It’s a sunny Saturday morning in February. A round table of Scandinavians are knitting, drinking coffee and devouring cheesecake at the old Scandinavian Seaman’s church in Park Lane. The spoils of war lay all around them: wooden bird tables, tins of cinnamon biscuits, brightly painted ornamental horses.
A calmer scene of Nordic serenity and orderliness would be hard to find. But SevenStreets is here for an audience with the victors of a prolonged and hard-fought struggle. A struggle to save the heart of one of the city’s most fragile communities, and one of the most iconic symbols of our cultural diversity.
Cavalry leaders, Roger Metcalf and Stan Royden don’t look like your typical, bloodied war heroes. Affable, laid-back and unassuming they may be, but behind their friendly eyes lies a steely determination you’d be wise not to uncage. For these men, with the support of a handful of fellow foot soldiers, have snatched a David and Goliath-esque victory from the jaws of the Swedish Church, securing for our city one of our most cherished institutions. And ensuring that there will forever be a corner of a city street that is for ever Scandinavian.
If they look a little underwhelmed, it’s because Metcalf and Royden know that, while they may have won the battle, the fight continues.
“We’ve spent the last three years standing our ground on the Church,” Metcalf says. “Now it’s time to channel our talents to give this place a future.”
Still, the church is at least standing. Three years ago, the outlook seemed bleaker than Wallander’s love life.
“The Swedish church simply didn’t see our church as part of their business plans,” Royden tells SevenStreets. “They wanted to sell the church, and fund a ministry abroad, to help support the pastoral needs of Swedish backpackers out there…”
That figures. We’ve always thought Gap year students don’t feel their far eastern exploits are complete without a Sunday service and quick confessional.
Odd though it sounds, that was – more or less – the plan. Close down a church that’s served loyal congregation for over a century, one that’s survived the Luftwaffe’s raids and the town planner’s wrecking ball (the final Park Lane tenement was demolished in 1995), and post a Vicar off to the Southern Sea Asian coasts.
Nice work if you can get it.
As Liverpool ONE pushed the geography of the city centre southwards, this solid chunk of red brick, stepped gable and lead spire suddenly found itself in a very fortunate position indeed. To the Swedish Church it must have seemed like all their Christmases had come at once. A Grade Two listing meant the church could easily have been converted into swanky flats, with car park attached, possibly (with a bit of wrangling) flattened completely. They must have been stockpiling Ambre Solaire with abandon.
They didn’t reckon on the massed ranks of Roger, Stan and their infantry of Viking knitters.
“We always knew that continuing the church, and its pastoral role were the only legal way the Swedish Church could lay claim to the building,” Metcalf explains. “Take that away, and the building reverted back to the city council…”
Royden ceremoniously unfurls a photocopy of the building’s title deeds. In copperplate, dated 1883 the legend is clearly visible. Without church services, a parsonage and community hall, the building returns to the city. Sweden had no claim on this corner of the city at all.
Case closed? You’d think so. “We’d been telling the Swedish Church this for years!” Metcalf reveals.
Whether this was lost in translation, or simply ignored, we don’t know.
The place is worth fighting for. The striking, octagonal church, one of only four such designs in the country, is based on a traditional medieval Norwegian design. But more than that, it is a touchstone to the city’s maritime past – once the ‘Scandinavian Seaman’s Church’, the pastoral history of the church is a direct link to the thousands of Scandinavian seafarers who’ve plied the stormy northern seas to our shores and thousands of emigrants from Nordic countries to the “New World”.
Today, it’s still a vibrant hub for the disparate diaspora of Swedes, Finns, Norwegians, Danes, Icelanders and Faroese who’ve settled on the banks of the Mersey over the past generations.
But, as the coffee mornings and knitting circles, the craft fairs and carol concerts lengthen a fundraising barometer felt-tipped on the wall, water seeps into the leaking lead flashings of the 1883 building, and the basement remains a no-go zone after a major winter water burst. Taking on the Swedish Church is one thing, battling elements of successive Irish Sea winters is another saga altogether.
With the help of hours of pro-bono work from a friendly Liverpool solicitor and the City Council, the Park Lane army and the Swedish Church locked horned helmets, until one Friday last October, Metcalf received a telephone call out of the blue. They were asked to meet SKUT (Swedish Church Abroad) in London at 10:00 Monday morning
“We told them we’d be there, but not until midday. We weren’t going to pay full price for a peak time train,” Metcalf adds.
We like his style. If only all wars could be fought off peak. Imagine how much the MOD would save.
The meeting was, in effect, the signing of the armistice – the Swedish Church foregoing any claim they had to the building.
The church car park, however, was a different matter. Back in 1995, Liverpool Council allowed the church to buy it, for a bargain price of £15k. Their charitable deal a show of support for the church and its work, enabling the far-flung congregation to park safely, and for the church to remain a buoyant community hub for all.
Despite this, the Swedish Church – named as owners on the deeds – refused to hand it over. Instead, they demanded £150,000 for the 13 car strip of asphalt.
Charitable? Christian spirited? What do you think?
The car park, eventually, was bought by LINC (The Liverpool International Nordic Community – a charity supporting Scandinavians in Liverpool – whether residents, visitors or seafarers), with a loan they’ll be paying off for some years to come.
“We asked the Swedish Church to let us buy it back for the price they paid. They refused,” Royden says.
“We ended up paying just under £100,000 after an independent valuation said it wouldn’t fetch more on the open market because the land could only ever be used as a car park.”
Interestingly, when the Swedish Church went public with the news of its ‘generous and community minded’ hand over of the church, it conveniently omitted to mention the £97,500 they pocketed from a car park that was built with Government supported finance through a local grant. Fancy that.
With the ink freshly dried on their new purchase, Metcalf, Royden and a new board of trustees reconstituted the church’s charitable status with the Charity Commission. They’re holding their first board meeting this week. Finally, they can talk about the future with conviction.
“We’re calling ourselves the Nordic Church in Liverpool 1883 Trust,” Metcalf says – a reference to the date the foundation stone was laid, beneath the coffee table we’re currently huddled around.
The trust’s aims don’t deviate all that much from the church’s original mission as a spiritual and community hub for Scandinavians, and those interested in learning about our Nordic neighbours’ culture. But there are moves afoot to make this, already one of the city’s broadest churches, reach out even further.
“We want to return this building to Liverpool,” Metcalf says. “It’s always been a little island of Scandinavia.”
To this end, Metcalf and Royden talk of plans to open a centre of Lutheran studies with Hope University, of reaching out to LIPA, (“they have lots of Scandinavian students, and many of them don’t even know we’re here”), art exhibitions and monthly music nights.
The church is no stranger to homely hoe-downs, it’s been used as a venue for the Random Family’s raggedly boisterous Family Folk-ups, and is a favourite with Liverpool promoters Friend or Foe and Harvest Sun.
“Fundraising is very important to us,” Metcalf says, when SevenStreets asks about the odd phenomena of churches being used as the city’s latest gig venues “We have to find new ways to pay for the building’s upkeep.”
Next month, the excellent Hannah Peel plays here, and there’s an exhibition of Icelandic paintings to be hung. Thursday nights see Swedish and Norwegian lessons. The building’s just been granted a Grade Two Star listing too, meaning not just its distinctive outline but its dazzlingly white Lutheran interior too are preserved for generations to come.
“It’s been a struggle,” Metcalf admits, “but when you know you’re right, you just keep on, don’t you?”
The Swedish Church? They’re still licking their wounds over the affair. SevenStreets ponders calling them for comment. Then, like a visitation, we hear the words of Sweden’s true spiritual leader…
“I don’t wanna talk/About things we’ve gone through
Though it’s hurting me/ Now it’s history…”
and we quietly move on.
The Nordic Church,
Park Lane, Liverpool