A different poverty

by - 16th December 2009

In a dusty old chapel behind the Civil Lines in Delhi, prayers of thanksgiving will be said at noon today by three Indian priests for a planning decision a long way away - in Westminster.

They – and we, for I am their guest - will give thanks for the fight to save St Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, Mayfair in the Parish of Charing Cross, West London.

Unlike Mayfair, the Delhi Brotherhood in whose house I am writing this, is so poor they often don’t even lock the gate at night.  There is absolutely nothing to steal.  Which makes their intercession the more poignant.  Solidarities that cut across income, distance, class and race are what give the church its enduring strength.

Christian and Hindu symbols combine a welcome at the threshold of the Delhi Brotherhood HouseThe Brothers' treasure is in their legacy.  Even the Gandhi family have benefited.  Rajiv and Rahul were both educated - briefly - at St Stephen’s College, founded by the original Cambridge Brotherhood.


The mission of the Church is alive - from the leper churches by the Yamuna river, to the streets of West London.

Missionaries may be despised by wealthy Brits - like author William Dalrymple who writes from his luxurious acres near the Qutb Minar here - yet it’s surely saved India from paralysis.

Dalrymple got rich writing fashionably about religious decline. Indians like neurologist Raju Abraham, on the other hand, who could have made a small fortune in London where he once practised, prefers to sweat his years away bringing eye care, schools and self-esteem to the very poorest people of Uttar Pradesh, because, as he says: 'The caste system would never have permitted change’.

Carpet-weaving for less than a dollar a daySo far on this trip, I have met suicidal Muslim child widows; ancient carpet weavers earning 70 rupees - under a pound - a day; women whose husbands have been cursed by witchdoctors, all affected by Abrahams' work, and who are evidence enough for his claim.

It is stunning to encounter such lives; to experience the disparity between India's villages and its image.

The church has to make a difference here.  Even today, Brahmin attitudes make sure there's very little alternative. 


Back in Westminster, there's a different kind of battle, but the stakes are just as high.  It was the community around North Audley Street that fought to keep their church, recognizing that it's all that stands between them and - as one put it - the 'commercial vulturism' of the elite.

The Planning Inspector this week decided to throw out George Hammer’s appeal against the City Council’s refusal to allow him to turn St Mark’s into a spa for the rich.

‘I conclude . . . that the wellness centre would not provide the range of community facilities that would be available from a church use, especially to the more needy; and this weighs against it’, he wrote.


The Save St Mark’s Action Group, led by Lady Sainsbury who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, will meet this morning at 7.30am as usual to pray.

They must decide what happens next. 

They've won this latest skirmish, but the long battle remains undecided. 

They've been approached for a meeting with the developer George Hammer, whose property - Mayfair's heritage - is now invested in impersonal high-risk off-shore tax-avoidance instruments in the Virgin Islands.

The Diocese of London has been unashamed of selling one of its most historically and aesthetically important churches to a man whose other ecclesiastical bauble, Holy Trinity Marylebone, hosted the infamous ‘crucified ape’ exhibition earlier this year.

Somewhat given to taxidermy – ‘Stuff St Mark’s’ was the reaction of his lawyer to the sight of hundreds of objectors wearing slogan-bearing red caps at the first planning hearing last December – Hammer has a new plaything that may well prove to be a dead duck.