Sunday, August 25, 2013

Suffer Little Children...Will Bishop bar the Brownies?!

IT used to be unkindly alleged by some that the Church of England would rather abandon all 39 of its articles than surrender an acre of its property. There were even quite salacious allegations about the nature of the businesses carried on in some properties owned by the Church.

The Church Commissioners did get rid of a lot of west London real estate in the 1950s, some of it taken over by the London County Council for redevelopment and council housing, and some alas falling into the hands of such philanthropic gents as Peter Rachman. The Church and its capital were  thus freed for investment in new developments.

Nowadays the Church Commissioners oversee some £5.2 billion investments including industry and finance as well as £1.71 billion in property. There is also the Church of England Pension Fund. Attempts by the Church's synod or senior churchmen to dissociate from embarrassing business links (Wonga) or divest on ethical grounds (Caterpillar) can run into resistance from the more commercially-minded Commissioners, who number 33 including the Prime Minister and other members of government.

But then there's the more modest property attached to the parish church, the church hall which can be host to all sort of community activities. Only some churchmen are threatening to ban one particular organisation - the Girl Guides!

Before you go wondering in your imagination what sort of dreadful sin the Guides have been committing (shades of St.Trinian's, their patron?) it is their elders who are to blame. They have decided that in Britain in the 21st century the Guides need no longer include God in their oath of allegiance.  The Queen is still there, unfortunately, though Guides can now promise to Do Their Best for the community, rather than country.  The new promise comes into force on September 1.

Except in Harrogate, apparently, where some Guide leaders say they will stick to the godly version. Rev Brian Hunt, minister of the church where Harrogate Guides have met for many years, supports their stance, indicating that the unit could not possibly expect to use the facilities otherwise.

“My church allows the Guides to use my premises for free,” he said. “And we do that because they’ve always tried to look after the whole person – body, mind and soul – and we encourage that. I don’t think, in fairness, that Girl Guides can expect churches to provide premises for free when they don’t believe in God.”

Hundreds of Guide groups around the country have been using church premises free or for a small fee for many years. In return, vicars faced with dwindling congregations have relied on groups like the Guides to take part in church activities and processions.

A Girl Guiding spokeswoman insisted that the decision to change the oath was based on research that found it should “unify all girls of all backgrounds and all circumstances”. he said: “Updating the Promise does not alter our continuing commitment to offer all girls a safe space where they can explore and develop their beliefs".

That space may no longer be found in the church hall.

Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, said that he hoped “many others” would follow the stance taken by the women in Harrogate, North Yorks.

Christian Concern, which is concerned about abortions, Islam and gay rights, and defends Christians supposedly prevented from raising their faith at work, goes further, accusing the Guide movement of a “slap in the face” to the churches.“It’s understandable that some church leaders won’t be happy providing premises if the Guides are so insistent on keeping God out of the movement,” a spokesman said.

The Evangelical Alliance agreed, suggesting that the decision to remove the reference to God could backfire."Many churches must now be reconsidering whether they want to give their resources, free time and free use of their buildings to an organisation that wants to cleanse itself of God, especially when there is an alternative in the Girls Brigade that is rooted in the Christian faith,"

The Guides' and Brownies' promise to “love my God” is to be replaced with a more individualistic pledge to “be true to myself” and to “develop my beliefs”.

The patriotic pledge to serve "my country" is replaced by one to serve the community.
But in a consultation which attracted almost 44,000 responses Guides made clear that they wanted to retain a public expression of allegiance to the Queen, who is also their patron.

The group’s new chief executive, Julie Bentley, is the former head of The Family Planning Association, and describes the Guides as “the ultimate feminist organisation”.
Gill Slocombe, the Chief Guide, said the changes would make the promise less “confusing” and easier for the organisation’s 550,000 members to take with sincerity.

But while Guide leaders stress the need for sincerity, and some people would remind less tolerant churchmen of the duty of charity, their opponents plainly believe the greatest of their assets is church property.

Reverend Paul Williamson, of St.George's Church in Feltham, Middlesex, says it would be “hypocritical” of the Guides movement to think it could continue as before after abandoning its core beliefs.“If the Guide promise does not mention God, I cannot see why they should be on Church premises.”
 Rev Williamson, a former Scout leader, warned that most Guide groups did not have the funds or the ability to run their own buildings and that local schools or councils would charge far more for the hire of their facilities.“It seems to me the Girl Guides are being doctrinaire, feminist and anti-church,” he said. “How can they expect, as a reputable charity organisation, to go on using church premises whilst telling young girls that that cannot promise their duty to God?”

Fortunately for the Church, clerics like Rev.Williamson seem to be less strict about excluding funding for their premises. Here's a local report:

"A HANWORTH church congregation celebrated the completion of a new £250,000 roof on Sunday.
A special service of celebration was held at St George's Church in Elmwood Avenue to mark the end of repair works.

The service was officiated by the right reverend Robert Mercer, and was followed by a champagne reception. The new roof has been funded through grants from a host of organisations, driven by The Hanworth Park Preservation Trust.

The scheme involved the replacement of the roof on the historic building's chapel and chancel, the area which houses the altar and choir stalls. New guttering and rainwater systems were installed, and the chancel walls were re pointed to stop water creeping in. Areas of internal plasterwork damaged by water were also repaired, as well as distinctive and rare marble panels.

Funding was provided by English Heritage, The Garfield West Foundation, The National Churches Trust and The Veolia Enivronmental Trust.

Speaking about the end of the project, church vicar, the Reverend Paul Williamson, said: "It's wonderful to see the church watertight after two decades. When I first arrived over 20 years ago, the floor was dotted with large black buckets. This work returns the church to the community for all to enjoy."

Speaking about the end of the project, church vicar, the Reverend Paul Williamson, said: "It's wonderful to see the church watertight after two decades. When I first arrived over 20 years ago, the floor was dotted with large black buckets. This work returns the church to the community for all to enjoy."

Executive Director of The Veolia Environmental Trust, Margaret Cobbold, said: "It is great to hear that this project is complete and all the hard work that has gone into it is going to be celebrated.
"It was important to the trust that we helped protect and preserve this important building and I hope the repairs mean St George's remains at the heart of Hanworth for years to come."

Veolia is the French company that has acquired so much utility and public service provision, despite strong criticism of its involvement  in illegal settlements and discriminatory practices such that some consider it an obstacle to peace in what Church of England vicars often call "The Holy Land".

But I doubt whether it or the other donors were required to promise to "serve God", any more than you or I would be, before being allowed to make a donation to church funds and charities.

Still we must be grateful, I suppose, to the C of E and other religious denominations for letting us make use of their premises, regardless of belief, when thanks to their resources these are often the only places available. 

 Church of England investments:

The Church Commissioners

Church and Caterpillar
Ethical Investments

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