The policy of 'looking beyond buildings' has had some tragic results, says Andrew M Brown mother fine Catholic church has closed its doors for good. More than 350 worshippers attended the final Mass at SS Peter and Paul, New Brighton on August 17. The Bishop of Shrewsbury, informing parishioners that they would now have to go to an Anglican church for Mass, serenely counselled them to "look beyond buildings to your becoming more fully that which they signify — namely, the living presence of the Church in this area".
Some background to the story is important. Angry parishioners from the campaign group SOUL (Save Our Unique Landmark) accuse the diocese of, to put it mildly, lacking transparency. It is true that the consultation period was abruptly cut short by eight months. SOUL says the diocese had in any case made up its mind some time before. It is also a fact — the vicar general, Mgr John McManus. admitted it — that as early as September and November last year, the Diocese held "exploratory" meetings with a developer called Urban Splash. (By the way, in 2003 Urban Splash converted St Peter's, the oldest Catholic church in Liverpool. into offices — it is now a Cuban restaurant — and while digging away in the crypt developers found 22 bodies of monks and lay people.) In the spring of this year the Diocese of Shrewsbury finalised an agreement to share the Anglican chinch a mile down the road, All Saints, and subsequently began paying to have it refurbished. The diocese neglected to mention any of these developments — until they were safely wrapped up — to the lay faithful whom they were supposedly consulting.
Then, in a fascinating twist. the Vatican got involved. On May 2, the Congregation for Clergy wrote to parishioner Cathy Nelson to say the Bishop had "assured" them he "had no current plans to close the Church of SS Peter and Paul". How could Bishop Brian have made such an assurance? In July Mrs Nelson alerted the Congregation to the announcement of closure. It responded that "the Congregation mast evince surprise" at the scheme to share "a local church of a Protestant denomination" and "hastens to assure you that, in the information provided by the diocese, there is no indication that any such novel plan is in the offing." Such a plan "would...naturally, be of concern." Why did the diocese not mention the church-sharing plan in the information it gave the Vatican?
Still, one can easily be influenced by campaigners, so I have bent over backwards to see it from the bishop's point of view. He faces a remorseless decline in Mass attendance and vocations. The reasons he gives for the closure of SS Peter and Paul are "excessive size," "ongoing high maintenance costs," "liturgical unsuitability" and "lack of social facilities". I will get to the costs but first let me deal with the other points. SS Peter and Paul is. undoubtedly, a large church. Until recently — when Sunday Mass was moved to the awkward time of 830am — it was one of the best-attended churches in Wallasey with 400 congregants. It still thrives with 150 to 200. Architectural historians praise its "volume lightness." "lofty interior," "superb altar, reredos and transept chapels". If a developer ever converts it for secular use, the interior fabric will be ruined.
As for "liturgical unsuitability": well, it is a traditional purpose-built church, in the shape of a cross — would it be saved from destruction if it was round and "inclusive". shaped like a tent and made from non-traditional materials like the experimental churches of the 1960s'? And it lacks "social facilities". Of course it would be nice if it had social facilities, but a church is principally a place where faithful Catholics receive Christ. not a community centre.
And so we come to money. A desire to boost the balance sheet of the diocese must lie at the heart of this. Yet experts tell me the Church often betrays an unrealistic notion of how much money can be realised by selling these churches. And if the diocese had not made up its mind years ago to get rid of SS Peter and Paul it could have applied some of the estimated £350,000 donated by parishioners to making modest repairs and avoided the need for more costly works later. It's very hard to believe that a bishop and his advisers allowed a well-loved church to decay and then produced an inflated bill for its upkeep to justify closing it. But those were the conclusions of an eminent structural engineer who looked at it. Brian Morton, former Engineer to Canterbury Cathedral. concluded that the diocesan projections were "gross over-estimates". He wrote to the bishop: "Had regular maintenance been carried out, even within the confines of parish finances. the building would today be in good condition." And it can still be saved. Mr Morton thinks.
Bishop Brian's exhortation to "look beyond buildings" and phrases like it come up a lot when there are church closures. They imply that people such as SOUL are too attached to buildings. But it strikes me that it's not the building they are attached to so much as the faith and the "holy Temple" which the building symbolises. Besides, I should have thought a sacred space is hugely meaningful for most religious people. Worship bounded by buildings — Larkin's "special shell" — is a natural human model. It appeals to our senses. Are there some in the Church who care nothing for things of aesthetic value, for things that smack of culture, even for things that look distinctively Catholic?
Certainly some in the diocese think the campaigners are chauvinistic to complain about the church-sharing deal with the Anglicans, because the two churches are not so different anyway. They object to the campaigners' use of the word "Protestant" to describe the Anglican church even though it is, strictly speaking, correct, as if to use such a term might be unhelpfully divisive. The scheme is "a very positive move from an ecumenical point of view," the diocese says. But it scarcely shows an unswerving belief in the purity of the Catholic brand.
It is a depressing story and this kind of thing is by no means confined to Shrewsbury. For example the Bishop of Leeds has just summarily closed six churches and chapels. while even a landmark such as St Walburge, Preston, has been threatened by the "rationalisation" plans of the Lancaster diocese. One can detect no sense that the sauthorities think they need to be accountable, or open, or to consider the views of ordinary Catholics, for all their enthusiasm for jargon about the lay apostolate.
By no means all dioceses share the same attitude. Cardinal Connac Murphy O'Connor believes "good architecture can be a bridge to religious experienceand has claimed to detect a "renewed interest and sense of pride in its heritage" in the Catholic community. (Though one has to ask whether he finds evidence of that pride in heritage everywhere in the Church in England and Wales.)
From its place at the tip of the Wirral peninsula the triumphant dome of SS Peter and Paul signified to sailors and to anyone who cared to look, not just Catholics, "the living presence of the Church," to use Bishop Brian's phrase. When they turn it into a conference hall, or slice it up for condominiums, or leave it to graffiti artists. then what will it signify?