THOUSANDS of bodies could be exhumed by the Church of England under a project to help bring a historic Liverpool church back to life.
The Diocese of Liverpool cannot afford to renovate the historic St James Church in the shadow of the city?s Anglican Cathedral.
But it says it could bankroll a redevelopment by building a three-storey office and apart-ment block in the grounds.
That could mean having to disturb the last resting place of those buried at the church, including many former slaves.
Last night, a Diocesan spokesman confirmed: ?Church records show that there may be the remains of 2,500 bodies that the Diocese may want to exhume and reinter.?
The Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones, is behind the vision to bring St James?s back to life.
Church authorities now want to dig test pits to find out what state the bodies buried there are in.
Strict guidelines control re-burial of human remains, and the interment process could still prove prohibitively costly.
The Diocese wants to build the block along Upper Stanhope Street, in Toxteth. The ?8.7m project will include ?1.9m of renovations to the church.
Rent-paying tenants in the offices and flats would provide an income for the church, which needs a new roof, extensive point-ing and a interior refurbishment.
Project leader Rev Neil Short said last night: ?These explora-tions are vital to see whether we can carry on with the project to develop a new church at St James.
?We are very aware that work of this kind can create sensitivities among a number of people, and are keen to show that we are doing this in the most responsible way possible.
?We are taking expert architectural and archaeological advice on the best way forward, and will carry out all work according to legal guidelines.?
A spokesperson for the Diocese added: ?We want to be honest and open. We don?t want people driving past the graveyard and seeing that there?s digging going and wondering what it is.
?The exciting thing is we?ve got a vision for a church to come back into use for the community.?
St James?s closed its doors in the mid-1970s, but the last burial was in 1898 and the Diocese says ?very few? took place after 1851.
The Diocese are planning to build a block containing up to 20 units of ?supported housing? over administration and conference areas. The flats will provide capital funds and income for the church, which will be connected to the block via its lobby. The building will have a footprint of around 1,200 sq m.
The ground floor will include offices, seminar rooms, a lounge, a kitchen and toilets.
Some of the office space will be leased on a long term basis. The Anthony Walker Foundation ? set up in honour of the murdered Huyton school boy ? has expressed an interest in taking on some of the offices. A public information document circulated by Rev Short adds: ?The aim is to plant a creative open evangelical church in the centre of Liverpool to connect with the growing residential population and the huge transient population who work, socialise or attend university in the city.
?It will bring a transforming Christian presence into a largely unchurched area. Fundamentally, we hope that this will become a beacon church inside and outside the city and diocese of Liverpool.
?St James is a much loved treasure, a link to our history and of enormous townscape value.?
Having cost ?3,000 to build, the church was consecrated in July, 1775, and is one of the oldest standing Liverpool churches. It is also thought to be the oldest British building using cast-iron pillars.
Many slave traders frequented the church and some of their slaves were baptised there. The Diocese thinks black slaves may be among those whose final resting places will be disturbed. It says it has been in discussions with Liverpool?s International Slavery Museum about the possible exhumations.
Richard Benjamin, head of the museum, confirmed he was work-ing with church representatives to look into putting on an exhibition about the history of St James.
Cllr Steve Munby, whose Riverside ward covers St James, discovered his great-great-great-great-grandfather was buried in the church in the early 19th century.
He told the Daily Post: ?I?m supporting this as a local coun-cillor. It?s a thoroughly positive development.
?I 100% support this and congratulate Neil and other stakeholders who are trying to bring this wonderful building back into use.
?Whenever there?s an issue about disturbing graves, it?s a very sensitive issue. But all the people laid to rest hopefully will be managed sensitively.
?Rather than our ancestors being buried near a ruined church, it will be better to bring it back in use.?