The Old Deanery in Wells sits on the north side of Cathedral Green. It dates back to the 12th century, and comes with its own gatehouse and venerable boundary walls. Its windows are mostly 15th century, but there are some quite beautiful late 17th-century sash windows – among the finest surviving examples of their type. There are panelled walls, plinths and parapets strung with gargoyles, with shields and Tudor Rose carvings on the merlons. It has medieval towers and turrets, magnificent 15th-century fireplaces, vaulted ceilings and moulded beams. It was the home of William Turner, English Divine, reformer and naturalist, whose herb garden has been wonderfully restored. It was also the home of Dean Gunthorpe, Dean Bathurst, and…
Well, it doesn’t really matter who else. The Diocese of Bath and Wells has prayed about it, and they’ve decided to sell it off. Bishop Peter Hancock, Bishop of Bath and Wells, explained: “Our diocesan office and the people who work there support the life and mission of the churches, schools and communities across Somerset, where people are responding to God’s love for them by sharing that story and that love with others. This decision has been taken prayerfully so that we might serve those communities more effectively.”
So, God has told them to move to a “modern, welcoming office and meeting space” on the outskirts of the city. It will be a purpose-built 16,000 sq ft office block to provide “an excellent working environment for staff and enhanced facilities to support the work of our parishes and schools across the diocese, in a building that will serve our diocesan community well into the future”. It will comprise “a spacious, openly accessible area on the ground floor, with staff work space and offices designed to support activity-based working on the first floor”. It will probably look something like this:
Marvellous, isn’t it? It’s called progress – in the name of mission and ministry ‘effectiveness’.
Another reason is financial: it will apparently cost £3million to refurbish the Old Deanery to make it fit for purpose. Why bother pouring new wine into an ancient citadel when you can get a shiny new building for £3.25million which will glorify God a whole lot more?
While we’re at it, why not sell these:
Surely the mission and ministry of the Archbishops of York and Canterbury would be far more pastoral and practical if they weren’t ensconced in ruddy great edifices like these? And here we arrive at the nexus: the way the Church understands its nature, role and function in the ‘postmodern’ era. The Church of England has always responded to external influences and adapted to social contexts in order to be pastorally relevant and accessible to its flock: its ecclesiology is necessarily in constant flux, and the Diocese of Bath and Wells is sensitive to this. But when it sells off its history in order to satisfy a particular transient model of mission – that of making comfortable people more comfortable – it exchanges architectural glories for shacks and sheds, and mistakes cosiness for spiritual liberation.
In the ancient buildings of the Church dwells a certain holiness; silence, ceremony and transcendent mystery. Where incense meets architecture there is reassurance, peace and security. God no longer dwells in stone temples, but surely Christians can be welcoming, friendly, accessible and pastoral in medieval turrets and Elizabethan quadrangles? Wherever the Church is, there is love. Or must we sell off our great palaces and cathedrals because heaven is really a prefab community centre?