The charity The Friends of the City Churches (FCC) is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its rebirth. The catalyst was the controversial Templeman report of 1994, which proposed closing 27 Anglican City of London churches to leave only 12 active. The then Bishop of London, Dr David Hope, announced that he ‘fully intended to implement’ the proposals, but conservationists reacted with fury. SAVE Britain’s Heritage described the idea of ‘mothballing’ churches, including several by Wren, such as St Stephen Walbrook and St Martinwithin- Ludgate, as ‘callous’ and demanded all the churches be retained intact and be kept open to the public.
The FCC, which was set up after the Second World War, was then under the auspices of Friends of Friendless Churches, but had faded into obscurity until stirred into action by SAVE. Now, following the FCC’s resuscitation and a vigorous campaign, 42 places of worship within the Square Mile are open and, according to rough figures from the Archdeacon of London’s office, offering 300-350 services a week. Fittingly, as the area continues to recover some of its bygone residential allure, the buildings are treasured as parts of local heritage. The FCC is flourishing, with more than 1,200 members. The chairman, Oliver Leigh-Wood, describes the City’s churches now as ‘teaming with bright young things’ learning about Christianity across a variety of denominations, from Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals to Russian-speaking Anglicans.
‘Depending on your point of view, you may not entirely approve of the way they are going about it, but the current Bishop’s [Richard Chartres] stand is that, as long as they are all worshipping Christ, it’s fine,’ he says. Mr Leigh-Wood eschews triumphalism, however. ‘Templeman was simply the most recent report confronting the fact that the City has a very large number of churches concentrated in a small space. But to close down a Grade-I building that needs regular attention and upkeep is just about the worst thing you could do and it made the architectural conservationists very angry.’
The FCC, which has no direct involvement in ecclesiastical direction, provides more than 100 ‘watchers’, or sitters, at 16 churches, so that they remain open to visitors at regular hours; it makes small grants for repairs to clocks, bells and vestments and produces event listings plus a pocket-sized visitor’s guide. However, Mr Leigh-Wood believes the FCC’s finest accomplishment has been in helping to reverse the conception that these churches are somehow ‘hidden treasures’. He points out: ‘No, they are there on the street, open to the public. It is just a matter of consulting the relevant website to find out when they are open.’
The charity’s profile has been boosted by the relocation 12 months ago of its headquarters to St Mary Abchurch, EC4 (above), in a cobbled yard between Cannon Street and King William Street. It’s a guild church, so named because it no longer has its own parish and, thus, little income, despite its attractive Wren interior, painted dome and outstanding Grinling Gibbons reredos.
The move has been of mutual benefit. ‘The Bishop just wanted someone to go in there and love it,’ explains Mr Leigh-Wood. ‘We’ve repainted it, cleaned it up and done basic repairs. It’s given us a public face-we’re no longer lurking in a basement somewhere, we’re running a church and the door is always open.’
Telephone 020-7626 1555 or visit www.london-city-churches.org.uk for more information.
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