Wednesday, August 01, 2007

St James Church - the last gasp

In this morning's post I found the Deed of Deconsecration issued by the Bishop that marks a formal end to the life of St James' Church building in relation to the Parish. It was closed for worship 16th September last year. Legal responsibility now passes to the Representative Body of the Church in Wales, which as trustee of all church properties, is able to lease or sell it on the open market. It means the end of (albeit minor) bill payments, and maintenance obligations. Not that we've been able to afford to do anything to maintain it, apart from pay someone to mow the can and bottle strewn prairie which was once the church lawn. If anything had happened to the place that could cause danger to the public, the Parish would have been obliged to pay up to make it safe. Thankfully that now becomes someone else's responsibility.

Just the day before receiving the Deed, I was showing around the church a couple of people looking for performance space to hire, possibly for a year, while Chapter Arts centre undergoes a major renovation. The building will now be handed over to an estate agent, and who knows, maybe it will be possible for Chapter to do a deal that suits their needs. I imagine that even a year's lease would be regarded favourably, given that the building standing empty is still going to need some expenditure to keep it safe and secure.

When I went in there last week to show someone around, I discovered that a door had been left unlocked by its last visitor. Fortunately none of the area's rough sleepers had discovered this and taken advantage of it, even if a few do use the side alley for a toilet from time to time. In former times, it was used by druggies as a 'shooting gallery', but things have improved - one of those stand-alone automatic pay toilets near Roath Library is now their favoured place. Hundreds of needles a week a fished out of the wire mesh grid under the floor which serves to filter out blocking materials from the automatic sanitation system that keeps the floor clean.

I just want to see some good use made of the huge empty building, as soon as possible. It's a scandal it's stood empty and unusued for nearly a year, and only partly used for a lot longer. It might have been more 'ethical' to invite all of Cardiff's down and outs to hang out there and use it to sleep in. But with no toilet or washing facilities, and nobody to look after the building or exercise any care over the poor folk compelled to fall back upon it, it would have quickly have become a neighbour from hell to Tredegarville school, which backs on to the church. A church that stands empty and unused for any reason is a symptom, not only of the collapse of religious community, but in fact the collapse of community in the wider sense, and the inability of local government, statutory and voluntary agencies to rise to the challenge of meeting the need of those who are, in a sense, the 'collateral damage' resulting from social fragmentation.

'Deed of de-consecration' - what a non-sequitor, what an inelegant phrase! You cannot undo the fact that this great building was consecrated - from the first ideas of the Vicar and patrons who wanted it, to the first designs of the architect who built it, to the solemn prayers uttered by the Bishop when it was opened as a place of worship. The fact that it has been abandoned for sacred purposes (and it was erected by public subscription), is an everlasting reproach, and a stain on the history of the church in the twentieth century.

Part of the weakness of the church, perhaps since its earliest time, is that it permits the mystery of the sacred to have legal substance and definition, so that it can have social status in civil society.
The one minor practical difference a 'deed of deconsecration' makes is that a building that has been state registered for marriages since its earliest days, thereby entitling residents of the Parish to be married therein, can now officially be un-registered with the civil authorities.

Any time in the past year, it would have been theoretically possible for someone to demand a marriage or a funeral in the church, and have the legal right to do so. If a church is only 'closed' and there is another church open and available in the Parish, there is sufficient provision as law requires, from the viewpoint of both the Bishop and the state registrar. But just imagine the hassles if someone awkward had wanted to insist on their 'rights' and sought a legal ruling, or maybe compensation claim for the lack of availability of St James'. Yes, it's silly, but we live in silly times where hungry lawyers are concerned. Well, nobody asked, and it's finally no more a worry to me.

Well, not quite - only last week did we get legal permission to remove the font and reredos, side chapel screen and bronze war memorials. We have the building contractors lined up to do the work, but it's August, and they've not committed themselves to a removal date yet. It's not over until it's over, as they say in the movies.

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