LONDON (Reuters) - As one might expect for a church in London’s financial district, St Peter’s has seen a rise in its ministry to people troubled by the global credit crunch.
But what is less usual about this church, nestled near the new skyscrapers and banking headquarters in London’s Docklands, is its accommodation: a converted freight barge moored at Canary Wharf.
Walk up the gangplank to Britain’s only floating Anglican church, and you are met with a bright and airy space with new wooden fixtures, a complete contrast to a traditional church. Three times a week it is full of bankers, analysts and other financial types taking part in a lunchtime Christian service.
“The venue of a boat is a bit different,” said senior minister Marcus Nodder. “It means we can appeal to people who are disillusioned with traditional church.”
Nodder, who cycles to work and paddles a kayak at weekends, said more people are turning to St Peter’s as the recessionary chill gets colder and subprime fallout leads many of the banks nearby to lay people off.
While some regulars, under pressure at work, have not been able to attend as regularly and others have been made redundant and no longer come to the area, numbers are still up, with 80 people or more at the lunchtime meetings.
“The flip side is the uncertainty has meant we’ve seen people we otherwise wouldn’t have seen who have come along because they are asking the big questions about life,” Nodder said.
Starting life as a Dutch freight barge, St Peter’s was purchased and re-fitted in the Netherlands at a cost of 350,000 pounds and sailed to its new home in 2003. It had previously transported cargo between ports throughout Europe, although little else is known about its history.
It now takes pride of place among the other boats in West India Quay, next to a floating restaurant and a small boat that is an exhibit for a nearby museum.
The barge was the idea of a handful of Christians working in Canary Wharf, who met at different venues for years to take part in bible readings.
As more businesses moved into the area and their number grew, there was a need to find a larger place to worship. Three full-time staff now help maintain St Peter’s, which has an annual budget of 180,000 pounds, paid for by donations.
Floating churches are extremely rare. In Wales, a ship permanently moored in Cardiff Bay is used as a Christian centre, while Scotland, Cambodia, Germany and Belgium all have water-based churches or had them in the past.
“There needs to be a spiritual reality there — especially in the current, very tough times,” said Jeremy Marshall, chief executive officer of UK private banking at Credit Suisse and one of the people who helped set up the church.
“Many people who spend their whole life just focusing on just making money, begin to question what is the meaning of life, why am I doing that.”
Robert Frazer, a consultant relationship manager at financial services company Northern Trust has been a regular at the barge for more than a year.
“I know one or two members of the congregation who are going through difficult times or redundancies themselves, so it’s a great support for them,” Frazer said.
For Barbara McCleery, talent relationship manager at HSBC and regular at the church’s lunchtime services, said the main advantage of St Peter’s was its location. “From a biblical perspective, you realize there is a higher authority despite the (economic) uncertainty of today.”
Marshall, of Credit Suisse, said the short, lunchtime services are designed to be “trader-friendly,” accommodating people who are under pressure and sometimes worried about their jobs.
“I’ve been in the (financial) industry for more than 20 years and the pressure on employees has increased probably every year,” he said. “You can’t have two-hour long services.”
“There are a lot of Christians in the Wharf — more than you’d think in what many see as a temple of mammon,” Marshall said. “We are all trying in a way to gain the whole world, that’s the nature of banking and finance, but as the bible says don’t forget your soul at the same time.”
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Reporting by Michael Taylor; Editing by Eddie Evans