Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Hall must be sold to pay church bills, says rector

WATLINGTON church hall must to be sold in order to keep the church sustainable, according to the rector.

WATLINGTON church hall must to be sold in order to keep the church sustainable, according to the rector.

Rev Christopher Evans claims St Leonard’s Church is at risk of not being able to pay its bills for the first time since he arrived 26 years ago.

In a presentation to Watlington Parish Council last week, he said the Diocese of Oxford would seek pre-planning advice from South Oxfordshire District Council about demolishing the hall and building on the land in the “not too distant future”.

A full planning application would then be submitted. There have been previous plans for five houses on the land or a rectory and a four-bedroom house.

The parochial church council has been in talks with the diocese about selling the land, which is in the town’s conservation area, to pay for an extension to the church despite objections from residents. Last month, the hall was closed after a structural engineer concluded that the roof was unsafe.

Rev Evans said: “I know that people in Watlington would love to see the area kept as open space but the church itself will be at risk if we don’t take urgent action.

“My hope is that residents will understand the reasons why we are going forward with this. We are literally trying to keep the church secure for the future.

“I am really sorry that it will mean a change but I hope that the release of that land will mean that the church will be here for the next 800 years as part of the life in Watlington.”

Rev Evans said church attendance had been in decline for the last six years due to the aging congregation not being replaced by younger people. This in turn had reduced income while costs had increased.

He said the church’s insurance cost £4,000 a year and the electricity and heating cost £7,000. A further £30,000 had to be paid to the Church of England each year.

“This is the first year since I became rector that I am not sure we are going to be able to pay our way,” said Rev Evans. “We are in a very, very difficult situation.”

He said the Parochial Church Council felt its “vision” to make the church more user-friendly was the only way to guarantee the church’s future and selling the hall and the surrounding land was the sole financial option.

Several parish councillors suggested that public consultation should take place but Rev Evans said the parochial church council felt that this was not necessary.

“We feel that over the five years consultation has taken place,” he said. “All the feedback we have had will be included — we have a record — and that is being fed into the discussion and will be shared with the district council.”

Tim Horton, chairman of Watlington Church Hall Concern, claimed the church had failed to explore all the possible funding options.

“It is disappointing but not surprising given the recalcitrance there has been over the last four years,” he said. “There is little doubt that the raising of more money by the church could have happened if they had talks in partnership with the church hall concern group at the start rather than years of presenting in a bald-faced fashion that the only option was to destroy the church hall.

“I hope that the planning committees will support the many objections that I am sure there will be to a radical change not only to the church hall but also the surrounding area.

“We will certainly be campaigning on the basis of what has been outlined in the past and seems to be continuing.”

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