Barnsbury congregation accuses Church of 'racism' after being evicted in dawn swoop
PUBLISHED: 07:00 16 November 2017 | UPDATED: 12:23 16 November 2017
A Barnsbury congregation has accused the Church of England of institutional racism – after it was evicted from its building in an early morning sting.
Without any warning, bailiffs swooped on the Celestial Church of Christ, in Cloudesley Square, last Monday. The locks were changed and the building was surrounded by security dogs.
The predominantly black African congregation is now without a home, and held a protest outside the church on Sunday. Secretary Michael Magbagbeola told the Gazette: “They have treated us like criminals.”
The Diocese of London, a branch of the Church of England, has repossessed the building. An eviction notice said Celestial had committed a “serious breach of obligations” over repair and maintenance of the property.
Celestial agrees the church is in a poor state. But it said the Diocese refused to extend its lease in 2013 – which prevented it from applying for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant.
When Celestial took on the church in 1979, it was handed a “full repair lease”, meaning it had total responsibility for the building. Mr Magbagbeola argued this is where the Church’s “institutional racism” applied.
“The lease we were given was unsuitable,” he said. “We were ethnic minorities who had been in the country for three years. No other group of people would have taken that church, with the state it was in, on that lease. We were exploited, the Church was licking its lips. The Church pulled our pants down.
“It was our home for 38 years. We did as much as we could to improve it. But its last refurbishment was in 1901 and it needs £6million of repairs, which a small congregation cannot arrange. No church can self-fund anyway, and we weren’t even entitled to turn to charities because they didn’t extend our lease.
“We are devastated. We have nowhere else to go. For it to come to an end like that is a big shock. They promised to support us until 2021 [when the lease expired].
“It’s not what they did, but how they did it. Swooping in the early hours of the morning! They have treated us like criminals. It was like a drugs bust. It’s un-Christian to say the least.”
Maria Ogunboye, 16, has been going to the church since she was born. She said: “To find out it had been closed like that made me more angry than upset. It means a lot to me. Now we don’t have a place to worship.”
Celestial’s furniture was hauled into storage, and the church was given until December 8 to recover it.
A Diocese of London spokesman claimed Celestial had failed to “address our concerns about the care and maintenance of the building and the health and safety risks have increased.”
He added: “The Diocese’s first priority now is to make the building and churchyard safe, and we look forward to working with partners to restore the building. We will seek a dialogue with residents’ groups and heritage organisations on the next steps for the building.”
The building was the former Church of Holy Trinity. Before the Celestial Church of Christ occupied it in 1979, it had fallen derelict and was a storage unit for Chapel Market traders.