Welsh-speaking congregation of City of London church locked out of building; Diocese and wardens fail to come to an agreement over future plans.
THE Welsh-speaking congregation of one of London's finest churches has been locked out of its building, the Western Mail can reveal today.
Parishioners have responded by celebrating evensong on the church lawn in Welsh.
Located in the heart of the City of London, St Benet Paul's Wharf is a landmark of Welsh heritage and among the best examples of Sir Christopher Wren's architecture.
But the diocese of London could not come to an agreement with the church wardens about future plans for St Benet and has taken control of the building, which it may use for "educational" purposes.
The small congregation has been encouraged to travel to Paddington where Welsh-language services are held at the church of St David's.
One "disgusted" Anglican who attended the church when in London-but did not wish to be named - said: "The church was granted to the Welsh for services in their native tongue by Queen Victoria by an Order in Council."
Members of the congregation are adamant that this 1879 act should be respected.
Relations between churchgoers and Anglican authorities are understood to have become strained when it was announced that half of each service would be conducted in English.
Huw Jackson, of the London Welsh Centre, said: "We are obviously concerned about an erosion of facilities for Welsh community life."
A spokesman for the Diocese of London defended the decision, saying: "St Benet is a key church in the City of London and has had a long association with the Welsh-speaking Anglican Community.
However, despite its strategic importance within the Square Mile, with over 300,000 people passing through this area every day, the church has remained largely closed to the general public.
"Over the years this has resulted in a dwindling congregation with the average attendance at Sunday services between seven and eight persons. Despite numerous attempts by the diocese to ensure the long-term future of St Benet, the church wardens or the church council have continually rejected such efforts.
"The church of St Benet received a Visitation Order on the June 25 from the Bishop of London and the building has now been closed. A project team from the diocese has been appointed to investigate the possible extended use of the church with a view to an education role for St Benet.
"If a new use for the building is decided, a further exercise will be undertaken to see what kind of ministry can be exercised at St Benet in the future. We are hopeful that a new role can be found for the Church of St Benet, which has the potential to play an integral role in the life of the City. In the meantime, provision has been made for the existing congregation of St Benet to use the building of St David's Welsh Church in Paddington.
"Welsh-speaking priests have also been found for St David's to lead services in, and to provide Welsh preaching and sacramental ministry for the congregation of St Benet's."
The Rev John Webber, now rector of Llant wit Major, led the church from 2001 until 2004 and hopes some form of Welsh-language worship will continue in the church.
He said: "When I was there we'd get 20 to 25 on a good Sunday. Sometimes we'dbe down to a dozen.
"I loved it. It was a wonderful church to worship in.
"The singing was spectacular, especially on big feast days."
He continued: "I thought there was great potential. While there we had our first wedding for some time and we had a baptism.
"We were beginning to attract some of the younger people moving up to London. They seemed to find the church attractive.
"The number of Welsh-speakers living in London is increasing.
Though it might not be a church they would go to every week, there was that core for whom it was their only church."
St Benet Paul's Wharf - a Welsh treasure
Shakespeare in Twelfth Night mentions the sound of the bells of St Benet's, which would have been an earlier version of the church on the same site before the Great Fire of London.
A church has stood on the site since the year 1111 AD.
It was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 but rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the style of a Dutch country church. As one of only a handful of churches not damaged in the blitz, it is considered one of the best examples of his architecture.
The sanctuary chairs were presented by Sir Leoline (Llewellyn) Jenkins, Judge of the High Court of Admiralty, later Secretary of State to Charles II.
Vandals started a fire inside the church in 1971 and a major restoration followed.
Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, married his second wife in the church in 1747.
The church has a memorial to John Charles Brook, one of 16 people crushed to death when George III and Queen Charlotte visited Haymarket Theatre in 1794.
The Welsh are though to have had connections with the parish since 1320.
St Benet was scheduled for demolition at the same time as a Welsh congregation was looking for a permanent home. Through an Order in Council, Queen Victoria gave the church to Welsh Anglicans in perpetuity.
A full history written by former vicar of St Benet, Canon Alfred Pryse-Hawkins, can be found at queenhitheward.org
CONNECTIONS: Sir Christopher Wren and William Shakespeare; HISTORICAL: Aviewof St Benet Paul's Wharf, London, as it is today; CITY SLICKER: A viewof St Benet Paul's Wharf in 1952