Thursday, April 20, 2006

End or new beginning?

Costly guests
For the past two years we have struggled to keep St James' church open with shrinking numbers and income, just about managing, because of regular donations from the Cardiff Christian Life Centre our 'guest' Pentecostal congregation who use church buildings twice weekly generously compensating for the costs of heating and lighting they use. Back last autumn they told us their numbers were also decreasing and that they could only afford to pay half of what they had previously. We simply had to accept this, half a donation is better than none.
However, fuel bills at the end of the winter quarter turned out to be a thousand pounds more than the amount budgeted for on the basis of the original agreed donation. Late last year we reduced our cash-flow reserve to next to nothing to pay for modifications to the heating boiler that would allow it to be certified as safe under new regulations. So, suddenly, as Lent was under way, bankruptcy stared us in the face. Neither the Pentecostals nor the Parish is in a position to rescue St James'.
The Pentecostals are a modern congregation in every sense, in worship and in their offering of ministry to young individuals and families. The difficult thing is that their expectations about how warm a building should be for worship are different from ours. Their members like to pray in shirtsleeves, as they would at home. So, the past couple of years of their being with us have been punctuated with embarrassing conversations, requests and un-kept promises relating to thermostat levels.
At one stage during Lent they ran a midweek convention in addition to their usual services. During this, the church heating was maintained at such a high level that the heat started to affect the pipe organ. It started emitting strange sounds or unexpected silence instead of sweet music. Thankfully Spring's here and it's possible to switch off heating we can no longer afford to run. It made us realise that we can no more afford to offer hospitality to our 'guests' than they can afford to contribute to maintaining the church in the style to which they are accustomed. They are costing us and we can ill afford it. Sad but true. What to do next?

Cardiff to the rescue?
I recently learned that city government officials were hunting for space to accommodate Cardiff's local history archives, and possibly to open a reading room for public access as part of this. Ideal, we thought, agreeing what a great use of the empty nave of the church it would be. So, I did some soundings, to see if there was any interest. The council sent a surveyor to look at the property, but he looked doubtful because the archive people are greedy for as much space as they can get. The floor space would only be adequate, if it were possible to build upwards into the fifty foot interior space of the nave before reaching roof level. We hoped it would be.
Well, the discussion of this lasted an anxious week. It was just our luck that the same week a decision had to be made, another city government department announced that seventeen schools would have to close as part of a rationalisation programme, due to the shortage of pupils. With all that empty property to choose from, and a political storm brewing, overtures in our direction turned quickly into an apologetic finale. It would have been a great project, and would have done the area much good.

Mission with hands tied
If only we could have given the church to the city, in return for its repair and maintenance, and the occasional use of the chancel, as happened 40 years ago to St Nicholas in Bristol city centre, maybe it would have been worth further thought. I learned from the Church in Wales Properties Officer, however that we can no longer give buildings away. Only sale at market rates is now acceptable in conformity with the Charity Trust deed governing church assets. Apparently in the past, redundant school and small church buildings had been disposed of at less than their real value, perhaps because of the need to lighten the burden of liability for managing so many decrepit properties. No longer is this allowed.
Charity is now more business-like, some would say too business-like to reflect its spiritual origins, when trustees are obliged to make a decent profit, and go the way of the open market. The Pentecostals would love to be given the building to run at their expense, and would even let the Parish continue to use the chancel for worship - well they think they can afford it - how come they had to halve their donation to running costs? It doesn't make sense, any of it.

Biting the bullet
We had a St James' annual church meeting after the Eucharist on Easter day. Jenny and I, plus eight others of thirty registered members. Iris, sub-warden and treasurer announced that we were all but broke. Having explored the idea of temporary closure to save heating costs altogether next winter, and obtained permission to move regular worship into the school, it seemed as if the time had come to admit that our ambition to re-develop the church for multiple community use was foundering, for lack of support from all directions. Yet, the school thrives and our recent work with some school families has been promisingly supported. Difficult though it was for anyone to accept, we agreed the best possibility would be in establishing worship and pastoral care permanently in the school, and giving in to the insistence of the Representative Body to accept the inevitable, declare the building redundant and put it up for sale. All would not be lost because there'd be the prospect of raising funds that might be used to establish a new pastoral centre, more sustainable and appropriate to our actual needs, in the school.

The strange long view
How are the mighty fallen! It's just about 115 years since the church was built to replace an overflowing temporary building where the church halls now stand. That had been constructed 20 years earlier next to the site of the very successful Tredegarville Church school in response to the pastoral need growing out of the school population. Here we are 135 years later still with a very successful school, staffed by keen and dedicated Christian teachers, with more practising Muslims among the children than practising Christians, and the rest belonging either to lapsed families or families which lost connection with the church generations ago. The school still offers the best opportunity for Christian mission in this context, rather than struggling to put to better use a building which has become a huge burden to church members.

Vain ambition?
As I said, our Pentecostal 'guests' would love to take over the building. They have a large house which was formerly a doctor's surgery a few hundred yards away, across Newport Road. It has a sign outside proclaiming 'Cardiff Christian Life Centre - building a Cathedral for the 21st century of living stones.' I wrote to the pastor to tell him that we wouldn't be able to offer his people hospitality much longer because we couldn't afford to do anything but close down and sell up.
Within hours, however, I had a return message from him asking whom he could contact about acquiring the building.
I still await a response to the news, an expression of concern or regret or solidarity. I did my duty as civilly as I could under the circumstances, but couldn't resist pointing out the irony in his advertising strap line, as he so much wanted to take on an edifice from the century before last as a base for mission today. Is one man's millstone around the neck really another man's springboard?
No matter how much people and enthusiasm for mission are in abundance, one can get overwhelmed by the duty of responsible stewardship of difficult to manage resources. Travelling light, 'mission with empty hands' is another option, which also has its disadvantages, but after years of struggling not to be overwhelmed by building management problems, the grass certainly looks greener on the other side.