Anglicans have placed the 'ash of repentance' on the HQ of the Church of England today, in protest against the way low income families have been treated.
The symbolic action, religiously associated with Holy Week, took place at Church House, Great Smith Street, SW1 in a Service of Repentance at 3pm on 19 April 2011.
Ashes are a traditional symbol of penitence associated with the season of Lent - on the journey towards remembrance of the death of Jesus on Good Friday, and the celebration of new life at Easter.
Those involved were Kate Hoey MP, four clergy from the Diocese of Southwark and tenants and residents.
Church House is the office of the Church Commissioners. The Commissioners sold the Octavia Hill Estates in South London in 2005 to a partnership between Genesis Housing Association and Grainger plc.
The housing has now been transferred entirely to Grainger plc and is therefore completely privately owned. The Estates were until 2005 managed for those on low income. All new lets are now at market rents and many properties have been sold.
This week the Commissioners announced that their assets increased last year from £4.8 billion to £5.3 billion.
Fr Andrew Moughtin-Mumbym, Anglican priest of the parish of St Peter, Walworth, explained: “The wounds felt by residents on the Octavia Hill estate in Walworth are deep, and anger, betrayal and hurt are laid squarely at the door of the Church Commissioners.
"Residents simply cannot understand why a distribution of fair rents, key worker housing, and market rents could not be established by the Church Commissioners. The terms of the sale and the manner in which it was conducted, have clearly brought the Church Commissioners, the Church of England, and the parish churches in which these estates fall into disrepute,” said Fr Moughtin-Mumbym.
The Rev Canon Giles Goddard of the parish of Waterloo declared: “The Church Commissioners sold these estates with no attempt to ensure that they remained available for people on low incomes. There was a failure of compassion, and by narrowly pursuing best value they damaged the mission of the church in South London."
He added: "We recognise they have a role in supporting the church - but our parishes are suffering because of their pursuit of growth at all costs. The involvement of Genesis Housing turns out to have been a fig leaf covering a complete transfer to private ownership.”
At the ceremony, Canon Goddard said that the Commissioners had put "profit over people" in the sale which had led to "shame and injustice".
The congregation was invited to receive the ash of repentance – usually associated with Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent – as a gift of hope and forgiveness, reports the London SE1 community website (http://www.london-se1.co.uk/).
"We also invite the Church Commissioners to receive this symbol as a public acknowledgement of the wrong committed when the Octavia Hill estates were sold off, putting money before Christian values," said Canon Goddard.
Kate Hoey, MP for the former Octavia Hill properties in Waterloo, said: "At the time we warned the Church Commissioners that it would only be a matter of time before the ownership was entirely in the hands of private ownership and we have been proved right. At the very least the Chairman of the Church Commissioners, Andreas Whittam Smith, should apologise to the community for the dreadful error they made 5 years ago."
The Southwark and Lambeth churches are calling for a review of the Church Commissioners to see how things could be done differently if a similar situation was to arise in future. Five years ago the Church Commissioners insisted that they were obliged by charity law to seek the best price for their assets rather than take into account pastoral and social considerations.
"It would be good if they could take seriously some of the things we are saying," said Canon Goddard. "They could have done something more creative with the Charity Commission I am absolutely sure. It's a great shame that they didn't. It would be good if they took that on board in future sales."
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian thinktank Ekklesia, which has monitored and commented on the Church of England's investment decisions and policies over several years, remarked: "Churches in Britain hold assets valued at around £12 billion, and are therefore significant economic stakeholders. Accounting for these resources is not just a matter of getting the sums to add up. It is about putting into practice the core Christian message of sharing, justice, concern for the the most vulnerable and responsibility towards creation.
"In the case of Octavia Hill Estates and other instances, there has been a serious lack of economic, theological and moral imagination on the part of those in custody of the assets of a major ecclesiastical body. Since Lent and Easter invite a change of heart and a reorientation of life, this would perhaps be a good opportunity for senior figures in the Church of England to acknowledge their failings and look towards better ways of putting their money where the Gospel's mouth is."
* Background and reporting on the Octavia Hill Estates situation - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/Octavia
* Ekklesia's 2009 paper: 'Where is the Church of England’s heart invested?' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/research/church_of_englands_investments