UK Neo-Pentecostal Church Leaves Venue: Claims of Death Threats, Harassment

News from Hastings, on the south coast of England:

A Christian church group is packing up and leaving St Mary-in-the-Castle following death threats and harassment.

Sonrise Church, which took over the running of the building in January last year, said it has endured a campaign of hatred from a small group of people for almost two years and plans to vacant the premises in January.

Glenn and Cathy Khan, senior pastors, said they have had to put up with constant harassment from a minority of ‘nameless, faceless people’.

St Mary-in-the-Castle is an architecturally significant but redundant 1820 church building that has been run as a venue and art gallery for a few years; the neo-Pentecostal Sonrise Church was given a lease on the premises eighteen months ago, on the understanding that they would use it as a church on Sundays and continue to run it as a venue during the rest of the week. However, some questioned the process by which the lease was awarded:

Cllr Jeremy Birch, labour leader for Hastings Borough Council, said: “A lot of people and I at the time Sonrise Church was granted the lease questioned the council’s process of exclusively giving it St Mary in the Castle rather than going out to open competition.

“There was never an open process to look at other alternatives and look at offers on their merits.”

The Guardian also complained:

One of the best places to see and buy local art was at the SoCo Gallery, housed on the ground floor of St Mary In the Castle, on the seafront. SoCo is a local art group that runs well-attended regular shows where the art on the walls often tends to be of the cutting-edge variety. Upstairs, there were occasional concerts in an extraordinary beautiful and criminally underused circular concert hall. If you wanted a taste of the spirit of happening Hastings, it was as good a place as any to visit.

Last month, though, the local Tory council suddenly evicted SoCo and leased the building to an obscure evangelical Christian church called SonRise. Thus one of the few venues in Hastings suited to art events has been turned over to a minority Christian group that plans to turn it into a coffee bar, conference centre and, rumour has it, a Christian-oriented arts centre.

The church denied it would seek to censor art displayed by SoCo (South Coast Artists), and so the gallery exhibited a piece calculated to press the point. Glenn Khan complained to the local paper:

Prior to our moving into the building, an exhibition was held by the group and artwork using our child protection policy was displayed and put up for sale to the general public. We considered this work disturbing as images of a sexual nature had been superimposed over that information, even though one was of a fertility goddess from an old church building at Kilkenny.

There were also fears that as a neo-Pentecostal church Sonrise would have a negative view of homosexuality, and that it would discriminate against gay groups that might wish to hire the venue; Khan, however, responded that

“We are not homophobic. We would accept bookings from any group except ones promoting hatred or violence towards a minority group.”

Which seems reasonable enough; however, some critics continued to complain, pointing out the church’s use of the Alpha Course (which is hardly remarkable) and demanding to know

Why is it that “Sonrise Church “welcomes” new government legislation on religious discrimination in employment”, but only “accepts the legislation, regulations and codes of practice which separately and collectively outlaw certain kinds of discriminations.”

Despite assurances to the contrary, it seems that Sonrise was unable to shake off the public impression that its style and beliefs meant that it was of a piece with the American Christian Right, or somewhere like “Bishop” Michael Reid’s Peniel Church. That does not, however, appear to be the case (not that that would justify a campaign of harassment).

Sonrise is an independent church, although it used to be part of an Australian grouping called the Christian Outreach Centre. This was founded in 1974 in Brisbane by Clark Taylor, who was Australia’s “first televangelist”. Clark left Australia for the USA after an affair was exposed.