Community business: the future of the Church of England?

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There is money to be made from all that heritage, reflects our Director of Communications and Partnerships, Mark Gordon
18 May, 2018

As a west Londoner born and bred, the Grand Union Canal looms large in my childhood memories.

The house I was brought up in backed onto the canal; it is where I used to fish as a boy and later, I would pedal down the towpath to explore London.

A little later in life and the approach to Paddington would take me past a splendid but isolated looking church, surrounded on one side by social housing and on the other by the expensive houseboats and chi-chi residences of Little Venice.

A bizarre juxtaposition, I would think to myself. Then I would continue on my way, there being nothing to entice me to investigate further.

Last year I was invited to a reception at that very same church, St Mary Magdalene (or St Mary Mags, as the locals call it). Designed by architect G. E. Street, it is Victorian Gothic at its most splendid, inside and out. The church is Grade One listed but deemed to be ‘at risk’ by English Heritage, the only one in London. Power to Change, the organisation I work for, had funded the building of a community-run café that opens out towards the towpath to welcome passing walkers and cyclists, like my younger self.

It turns out that St Mary Mags is achieving firsts on many fronts. In 2007, the General Synod of the Church of England permitted the leasing of consecrated churches to outside organisations for the first time. In stepped Paddington Development Trust, whose name does what it says on the tin; they have driven regeneration in the area, taking on neglected assets and attracting money into the community.

Westbourne ward, where the church sits, is the second most deprived ward in London with 83% of children under 15 coming from families dependent on working benefits. St Mary Mags used to be cheek by jowl with some of the most notorious slums in north London. When they were pulled down in the 60s, the church was left in splendid isolation amidst the low-rise estate built to replace them. As was common at the time, community spaces were in very short supply.

The church had been getting by on a hardcore congregation of a couple of dozen on a Sunday plus some film location fees. Scenes for Les Miserables were filmed there and Tom Hardy was tortured in the undercroft (as painful as it sounds) for the BBC Saturday prime-time drama, Taboo. As a Grade One listed church, it could never have been turned into flats; its future was to stand there until it fell down, a thing of beauty in the midst of a deprived and under-served neighbourhood. It has taken an enterprising community led organisation, Lottery funding via Heritage Lottery Fund, as well as Power to Change and community leaders, to come together and turn St Mary Mags into a community hub and cultural venue that can bring together classes, faiths and residences.

At the same time, there is money to be made from all that heritage and that money will benefit and be controlled by the community. Flexible and affordable workspace here will enable locals to set up their own enterprises and drive rents back into the community business. And the community-run café will literally be the only café for a mile around; the Costas of this world have not ventured out of the corporate towers of Paddington Basin into such a deprived area of London.

It will also bring in parched cyclists like my younger self for a mug of tea and a bun and a moment to pause and reflect about the richness of an area that I used to just whizz through. As the journalist Simon Jenkins said in his speech at that reception, this could be the future of parish churches across the land.