After a hundred years of mixed fortunes it is perhaps a time for reflection on the life of the Corporation of the Church House. Ever since the Bishop of Carlisle's letter to The Times in 1888, there has been criticism and controversy. The critics of the original scheme were soon replaced by opponents to the building of the first Great Hall and the press campaign mounted against the concept of 'a Church club'. Later still there was strong opposition to the rebuilding of the 'new' Church House in the 1930s and now, in Centenary Year, the Council, forced with only two alternatives for the future, finds itself under attack once again when opting for either course of action.
Having to report such a hotbed of opposition over the years might create the impression that Church House itself and all the Corporation stands for is controversial. Far from it. By striking and retaining, throughout the hundred years, a totally independent and evenhanded attitude, successive Councils have created an organisation and a building which caters for people of all sections of Christian and secular society in a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere - far removed from the mad, mad world that simply will not stop turning!
Life in Church House is not without its moments of high drama, often mixed with deep emotion, but frequently laced with generous helpings of humour, such as:
. . .the televised 1983 debate on 'The Church and the Bomb' has already been mentioned but behind the scenes it dragged the Corporation's staff into the age of television cameras, special lighting, TV aerials on the roof and all the paraphernalia of modern technology.
. . .the emotional speeches on the various occasions when the General Synod has discussed the numerous facets and ramifications concerned with the ordination of women.
. . .the Inquiry into the loss of the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge witnessed scenes of great sorrow and tales of extreme bravery.
. . . the bomb threat to the then Bishop of Bath and Wells, which was reported after he had started to chair a meeting of the Central Board of Finance, and which meant the Secretary and police accompanied by sniffer dogs crawling under the tables during the meeting to ensure that bags and briefcases were clear and the well-being of those present was not being threatened.
. . . the time when the Corporation staff worked for two hours during a debate in the Synod to rescue a Roman Catholic press correspondent and a local press reporter who were incarcerated in a sound proof interpreter's booth, the door of which had become completely jammed. Synod members carried on with their discussions completely unaware that workmen were virtually dismantling the structure at the back of the hail to rescue the unfortunate captives.
. . .the occasion when a night security supervisor could not resist the desire to accompany himself on the piano in the Chapel and woke the best part of Westminster School and all the occupants of the flats and houses in Dean's Yard with a hearty (though quite professional) rendition of the repertoire of The Chocolate Soldier at three o'clock in the morning.
. . .the atrocious weather during the February 1985 Synod when the central heating in the assembly Hall simply could not cope with nine consecutive days of sub-zero temperatures, and members were reduced to sitting through their four days of debates in overcoats, gloves, hats and warm footwear.
. . .and the particularly memorable occasion when, due to inclement weather, nearly four thousand Taize pilgrims en route from all over the continent were given overnight shelter and food on Sunday 27 December 1981. On such a night the spirit of Church House came into its own.
These are but a few instances in a routine which covers every facet of life in Church House and we hope that they illustrate the fact that each day can be far from dull.
Over the years we have been tremendously fortunate in having officers of the Corporation both voluntary and full-time who have been dedicated to the objectives of the Corporation. In the more recent past Sir Seymour Egerton GCVO, a well-known banker, was Treasurer and he was ably assisted by Major George Hackett as Secretary. George Hackett, an ex-Grenadier, broke the mould when he was appointed in 1968 - the first time that the Council had gone outside the Church to select a chief executive for the Corporation. In 1979 he was succeeded by another ex-Grenadier, Peter Parry, who is now deeply involved in the future of the building and the move of Church organisations to their new home on Milibank, whilst Mr Andrew Harding, a prominent city solicitor who took over the post of Treasurer in 1981, is virtually 'the visionary' of the 1980s who, over the past six years, has piloted the Council through the trials and pitfalls when making decisions on the next phase in the life of the Corporation. Sadly, he will not see the results of his work due to his untimely death in May 1988.
A particular reference should also be made to the contribution made by Oswald Clark Esq CBE, a prominent Churchman who, having been appointed Lay Vice-President of the Council in 1981, adopted the role of Chairman and representative of the two Archbishops. His tact, diplomacy and skill in handling meetings, often long and complicated, has been of immense benefit in planning the future.
Mr Oswald Clark
Lay Vice-President from 1981
Major George Hackett
Captain Peter Parry
Secretary from 1979
Sir Seymour Egerton
So we are coming to the end of an era. At the time this is being written, the Council and its various sub-committees are locked in consultation with the Charity Commissioners and the Corporation's legal and property advisors, and soon it is expected that Church House will pass to another owner.
A centenary has gone by and the Corporation of the Church House has been part of the nation's fabric during that time. Now, economics are forcing change upon us. . but in planning for a sound financial future, the present Council is assuring itself that the Corporation's successors will have the resources to maintain the ideals and objectives of the Royal Charter granted in 1888. We thank them and all their predecessors for so ably acting as 'stewards' of the Church House throughout a hundred years of Church history, and we leave the last word to the Bishop of Sydney who, at the first annual general meeting in 1888, when proposing a resolution acknowledging with thanks to Almighty God the success of the Church House, said that when 'a great scheme was framed. . . each age was left to contribute to it according to its needs and power,' adding that if such a scheme took ten or a hundred years to be brought to a completion then 'that was but a moment in the life of the Church'.