A LONDON Church was effectively ‘silenced’ by a Court after a decision by Magistrates to uphold a noise abatement notice, not to play excessive sound, after just one Muslim neighbour complained about noise levels of worship in a church which was next door to the house he purchased.
Singing songs of praise on a Sunday is normal Church activity. Using amplification is a normal part of Church life and it was argued at the Court hearing that the normal use of a Church building entails worship and cannot constitute noise nuisance.
Immanuel House of Worship Church has been meeting in Walthamstow since it bought the premises in 2006. The Church was built in 1894 and was formerly used by the United Reformed Church, when the Church owned all the land on which the current properties are now built.
The property next door to the church was formerly the Manse (vicarage) until 1989, when it was then sold by the United Reformed Church. In 2005, was sold to the current occupants. From 2005 – 2006, the property was empty and vagrants frequently hung around church. Currently, the IHOW church offers a nursery to serve the whole neighbourhood and has an impressive list of neighbours who welcome the church and who do not regard their worship as a problem.
However, the occupants complained about the level of noise of worship coming from the church for just 40 minutes a week and an Abatement Notice was served on the Church Trustees on 6 May 2009 under Environmental Protection Act 1990 section 79(1) (g). The church appealed to the magistrate court and the hearing took place on 5 and 6 October at Waltham Forest Magistrates Court.
Mr Ade Ajike, a Trustee of the church said: “When we moved into Valentinn Road in 2007, we had renovated the property and bricked up the three windows facing the house. We also double glazed all the windows, except one stained glass window, and spent £10,000 to carry out sound-reducing. In fact, the Council’s environmental department at the time said it would be enough just to brick up the windows.
“After moving in we invited Environmental Officers to visit the premises and we got the OK. We also visited neighbours and took them potted plants , and had no problem until the occupant made his official complaint in August 2008.
“Gary Vickers, an Environmental health enforcement officer visited the occupant’s house on 10th August (Sunday worship service time) and on 12 August issued a letter to us saying that in his opinion, the volume from the music was of statutory noise nuisance level throughout the neighbours’ property. He suggested to deal with matter through sensible negotiation, informing our Pastor that ‘the church had to keep the noise down so as not to offend the Muslims living in the area’. He told us ‘this is a Muslim borough, you have to tread carefully’.”
During August, IHOW took action. They reduced hours of Sunday worship from 4 hours to 2 hours 30 mins, of which music is played for about 45 minutes. They reduced their weekly services to one service on Sunday, and all mid-week services held are skeletal services without music. Sunday evening services were reduced to once a month. The Trustees also took the decision not to hire out the premises in case noise would aggravate the occupant, a move which has cost the church additional revenue. However, the visiting officer changed and questioning got more hostile.
Mr Ajike said: “Officers questioned the church why they needed amplifiers when 50 years ago the Church would not have used drums and amplified music. On 6 May 2009, an Abatement Notice was issued against the church alleging an unreasonable level of noise nuisance caused by excessive loud amplified music and drums.
“Since then we have stopped using drums and further reduced our worship time to 20 minutes beginning from 11.30am on a Sunday morning. We have also restricted church services to once a week. Despite all our action, the occupant, who actually lives in what was the former Manse (vicarage) to the church, would stand at church’s main entrance door and shout his complaints and demand our Pastor come out to speak to him during his sermon.”
The IHOW has sought the advice of the Christian Legal Centre over their plight and to appeal this week’s decision. CLC has instructed leading Human Rights expert Paul Diamond to represent the church at the Appeal.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, barrister and director of the CLC said:
“The charge of nuisance in law must involve proving there is a substantial interference with comfort. Surely, any reasonable person would think that singing for 40 minutes or so once or twice a week would not cross this threshold. Worship in a Church is to be expected. The Environmental Health Officers do not seem to have taken this fact into account. This is a vibrant Afro Caribbean community of Christian believers whose worship of God is fundamental to the expression of their faith. The richness and vibrancy of groups like the London Gospel Community Choir is based on the Afro Caribbean expression of faith through music. ’