800 years of Wanstead history to end

Picture: Geoff Wilkinson

Weekly church services which have been going on in Wanstead in the same spot since the 12th Century are to cease in the New Year.

The historic St Mary the Virgin church in Overton Drive will only be used for special occasions, following a decision by the parochial church council (PCC) on Wednesday. Weekly services are expected to stop at the end of January.

An application will be made for the building to become a “festival church”, meaning it avoids formal closure and can hold a handful of services over the course of the year at special times such as Easter, Harvest, Christmas and Mothering Sunday.

The decision came despite opposition from the congregation, who have been trying to find other uses to help attract people to the building. It followed a lengthy consultation process which took place over the summer and which more than 200 people took part in.

The PCC is made up of elected members and clergy from both St Mary’s and the larger Christ Church, both of which are part of the Wanstead Parish.

Weekly congregations at St Mary’s are between 30 and 50 members, and it is not clear where those people will now choose to worship. The parish is hoping they will transfer to Christ Church, and hopes that the two congregations will become stronger together.

The rector of Wanstead, Rev Jack Dunn, issued a statement saying: “We have listened carefully to all views and decided that St Mary’s should stay open and move to a Festival Church, allowing parishioners to worship there for significant and special services through the year.

“This move, which is subject to the approval of the Bishop of Chelmsford, will allow us to focus our mission and ministry on one central location at Christ Church in order to better utilise all of our resources  and reach out and serve our local community.”

The church, the oldest in Wanstead, is the only Grade 1 listed building in Redbridge. In her 1946 history  Wanstead Through the Ages, author W. V. Phillips writes about the St Mary’s churchyard:

“[I]t is here, surely, rather than anywhere else in the parish that the soul of Wanstead vibrates.”

She writes also that a print of a church on the site as it appeared in 1228 AD  is in the Guildhall Library, and there is roll of Wanstead rectors going back to 1207. The Christ Church site on Wanstead High Street was consecrated in 1861.

The decision is a landmark in the history of Wanstead and will be regretted by many, including in the wider community. The campaign group may continue its campaign – an appeal to the bishops may be mounted.

Below is a passage from Phillips’s book relating to the building of the church.

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