By Julian Robinson for MailOnline 20:35 18 Mar 2015, updated 21:19 18 Mar 2015
- St John's Stoke church plans to build new community centre and car park
- But scheme would involve digging up thousands of bodies in graveyard
- The church, in Guildford, Surrey, is the resting place of Sir James Stirling
- He was the first governor of Western Australia and a British navy admiral
- Opponents of the graveyard plan have produced a 1,400-signature petition
A church has come under fire over plans to dig up thousands of bodies - including the founder of Western Australia - to make way for a car park.
St John's Stoke church, in Guildford, Surrey, wants to build a community centre in its grave yard and replace the current centre with a car park.
But the scheme, which would see remains dug up, cremated and reburied in a mass grave, has already sparked outrage with opponents producing a 1,400-signature petition in a bid to save the graveyard.
St John's Stoke church (pictured), in Guildford, Surrey, wants to build a community centre in its grave yard and replace the current centre with a car park
The body of Sir James Stirling, a navy admiral and the first governor of Western Australia, is buried in the graveyard
An international dispute threatens to break out as the body of Sir James Stirling, a navy admiral and the first governor of Western Australia, is buried in the graveyard - but the church is not sure where.
Reverend Mark Woodward, the church's rector, said: 'We have heard a large number of views ranging from strong opposition to our plans, to very strong support in favour.
'We hope and pray that something very positive will come from the proposal to see land used to help fund an excellent new community project.
HOW A BRITISH NAVAL OFFICER ENDED UP IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Sir James Stirling become the first Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Western Australia
It was Sir James Stirling’s persistence that finally persuaded the British government to establish the Swan River Colony in Western Australia.
The British naval officer, who was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1791, had explored the area before
lobbying officials to allow him to establish a settlement.
And it was a move that would eventually see him become the first Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Western Australia.
Stirling entered the navy at the age of 12 and went on to serve in the Napoleonic wars and the war between Britain and the US in 1812.
He married Ellen Mangles at Stoke Church, Guildford, on September 3 1823. They went on to have five sons and six daughters.
Stirling travelled to Australia a few years later as part of a navy assignment and joined an inland expedition – eventually taking him to the west.
He would go on to oversee the development of the surrounding area and remained in his post until 1838 when he resumed his naval career.
Stirling became an admiral in the 1860s and died in retirement at Guildford on April 22 1865.
'We are in contact with the descendants of some families who believe they have ancestors interred in the graveyard and we are listening very carefully. We are committed to working very closely with all interested parties.
'It is inspiring to see our church facilities put to such great and varied use by so many people every week, but we are simply running out of space.'
Sir Stirling was buried at the site following his death in 1865 but when a new rectory was built on the western graveyard in 1977 his stone was accidentally smashed and moved to the entrance of the church.
If all goes to plan for the church, remains will be placed in a memorial garden behind the new community centre, with the remaining headstones placed around the perimeter of the church
The reverend believes the admiral's body was moved with the stone, a claim that is hotly disputed, and argues the car park is needed because church turnout has risen sharply.
The last burial at the church is thought to have taken place in the 1870s.
Eventually, if all goes to plan for the church, remains will be placed in a memorial garden behind the new community centre, with the remaining headstones placed around the perimeter of the church.
Church leaders will take their plans to church commissioners, in Westminster, London, on April 22.