Avebury’s chapel could soon be sold - but community gets more time to save it as passions run high at public meeting
It was significant that the public meeting (September 10) called by the South Western Synod of the United Reformed Church (URC) to discuss the very uncertain future of Avebury's chapel was held in the parish's Church of England church of St James.
The chapel is closed and no longer considered safe. But the meeting's location did help back up the strongly expressed views that the chapel's future was a matter for the whole community and for many faiths.
Among the 60 people at the two-hour meeting were members of the URC, a former URC pastor, a pagan priest, people living close to the chapel, parish councillors and probably a few very interested people of little or no religion. All spoke passionately about the chapel - as Maggie Lewis, a vice chairman of the Parish Council, put it: "The community here really wants to keep the chapel in the community."
Facing the audience were three of the twelve member executive of the URC's South Western Synod. Alongside its moderator, Revd Ruth Whitehead in the chair, were the Synod's treasurer, Dick Gray, and Raoul Hewitt, the Synod's property and trust officer.
The representatives from the Synod were introduced by Avebury's Rector, Revd Maria Shepherdson.
The public were primed by a 'Press release' they were given as they arrived. It referred to "The sale of the building..." As Ruth Whitehead admitted, it should really have said "Any sale..." And she had to stress that the process of sale - including 'the marketing of the chapel' - had not begun.
Ruth Whitehead: "If we haven't listened before, we are now." The Synod is based in Taunton and reaches down to Land's End, and she also admitted that Avebury was on 'the edge' of its reach.
Problems for the chapel have a long history, but they came to a head in 2012 when Wiltshire Council ended its lease and closed the Tourist Information Centre that had been in the chapel for ten years. To get out of that lease the Council had to pay £50,000 in 'dilapidation' costs - for maintenance work they had neglected during their lease.
There was some real anger expressed at the way the local group then charged with setting the chapel up as a place of international peace and multi-faith worship had been treated by the Synod. Their plans were rejected without any further consultation.
It was said that the Synod had undertaken to fund the new centre for five years once the chapel had been repaired. But the centre could not begin its work until the repairs were done: "It was a chicken and egg situation."
Mr Hewitt stressed that the Synod had other churches to maintain: "How many other Avebury's are there?" His question got a resounding and loud "None" from the pews.
Avebury's uniqueness was stressed again and again - both as a heritage site and a place of worship. Pagan priest Gordon Rimes: "I would find it very sad if the chapel was anything but a place of worship. The village will come together to keep the chapel."
Suzanne Stimpson, who was instrumental in setting up the chapel's 'quiet garden', asked the Synod: "Do you want to lose a position in this wonderful place?" And another defender of the chapel pointed out that the URC had once referred to it as "A jewel in the URC crown"." Would the URC help at a national level?
The nub of the matter was reached near to the close of the meeting with some straight questions demanding factual replies:
• How much of the £50,000 dilapidation money was left? "£37,000."
• How much would it cost to make the chapel safe and usable? "£60-80,000."
• What would be the costs over the next five years - including the above sum? "£160-180,000 - probably including a new roof and water proofing."
• How much had the Synod spent on the chapel in the last year? "£9,384 - including services. £12,000 in the last two years."
• And what at the moment was the unanswerable question: What is the sale value of the chapel?
When asked whether the synod wanted to get rid of the chapel, Revd Ruth Whitehead replied: "There is not a desire to sell the chapel - there is a desire not to go on putting more money into it - that we can't afford."
But the Synod representatives did agree to give the community more time to come up with a sustainable plan to keep the chapel as a place of worship for all faiths and a place for Avebury's visitors who 'stand and stare' at its wonders to have somewhere to sit and think.