Recovery: 1996-present

When Fr Nicholas Wheeler arrived in the parish in 1996, he faced a seemingly impossible challenge, with not only a crumbling building and an occupied Church Hall, but also the societal challenges of Camden Town, with its high levels of poverty, mental ill-health and desperate need. Nor was he only Vicar of St Michael’s, but also of St Pancras Old Church, St Mary’s Somers Town, and St Paul’s Camden Square. (St Paul’s had been merged into a single benefice with St Luke’s Oseney Crescent on the opposite side of Camden Road from 1955 until becoming a separate parish once again in 1987.) Although at the time these were four separate parishes, in 2003 they were combined into the present Parish of Old St Pancras (POSP), with three or four team vicars, one of whom also acted as Team Rector. Fr Wheeler was licensed as Team Rector at each church in an event which lasted five hours and included processions between the four churches processed between the four churches, even leading to its consideration by the Guinness Book of Records as to whether the service was the longest ever in the Church of England.1

Under Fr Wheeler, the congregation began to grow once again, in great part due to his determination to keep the church building open daily as a space of quiet in the heart of Camden Town. To this day, many members of the congregation begin their engagement with St Michael’s after curiously wandering in on the way back from Sainsbury’s. In 2006, when the Faithful Cities report was launched at St Michael’s, The Guardian remarked in bemusement about the “shabby inner London church” whose “doors were left wide open during the launch.” The regular visitors dipping into St Michael’s were themselves somewhat annoyed to find the usually tranquil space full of bishops.2 St Michael’s and its congregation provided support for groups working with the homeless, refugees, and those with mental health problems, as its growth continued.

On 25th February 2002, the 125th anniversary of the church, a service was held at the site of the Mission House where the first temporary location was found for worship in 1877. The site, at 5a, Camden Road, is now a William Hill betting shop, and the church attracted much media attention by holding a service amidst the odds listings. When London was shaken by the 7/7 terror attacks three years later, Fr Wheeler rushed to the scene and was allowed through the cordon onto the platform at King’s Cross station to assist the injured who were being brought to the travel centre on the platform: “With three rail stations and four Tube stations in the parish, we had been expecting this. When the news came, I simply grabbed a cassock and came down.”3

Throughout this period, the building continued to prove a source of great challenge. By the mid-Noughties, the state of the roof was such that St Michael’s successfully applied for a Heritage Lottery grant of £350,000 to repair it. However, to access the grant they had to raise an additional £100,000. To do this, they launched an audacious fundraising effort, in which the curate, Fr Malcolm Hunter, spent ten nights sleeping 72 feet up on the roof of St Michael’s, relying on passers by to winch food up to him in a bucket. His efforts raised £111,000 – higher than needed to match the Heritage Lottery grant – including £24,000 worth of donations from America after the story was featured on CNN and NBC.

Archbishops

Members of the congregation also took part in efforts which brought the final total raised to £175,000. One, Jeannie Hopper, collected £1000 by walking around Camden wearing a t-shirt that said “Only £5” (to “Sponsor a Slate”!). Although, as she later told the Camden New Journal, she “got some indecent offers,”4 she also managed to get the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to sponsor a slate (above). Fundraising also allowed for the construction of two parish rooms, the Gabriel and Raphael rooms, in place of the unused choir vestries, which created space for Sunday Schools and discussion groups, as well as being available to local community groups. The rooms were blessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2007.

Fr Wheeler left with as much fanfare as he had arrived, with hundreds of well-wishers seeing him off at a celebration at the London Irish Centre, including a live samba band, traditional Brazilian dancing, and South American food, in a party that went on until past midnight and made the local papers. This was followed by a farewell service at St Mary’s, from which Fr Wheeler went directly to the airport to fly to Rio. His successor, Fr Philip North, was keen to continue his work in opening up the church to respond to the needs of the community: “I’m open to any use which isn’t profoundly against the Gospel, and as long as it isn’t devil worship or a spot for drug dealing”5 he told the Camden New Journal on his arrival.

To support the wider use of the building, Fr North and his pastoral assistant Peter Garvie spent two weeks cycling around 29 English cathedrals to raise money for a new hospitality suite and glass entrance porch. As well as providing space for a still-rapidly-increasing congregation to worship, St. Michael’s became a space for community events, concerts and art exhibitions (such as Doug Foster’s The Heretic’s Gate in 2011), while remaining open during the day as a place for prayer and quiet. When the Olympics came to London in 2012, St Michael’s hosted musical and cinematic events as part of a series of unofficial Olympic events put on by the parish, including a screening of the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera, with improvised organ accompaniment from the curate, Fr Gavin Cooper. The church even attracted royal attention, receiving a visit from Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at Candlemas that year.

St Michael’s also became one of the first churches in the Anglo-Catholic tradition to embrace ‘Messy Church’, offering ‘Messy Masses’ for local children and their families. In 2014, in response to the government’s legal aid cuts of £220 million and the closure of many legal advice centres, St Michael’s teamed up with local law firm Osbornes to provide a weekly free legal advice drop-in service in the church – despite some subsequent setbacks this is still running and was joined later in the decade by a Homeless Advice Drop-In. 2014 also brought new challenges for the fabric of the building. St Michael’s was placed on the English Heritage ‘At Risk’ register, and the temporary electrical installation put in under Fr Wheeler required urgent replacement. St Michael’s once again began to fundraise, this time to raise £50,000 to match a Heritage Lottery grant of £130,000, undertaking activities including a sponsored walk to every church in London dedicated to St Michael – refuelled by cake at their final stop in Highgate (below) the walkers made a triumphant return to St Michael’s Camden Town.

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The end of 2014 also proved busy. In November, on the 100 year anniversary of the start of the First World War, the church held a service of remembrance. As a wreath was laid on the War Memorial, prayers were led by Revd Barbara Killatt, a German Lutheran Minister. In December 2014, the church played host to a huge art installation, covering over 60 square meters of the West wall. HS, by Maciej Urbanek, covered the wall’s badly damaged plasterwork with what appeared to be a great explosion of light, made from photographs of dustbin bags arranged, lit, and photographed6. In December 2015, HS was announced winner of the Art + Christianity Enquiry Award.7

Philip North departed after Christmas 2014 to be Bishop of Burnley and many from St Michael’s made the trip to York to see his consecration in February the following year. A year-long interregnum followed, with the Team Rectorship of POSP passing to Fr James Elstone and St Michael’s kept going by its congregation, the parish curate Fr Oliver Petter and the other POSP priests. In February 2016 it welcomed Fr Tom Plant, his wife Nao and their daughter Aika, the first family to occupy St Michael’s Vicarage for twenty years. In the following months St Michael’s hit the headlines for its music-venue plans 8 and its open-air ‘Living Room’ 9.

In 2017 Fr Tom moved on to become a school chaplain in Lichfield and Michael Thomas travelled from south Wales to become only the ninth vicar in the history of St Michael’s. He oversaw the installation of a new electronic organ to replace the ailing pipe organ in April 2018 and later moved the aumbry cover, reproduction Ghent Altarpiece and Jewitt statue of St Michael out of the Resurrection Chapel to their current positions. St Michael’s also faced major changes to its surroundings with the announcement of a new entrance to Camden Town tube station on Buck Street and proposals for a redevelopment of Grand Union House to the church’s west and Sainsbury’s to its east. However, the changes to the church’s immediate surroundings proved to be less than expected after Sainsbury’s was Grade II listed in July 2019. Under music director Richard Miller, the choral tradition at St Michael’s has gone from strength to strength. During the church’s closure due to the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak, that tradition has even continued via live-streams and Zoom meetings, in the same pastoral spirit as St Michael’s’s response to the typhoid outbreak over 130 years earlier.

HDJ and Edward Smith

PREVIOUSt

  1. The Times, Tuesday December 3, 1996
  2. The Guardian, Tuesday May 23, 2006
  3. Daily Mail, July 10, 2005
  4. Camden New Journal September 28, 2006
  5. Camden New Journal, November 13, 2008
  6. ‘Colossal new artwork unveiled in Camden church’, Diocese of London – Communications – 4th December 2014
  7. Church Times, December 4, 2015
  8. Vicar promises no ‘mosh pits’ in plans for church to become music venue, The Independent, 5th September 2016
  9. ‘Living room’ installed outside church to combat isolation, Camden New Journal, 11th May 2017