 1st June, 1967, the rector and the Parochial Church Council reconsidered the draft scheme after the rector had just come on to the scene. As a result of that reconsideration, they accepted the scheme by fifteen votes to four.

In the circumstances, I am sure that the House would not wish to pay too much attention to the fact that a petition was signed by 1,600 people, although, of course, it must pay attention to all expressions of view coming, in particular, from the locality. But I wonder whether it could be said that a large proportion of the 1,600 who signed the petition were worshippers at the church, because only about 60 attend the most popular service. I wonder how many of them contributed to the diocesan contribution last year, when the contribution was not made up.

Mr. Murray

I am sure that my hon. arid learned Friend is talking, not about the 60 who attend the most popular service, but about the 1,600 who signed the petition.

Mr. Mallalieu

I am sure that people would contribute as best they could, but the contribution was not fulfilled because of the financial state of the congregation which habitually uses the church.

I want to say how much I personally and, I am sure, everyone else who has dealt with this matter feels for those whose church to which they have become accustomed, in which perhaps they were baptised, possibly confirmed and married and to which they have looked throughout their lives, is threatened with removal. I understand fully their feeling, and I know that everyone else under- stands it, that they have been driven to accept this solution whereby the ancient mother church of Gravesend should again become the parish and centre of something living.

It is true that there have been great population changes there, and there are still more to come. As far as anyone can see, those which are to come are likely to be in favour of making St. George's—the church which this Scheme seeks to make the parish church—the centre of Gravesend in every sense. There is no doubt that people who have worshipped all their lives in a certain church feel deeply about this matter, but there is little doubt, after all the enquiries and careful and anxious thought given to this matter, that if the church is to make her living witness in Gravesend, the best way in which it can be done is for St. George's to become the parish church once again. St. James's, the church, will not disappear, but the building of St. James's will disappear in the near future if the Scheme is accepted. The church will go on and, I submit, with greater vigour than ever if it is allowed to concentrate in this ancient and beautiful church of St. George's.

Question put and negatived.