Soho Society versus Rector: a parochial digression


The tower of St. Anne's Church, Soho, London W1


It’s not hard to imagine the quirky little independent film — almost too full of character roles, perhaps racking up a critical prize or two on its journey to modest box office success — that could be developed out of the West End Extra‘s headline this morning: ‘CONSERVATION GROUP FACING CHURCH BOOT’.

Soho residents awoke today to the shocking revelation that the Revd David Gilmore, rector of our local parish church, is apparently ejecting the Soho Society — the local residents’ group which, since its foundation in 1972, has worked tirelessly to protect this historic, pungently characterful London quartier — from the small room in the church tower which it has occupied for the past three decades. According to Fr Gilmore,

‘The Soho Society’s license has ended and they must be treated like all other tenants, and in line with all other leases. Unfortunately, their historic connection with the church and the community, while valuable, does not remove them from this process.’

Fr Gilmore’s wish, he has stated, is to ‘maximise full market value’ for the tower room.

Unless I’m missing something, the room measures 4.8m by 3.2m — it’s located directly above another room already available for hire, hence the otherwise eerie specificity of that description — and is reached by climbing a very steep and narrow flight of stairs with no disabled access whatsoever. I’m not even sure it has any windows. Furthermore Soho, like much of the UK at present, isn’t exactly short of commercial premises languishing in the long wait for paying occupants.

In short, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that what we are seeing here is a conflict far more simple and visceral, and at the same time more completely unnecessary, than the reported facts of the story suggest. Think of it as Barchester Towers meets Night and the City, with extra added heritage campaigners, Groucho Club hangers-on and multivalent sexualities galore, a modern jazz score and a walk-on part for the ghost of Paul Raymond. Yes, I’m sure your agent will be in touch any day now.The film would, of course, be played for laughs, not least because humour is the familiar rhetorical space within which British mainstream media culture feels most comfortable engaging with Anglican Christianity, the presumed Dad’s Army amateurism of local activism and the sort of social and sexual diversity from which mythic Soho has long since become inseparable. But back here in the real world, or at least back in everyday Soho, there’s a serious side to the story.

It is hard to underestimate the amount that the Soho Society has achieved when it comes to preserving Soho’s past and protecting its future. There were points during the post-war period when many of the buildings and spaces which confer on Soho its own particular sense of scale, its visual texture and rhythm were under threat from insensitive development, both public and private — where those early Georgian terraces, proud Victorian commercial structures and attractive pre-war office-blocks faced demolition — even points at which the future of St. Anne’s Church, famously destroyed by enemy action on 24 September 1940 (c.f. Cecil Beaton’s elegiac photo, reproduced here) appeared bleak indeed.

Some of the Soho Society’s work has been hands-on in the most literal sense, as when Matthew Bennett, who now chairs the Society’s environment and planning group, recalls shovelling pigeon mess out of the church in the 1970s. Even today, the amount of time and energy devoted by Soho Society activists to thankless, potentially soul-destroying tasks such as vetting local planning applications ought to be the wonder of anyone who stops to notice it, or indeed pauses to reflect what our Soho would be without it. If Soho is now a thriving neighbourhood, with a growing residential population of something like 5,000 souls — young families and elderly people, more or less poor or wealthy, gay or straight, local or international, pious or worldly — this has everything to do with the benevolent concern and practical interventions made by the Soho Society over nearly four decades, and continuing — or so one very much hopes — into the future.

Meanwhile, it is perhaps betraying no great local secret to say that Fr Gilmore has not had the easiest of relationships with his parish since he was installed here in April 2008 — an ongoing problem reflected in diminishing turnouts at services, perhaps even in a falling-off in the number and popularity of parish-centred community activities.

Admittedly, Fr Gilmore has had an almost impossible act to follow. His predecessor, the Rev. Clare Herbert, who served as rector of St. Anne’s from 1998 to 2007, had a gift for parish ministry so refulgently obvious that even a long-time opponent of the ordination of women — i.e. me — was left re-examining my certainties.

Clare didn’t just talk about creating an inclusive parish community in Soho, although her reflections on the subject here are worth reading — to a remarkable degree, she really did achieve it. Not least, while the gap between her left-of-centre convictions and my own Tory tendencies could hardly have been more obvious — a point not lost on either of us — she simply could not have made me feel more welcome within the life of St. Anne’s — a display of rather Anglican good manners, tolerance and humility which, let’s face it, is not exactly what every C of E incumbant means by ‘inclusiveness’.

The power of Clare’s ministry was thrown into stark relief by the horrific events of 30 April 1999 when a bomb was detonated inside the Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton Street one warm spring evening, killing three adults and one unborn child and leaving about 70 people injured. Clare’s gifts of empathy, tact and warmth ensured that the community’s response was articulated, to a great extent, through the agency of the Anglican parish. Given that a mere decade before, the ecclesiastical parish was almost moribund, this was in itself an amazing achievement.

But Clare continued to build on the goodwill she had created. By the end of her time at St. Anne’s, it was by no means unusual to find amongst the Sunday morning congregation local people and visitors who, in other contexts, would happily have identified themselves as Catholics, Jews, agnostics or even atheists. Somehow each and every one of these men and women had come to believe that Soho’s Anglican parish church was in some sense their church. Meanwhile a wide range of community events held within the newly-built St. Anne’s and its leafy churchyard must have attracted virtually all residents of the area at one point or another. In short, I hope Clare will react with her usual infectious good humour when I insist that as a Tory, it was a real revelation for me to see played out in real life something very central to the Tory historical imagination — the parish church functioning as the living, life-affirming heart of its own locality.

Community organisations felt very much at home at St. Anne’s. So did the community more generally. Clare’s tenure was a happy, productive and sustaining time for Soho’s collective endeavours.

All of which appears as something of a contrast to the present state of affairs, as reported in West End Extra today, wherein the extent of mutual distrust and even antipathy existing between Fr. Gilmore and the Soho Society could hardly be more evident.

For what it’s worth, the idea of ejecting the Soho Society from its cosy eyrie in the tower of St Anne’s Church strikes me as bad-tempered, counter-productive nonsense of a very high order indeed. Indeed, the cynics amongst us might feel moved to wonder whether it was motivated more by a desire to make life uncomfortable for individuals who take an above-average interest in Soho affairs than by commercial logic or even the flexible and dogmatic application of Charity Commission guidelines — and although that’s probably unfair, one can see how the suspicions arise. Aside from anything else, that small, inaccessible room would seem to be a remarkably unpromising target for commercial exploitation. Another strong possibility is that this is all the residue of some sort of attempt to bring some long-standing rental agreement up to date, with clearer conditions and perhaps a marginally increased rent, which has somehow been mishandled or misunderstood.

All the same, though, I do think that even if the potential financial gains were enormous, the ejection would still be wrong in principle — symptoms, in fact, of a culpable lack of sympathy with the practical mechanics of an effective Anglican ministry within this distinctive central London parish.

Perhaps it may strike some of my long-time readers as odd that Fr. Gilmore’s appeal to what appears, on the surface, to be the impeccable logic of market competition fails to strike more of a chord within my distinctly Thatcher-friendly sensibilities. Well then, let me explain. As Fr. Gilmore put it in a statement made jointly with the Soho Society — a statement for which the Society had apparently withdrawn its approval within a mere few hours of publication —

‘The Parochial Church Council values the relationship [with the Soho Society], however as trustees of the Church, the PCC has a duty fulfil its charitable obligations and in the spirit of the Charities Act, must maximise full market value for lettings or the sale of lands that are held in trust or lands that would be held in trust.’

This, however, is pure silliness — a very strange reading of the rules, to put it no more strongly than that. For if it were true, if profit maximisation were the raison d’etre of the whole exercise, why not lease out the rectory? As far as that goes, why not lease out the main body of the church itself?

The reason neither of these activities would be desirable — the reason, in fact, why they’re all obviously farcical — is because each would so clearly get in the way of the main purpose of St. Anne, which is, or so one would conventionally assume, to bring the Gospel of Christ to the people of Soho.

Whereas, by making St. Anne’s a focal point of community organisation — something which, as far as I can see, has been the case in English churches since about the eighth century or thereabout — siting the Soho Society within St. Anne’s is more than just rendering a debt of gratitude to an organisation which has done a great deal for Soho in general, and for St. Anne’s in particular. It’s also a way of entwining the church — in the sense both of the physical structure and the corporate spiritual entity — with the world in which its parishioners live, work, play, suffer, hope and dream.

If anything, St. Anne’s should be trying to increase and strengthen these linkages, not break them. I really do believe that the more the people of Soho think of St. Anne’s as their own place, the more they are likely to think of what goes on within the church itself, on Sunday mornings or at other times, as something with potential relevance to their lives. What on earth is a few thousand pounds of rent money — or perhaps more plausibly, a lonely little room growing dusty amid pointless dog-in-the-manger neglect — compared with all that?

Admittedly, Soho probably constitutes what is, by most standards, a challenging target for ministry. As is so often the way with apparently well-known places, it both is and isn’t what outsiders imagine it to be.

Yes, there are still too many clip joints, the police still struggle to cope with overt public drug misuse, while in the wee small hours of a Saturday morning the smaller streets of Soho all too often still play host to what looks for all the world like a modern-dress reenactment of Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Local people might frame the problem differently, complaining of the proliferation of Starbucks, long-established businesses and families forced out by rising rents, the fear that lapping waves of gentrification will somehow wash away Soho’s distinctive savour.

Yet on a more positive note, what outsiders fail to see about Soho is often precisely what’s best about it. At 6.30 am today, for instance, a neighbour kindly posted West End Extra through our door, as he does every Friday, because he knows we don’t always see it otherwise. Then at 7.20 am we had a troop of the Blues and Royals trotting past the end of our street, enjoying some exercise in the relatively empty byways of the early morning West End, much to the delight of my little boy. And as dusk started to descend this evening, the last light falling through the old-gold leaves of a tree in a neighbour’s garden, just as the church bell tolled 6 pm and a blackbird struck up its song in our wisteria — well, that’s the place where we’ve lived for almost ten years now, the real Soho that doesn’t quite correlate with what people see when they come down to the wild West End for a messy night out.

Soho is at once small-scale and high-profile. By this, I mean that Soho is a place where it’s almost impossible to walk as far as the Dean Street Tesco, Algeria Coffee Store in Old Compton Street or the bus stop in Shaftesbury Avenue, without running into at least one or two people I know — as well as the obligatory pitiable addict, dodgy geezer or minor celebrity. (Repeated sightings of Pete Doherty in Dean Street make it easy to tick quite a few of these boxes in a fairly economical manner.) Soho is also a place where one can buy fresh fish from a man whose family has been selling fresh fish for at least three generations, where one can source good dolcellate amid a torrent of incomprehensible Italian conversation or meet a well-known millionaire novelist hurrying back to his work, McDonalds bag tucked firmly under his arm. If it isn’t quite true that all human life is here, well, there’s certainly enough of it to keep most of us thoroughly entertained, surprised and sometimes mystified.

More than most of London, I think, Soho retains a degree of eighteenth century theatricality, an English take on fare bella figura, while somehow missing out on the conspicuous moral hypocrisy of the nineteenth century or the socially segregated callousness of the twentieth. It literally makes me laugh when outsiders somehow assume that more wickedness goes on in Soho than it does in Chelsea or Fulham. If the complicated scripts of human complexity are acted out in the open here more than sometimes happens elsewhere — and it seems safe to say that they are — then this has something to do with Soho’s admittedly chequered history of cultural diversity, mutual tolerance and certain a lack of squeamishness about the causes and consequences of moral frailty. Soho may not be full of saints, but as places go, it knows something about humility.

And that, I suppose, is why it’s so easy to postulate a cheerful, heart-warming conclusion to the drama — whether played as tragedy or farce — presently enacted before all of us by Fr Gilmore and the leadership of the Soho Society. In finding a solution to this dispute, both the Church of England and Soho’s resident genius loci ought, surely, to be able to draw upon the reserves of tolerance, common sense and an easy way with pragmatic compromise prominent in the history of each.

In preserving the guardians of Soho’s environmental wellbeing within their accustomed tower, Fr Gilmore might enhance his reputation as a sympathetic and stalwart friend of the local community. In showing their gratitude, the Soho Society might remind that same local community that they are something other than a self-appointed elite of one particular vision of Soho — one whose members all keep the Georgian Group’s number on speed-dial, don’t really like any noise after 7 pm and desire nothing more than to convert Soho into some sort of fossilised heritage-based theme-park — a perception that’s totally untrue, by the way, but one that still surfaces from time to time, particularly as one moves further away from the beautiful Georgian terraces, a bit closer to the unlovely social housing or the mundane but productive businesses.

Much good, in short, could come with a swift and happy resolution to this crisis — very little good at all out of sustaining or exacerbating it. Come on, Soho friends and neighbours, give us a happy ending!


Filed under London, religion, Tory things

4 responses to “Soho Society versus Rector: a parochial digression

  1. Frances Hiller

    Bryan must be turning in his grave.

  2. It seems hard to believe that almost four years have passed — the anniversary must be very soon now — since Bryan Burrough died, but perhaps even harder to believe that this tangible and productive link between two organisations to which Bryan gave so much — St. Anne’s Church and the Soho Society — is in danger of being broken, for so little obvious reason.

  3. vexarb

    ‘The Parochial Church Council …. as trustees of the Church … and in the spirit of the Charities Act, must maximise full market value for lettings … that are held in trust…” On a first reading these words brought Blake to mind: “When nations grow old (and hearts) grow cold, then Commerce sits in every tree”. But on reflection, they are merely a modern English version of words from the New Testament. “Steward, what hast thou done with the talents that I entrusted thee?” “Master, I have maximised full market value”. “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” And let us not forget that, by the time a provincial preacher from Nazareth (where the heck is Nazareth, and what good ever came out of Galilee?) had been crucified for interfering with the High Priest’s effort to maximise full market value for the Temple in the capital, Jerusalem, that obscure Nazarene’s movement had itself grown into a Church headed by his brother James, with a Treasurer and a couple of members struck off (or struck dead?) for not withholding their dues. So If the Soho Society can reconcile itself to paying full market value (and if genuine competitive offers can be found for the rent of 10 square metres up a church steeple) then the market has a right to decide.

    And yet, … “in the spirit of the Charities Commission”? What is the spirit of this word Charity, which used to be no more than the Greek for Grace or Thank You, and then in the light of the New Testament became a living flame to warm the world?

    And thank you for including the link to Rev Clare’s piece on the Inclusive Church. So different from the apocryphal millionaire who inherited a very exclusive golf club: the first thing he did was to hold a membership drive, which was successful – succeeded in excluding half the membership.

    Rev Clare also mentions the St Anne’s Society, with Dorothy Sayers and Rose McCauley: two gentle feminine voices from the 40s and 50s. The book on Dante by Sayers stretches back to the Dante of Mathew Arnold: an English essay in spreading “sweetness and light”.

  4. vexarb

    correction! “not withholding their dues” should read “not paying” or “withholding”. Couldn’t decide which, so fell between the two.