How much for this letter to the Corinthians?

The possible move of West Hampstead’s post office into St James Church is at an advanced stage of negotiation. It would be one of the first church post offices in a major British city. Yet it seems very few people are aware that it might happen.

Google Street View June 2012

The franchise owner of the existing West End Lane post office – Mr Ajay Kukadia – has apparently decided that it’s time to call it a day after almost 25 years. He has other plans for the premises. However, he has said that he will not close the post office until an alternative location has been secured. Mr Kukadia approached local estate agents Dutch & Dutch to help find a new location and they tweeted this in mid-November. Almost immediately, Father Andrew Cain, vicar of St James and St Mary, replied.

We’ve been instructed to help the@whampstead Post Office relocate to a new shop. Ideas on a postcard..or better-‘tweetme’ #newpostoffice
— West Hampstead Agent (@Dutch_and_Dutch) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch @whampstead – how about thinking a bit wider. Church?
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch @whampstead – does it have to be a shop?
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

@churchnw6 I don’t believe so. I like your thinking!
— West Hampstead Agent (@Dutch_and_Dutch) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch ok. Lets talk.
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

Talk they did and the process has now moved on. There are, as you can imagine, lots of legal loopholes to jump through. The church – on the corner of West End Lane and Sherriff Road – has been accepted as a suitable venue, but that’s just the starting point. Now the Post Office and the church both have to prepare detailed plans and a business case. The church also has to approve the necessary alterations. When i first heard about this, I assumed that the plan was to house the counters in the church hall on Sherriff Road. But apparently, the idea is to have it actually in the church itself.

This is not groundbreaking – but it is unusual, especially in London. In 2003, the parish centre in Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire took over the local post office. The first post office actually in a church opened in 2004 in the exquisitely named village of Sheepy Magna in Leicestershire – a parish with around 1,000 inhabitants. It was only open six hours a week. Sleepy rural backwaters, where demand is low and the pace of life slow, seem well suited to such co-located services and the local church often plays a more significant role in the community than it does in a busy multicultural setting such as north-west London.

Unsurprisingly, given the often arcane and prosciptive nature of some religious doctrines, there may be  challenges to overcome so that some members of non-Christian faiths can enter the church. For example, here are two counter-arguments from the Jewish Chronicle in 2008 about whether Jews can enter a church or not. According to the 2011 census data, more than 2,000 people in West Hampstead identify as Jewish, although the census does not of course tell us how many would side with the stricter interpretations of the Talmud.

Some Muslims also believe they must not enter a church because of the display of idols, although once again it’s possible to find arguments on both sides given that there would be no religious context to the post office other than its location.

There may be workarounds for the most orthodox of non-Christian believers, and pragmatism often wins out eventually given how much of sacred text is open to interpretation.

Back to the practicalities of our own post office being in the church. Father Andrew points out that there are no guarantees this will come to pass.

“If the business case is not strong, if the alterations cost too much, if the approvals are not given – all could stop this happening. If that were the case then I would be sad – it’s a great opportunity and there is currently no other venue suitable for the Post Office to move to – and that will probably mean no post office in West Hampstead. That would be a real loss to the community and especially for those too old or disabled to get up to Finchley Road or down to Kilburn.”

Father Andrew is also keen to point out that the motivation for this is not financial. “We have a strong financial base of our own, we run a good annual surplus and have a steady if small congregation. We are not going to make money out of this and indeed will have to invest a very large amount of our own money.”

The motivation instead is to preserve a vital community service and to improve other community services. If approval is finally granted, the church will set up a charitable trust to run the Post Office, along with a café and a small retail space. Any profit made after running costs and loan repayments will go to funding community support workers. “We hope to have a Citizens Advice Bureau-supported debt advice worker on site, to employ a family support worker and possibly a youth worker. We hope to run pensioners’ lunches in the café, provide parent and toddler groups and also youth facilities in the evenings when the post office is closed.”

The post office space would also be an obvious location for one of the proposed pop-up police counters that are expected to appear as the police station closes. It may also cause a small but noteworthy shift in West Hampstead’s centre of gravity and could be a boost for those businesses south of the tube station.

If all the necessary approvals from the church, the post office and the public consultation are gained then we might be looking at August or September for the grand opening. This is the 125th anniversary of St James’ church – could it give a new lease of life to the building at a time when only 36% of the local population identify as Christian – substantially lower than the 48% across London as a whole.

As for what happens to the existing post office… did someone say Foxton’s?

Of course, if nothing else comes of this, the whole story proves the importance of Twitter in West Hampstead! Oh, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians would cost him £1.66 in postage today or 87 pence if he wrote on both sides of airmail paper.

Get on your knees: Local vicar won’t be victim

Everyone loves a crime-fighting member of the cloth right? Who doesn’t look back fondly at Tom Bosley as Father Dowling? No, ok, I never watched it either but I’m sure it was amazing.

Move over Bosley (to the extent you can given you died in 2010), there’s a new bad-ass vicar in town. While Father Dowling merely investigated, Father Andrew Cain of West Hampstead gets burglars down on their knees before calling the cops. Less Bosley; more Eastwood.

West Hampstead’s vicar

It all began with a rather blasé tweet Fr. Cain sent to me and @WHLocalPlod on Feb 21st: “we caught a burglar for you today. Red handed in our safe he didn’t stand a chance against assembled clergy.” Cain went on to say that the burglar was “foolish enough to steal from God’s House whilst I was in the Church”. Oh yeah.

In a week when a horse has dominated the news agenda, the press was all over this story like a swarm of, er, biblical swarming things. The Camden New Journal ran it yesterday calling the St Mary’s and St Andrew’s vicar a “brave cleric” and printing a sort of Dempsey & Makepeace photo (google ’em) before describing him as a “fitness fanatic”.

Photo with permission of Camden New Journal

Cain & Cargill in their 80s TV series

The Ham & High hasn’t got its print edition version online yet, but it went with “Brave vicar foils collection thief”, with the excellent subhead of “Cleric orders intruder to kneel on floor after hearing curate’s screams” and mentioning that Fr. Cain works out at the gym several times a week”.

As is often the way with these sort of stories, the bigger papers caught wind of this surefire crowd pleaser. The Telegraph eschewed “brave” and just opted for the factual headline “Vicar made thief kneel until police arrived“, with no mention of his fitness regime at all.

The Evening Standard, meanwhile, gave Fr. Cain an added note of authority in its “Vicar stops thief by ordering him to his knees” but also squeezed in that our hero “works out at the gym several times a week.”

Quite why there’s the obsession with a vicar’s desire to keep fit isn’t entirely clear. Surely it would have been more impressive if it had been some weedy timid vicar standing up to the intruder rather than the gym bunny hunk we all know and love.

What of the unlucky criminal? Will he face the wrath of God? It turns out that 54-year old Eric McDougall is quite the villain of the vestry. He was only out on bail as it was, and after appearing at Highbury magistrates court the next day, he’s gone straight back to prison.

The last word of course should belong to Father Cain, quoted in the CNJ: “he realised there was nothing he could do, so he got on the floor – it was clear that he shouldn’t mess with me.”