Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Church Commissioners sell church to SSG for £100

According to this Gateshead Lib Dem blog the Church Commissioners sold a church to the St Stephen The Great Charitable Trust in November for £100:

The landmark St Cuthberts Church on Bensham Bank has been sold by the Church Commissioners to the American based St Stephen The Great Charitable Trust. The historic landmark has been sold for £100, reflecting the state of the building which is suffering from structural problems and vandalism. The building needs considerable investment to bring it back into use.

The nineteenth century church was designed by the famous Victorian North East architect John Dobson.

The Church Commissioners were keen to see the building continue to be used as a church. Work on restoring the building is expected to take a year.

The sale of the church has been welcomed by local Liberal Democrat campaigners Susan Craig and Peter Andras.

Does this sound familiar? An Anglican institution is desperate to hand over their asset(s) to someone. Things don't go smoothly with the first possible recipient, but then SSG are there in the right place at the right time and get given it for free.
The £100 price tag is not really the issue. Such an amount might be entirely appropriate given the hundreds of thousands that will need to be spent on the church. What really surprises me is that the Church Commissioners have decided SSG are suitable recipients at all given:

1. The ongoing legal cases between SPCK and SSG as well as between SSG and some former employees. SPCK gave away millions of pounds-worth of assets to SSG and got their fingers badly burnt and yet the Church Commissioners appear to be doing exactly the same thing. [If you are unfamiliar with the SSG / SPCK bookshops story see all the posts in the Save the SPCK category on this blog.]
2. The dubious aims of the Saint Stephen the Great Trust. SSG have said they are aiming to restore 47 redundant churches, one for each of the 47 battles St Stephen the great fought against the Muslims (statement now removed from their website, though I have the text recorded here). In their video SSG make it fairly clear that they see acquiring churches in Muslim areas as one of their aims. I just can't see how giving a church to such an organisation can fit within the requirements for new uses for redundant churches, namely that they should be 'sensitive to the setting and history of each building'.

It could of course be the case that the Church Commissioners are unaware of the whole SPCK/SSG situation, but this seems unlikely. It is true that this sale took place before the release of the St Stephen the Great video and the Radio 4 Sunday programme, but a lot of information about SSG was available online before that time. Surely you'd do a quick Google search before giving a church building to someone.

Here's some background reading:
• This April 2007 video by the same Lib Dem councillor shows the church before it was sold (Warning - contains local ploughing and footbridge news and also some in-depth photocopying footage)
Extremist Sect Sets Up Church - No, not SSG. This is a report relating to a previous controversy, when the The Society of St Pius X were due to take on the church.
BBC NEWS | England | Tyne | Historic church's future secured - A BBC report on St Cuthberts from 2005.
Listed Church For Sale - The Gateshead Council site listing the church as being for sale again in February this year

The page about St Cuthberts (now deleted) on the Church of England site said:

This is a rare opportunity to acquire a landmark building, in a commanding position overlooking the River Tyne. The property is being sold with the benefit of a development brief produced by Gateshead Council supporting the conversion of this Grade II Listed Church to a range of commercial and residential uses. All parties are keen to see the property sold and sensitively converted to secure the future of this landmark building. Built in 1845 to the designs of John Dobson and extended by the addition of an aisle in 1874, the church stands in a large churchyard that has been used for burials. It comprises tower, nave, chancel, vestries, aisle and west gallery. The building has suffered from subsidence due to former mining works in the area and is in need of substantial stabilisation and other restoration costs. Guidance on these likely costs is available from the agents. Offers are invited by 28 July 2007, with detailed evidence of feasibility within three months of submission of offer.

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