Introducing Plan 2034
From earliest times a missionary profile of hospitality, welcome and prayer has been embedded in the life of St Giles-in-the-Fields. Though the environment of central London has grown out of all recognition from the days of Queen Matilda, or when the previous two churches were set amongst fields, yet St Giles has continued to strive for, and represent, the call of Christ to reach those living on the margins of society and, today especially, on the margins of faith itself.
Ministry and mission in the twenty first century has seen radical changes to the local urban landscape and a re-positioning of the place of faith in contemporary culture. Under the leadership of Bill Jacob and, more recently, Alan Carr, St Giles was re-established to better respond to a changing field of mission: some major improvement works were carried out, the liturgy was gradually adapted and simplified, and more attention was paid to being a parish church, even though the Sunday congregation has largely remained a gathered one.
That period of consolidation and continuity is now being succeeded by another. A desire to explore new and varied avenues of missionary engagement has arisen, seeking ways better suited to the changing nature of the social community around St Giles and, more widely, the changing relationship of the Anglican tradition to a very different London.
Setting out a blueprint
The PCC began to consider how we might invest in more creative use of the space available in and around the church for ministry and mission in 2018. Our aspiration is that this work will reach fruition in time for the tricentenary of the consecration of the current church building in 2034.
The members of the PCC clearly see that a new period of missionary endeavour lies before them and their successors in the next 10 to 20 years. Plan 2034 outlines these opportunities in the hope that it will provide the next generation of leadership at St Giles with a sense of the promise embodied in this place.
Between July 2018 and September 2019, Roger Mears Architects, the church inspecting architect, undertook a series of feasibilities studies, intended to assess the viability of developing different spaces in and around the church property.
These studies have revealed the extent of the opportunities we have to develop different areas for different purposes that will support and enhance our mission as a church - including the crypts of the church and vestry house and the west end of the churchyard. The PCC has subsequently drawn these ideas together into a steering document, Plan 2034, that sets out the key opportunities and an inital timeline for pursuing these ideas. Here we offer a summary of the options we have identified so far.
The West Churchyard
The first area for potential development around St Giles is tucked away in a corner most of us don't think about: The western part of the churchyard beyond the vestry house formerly housed a building that was demolished. It is now an open tarmac space - a gap between the vestry and the playground beyond.
With imagination, a new building could be erected to provide flexible meeting and event space, incorporating a kitchen and toilets. This would allow us more flexibility in the spaces we can offer to church and community groups, reducing some of the impact on the fragile interior of the main Vestry House.
One idea with particular merit would be to create a space that could be used by children. Our corner of the West End is sorely lacking in safe spaces for children and, while we welcome kids into the church at present, neither the vestry or the main church building are the most child friendly environments - as our Young Pelicans Sunday School can attest.
Vestry House Crypt
Another space that has been identified as a potential area for new use is the Vestry House Crypt. This space was entirely overlooked prior to the work carried out by Sarah Khan in 2019. Although it has never been used, to our knowledge, as a burial crypt, it has had little else done to it for some considerable time. As the illustration below shows, there is significant space here that could be used for a variety of purposes - possibly as a temporary homeless shelter or a flexible space for other community services.
The eagle eyed among you will notice that there are different options here to access this space - either by a new staircase to the south side of the vestry or by building a new stairwell running alongside the eastern edge of the building. Both would require significant excavation, but the result would be access to a significant space with enormous missional potential.
At present, we do not need to determine the ultimate use of this space. There is no question, however, that the need is great, especially among the street homeless community of the West End. Through our existing homelessness mission work we are aware of the community’s range of needs as well as the gaps in the provision of services. As well as the idea of a night shelter, this space could also be used by other support providers – such as healthcare and counselling providers, a soup kitchen or the base for the addiction support groups which currently meet in the main vestry room.
The Church Crypt
The greatest unexplored space within the church buildings sit directly beneath our feet. The church crypt presents some of the greatest opportunities to expand our useable space at St Giles - as well as some of the greatest challenges.
The plan above (with apologies to those of you reaching for your reading glasses!) shows the extent of the church crypt based on the exploration work carried out by our inspecting architect last year. As you can see, the crypt extends to the full footprint of the church, as well as the vestibules at the west end and a small crypt beneath what is now the church office. However, the majority of this space is currently bricked up and only the area deligneated with the solid black line is currently accessible.
At present, this is where the church boiler lives and is also the space used by Street Storage to provide their important service to the local homeless population. Those of you who have been down there will know that, despite being a crypt, it is a surprisingly dry, warm space.
In its inception, the crypt was created as a place of burial and this is how it was used for around the first 100 years of the building's life. The practice of the time would have been to brick up bays within the crypt as they became full; as a consequence, the majority of the space is now enclosed, as you see in the image above.
The presence of human remains in the crypt makes discussion of any development of this area sensitive. Other churches in London have successfully undertaken projects to give new uses to their crypts; however, we must give careful thought to whether we should undertake such a project. If we ultimately decide this is the right decision, the proper and respectful process of reinterment will have to be carried out.
A remote controlled camera used by our architects to explore the enclosed areas of the crypt found that some parts of the space have also been partially filled with soil and rubble. The full excavation of the space would therefore be a major work of both archeology and earthmoving. It goes without saying that such a venture would be very expensive, not least given our location in the middle of the West End. But if the recent experience of Crossrail has taught us anything, it is that earth moving equipment would not be an unusual sight on the streets of St Giles!
Against the major challenges presented by a repurposing of the church crypt, we will in the coming time need to weigh the potential benefits to us as a church and to our parish. As we have stressed before, all the proposals set out in Plan 2034 are very preliminary and will develop in the coming years both through the leadership of our next incumbent and through the involvement of everyone in our church community.
As we adapt to the changes brought about by the current public health emergency, we don't yet know what sort of public spaces will be needed in years to come. Choices will have to be made about which, if any, projects can be viably pursued. But through talking and considering carefully our place and purpose, we will be able to discern how we are called to respond.
This much we already know: the developments of recent years in our parish have created no shortage of space for those seeking shiny offices, expensive apartments and exclusive gyms, but the space for basic social amenities is often in short supply: places where people can go without paying an admission fee or buying a cup of coffee. While the details of our calling at St Giles may need more definition, there is little doubt that our spaces could go someway to meeting a genuine human need.