Many will have heard about the fire that devastated St Michael on the Mount Without in Bristol on Sunday 16th October and be concerned about how this tragic event happened.
St Michael on the Mount Without is a former Anglican church in the centre of Bristol that closed in 1999. The Diocese of Bristol has responsibility for managing closed churches while it seeks a future use for them, in consultation with Church Commissioners. Churches close rarely; only one has closed since in the Diocese and is owned and used by the Coptic Orthodox Church in Bristol. Despite exploring several potential schemes over the years, no user has ultimately taken on the building in the light of the challenges of developing a Grade II* Listed Church.
The church's vacant state, combined with its location, has meant that it has increasingly been subject to vandalism and break ins. These incidents have been actively responded to with the support and advice of the police. Frequent work has been carried out to repair the building and secure the site, including over the summer, in order to reduce risk and prepare for a fresh round of engaging interest for a future use.
As contractors were about to engage in final works in early October, the Diocese discovered squatters who appeared to have accessed the building via digging tunnels. The police advised that the access points could not be lawfully secured and the Diocese proceeded to institute a summary possession order, the legal way of removing squatters. The Bristol Civic Society contacted the Diocese after it had taken this action, not before, contrary to reports in the media.
The Fire Service responded to the outbreak of fire on Sunday afternoon and controlled the fire. Diocesan officers attended into the evening and supported the Fire Service and Police in their operation. The Diocese of Bristol is grateful for and pays tribute to the bravery and professionalism of the emergency services.
The Fire Investigation Service has since confirmed that they believe that the fire was started deliberately rather than accidentally. This does not necessarily imply arson or criminal damage by fire. The Diocese is assisting the Police and Fire Service with the ongoing investigation.
Sadly the majority of the roof has been destroyed and there has been significant internal damage. The 15th century tower, the two stained glass windows of significance and the walls remain intact. The Diocese continues to work with Historic England but its immediate priority has been to ensure the site is safe and has been working with Bristol City Council to achieve this. We have been keeping our colleagues in the adjacent Church of England school up to date.
Although the church has been closed for a long time, there was a worshipping community at the site since the 12th century and the building has had a spiritual as well as heritage significance for many, many people. We appreciate the concern and support of people across the Diocese with regards to this incident at this time.