Saturday, October 10, 2009

A few years ago (2003) I wrote a short article (for a now defunct church magazine) on the pseudo gothic architecture of Dereham Road Baptist Church (The building used by one of the churches that merged to form Norwich Central Baptist church). In that article I wrote of Dereham Baptist Church and its Baptist builders:

Their aping of establishment architecture was a sign that they were more at ease with and better integrated into the wider culture than we are. Their churches were chiefly preaching centres serving a much more public life oriented Christianity.

Like the mammals of saurian times, faith has often been unable to venture beyond the deep recesses of an intensely private life. Today, the "Sermon in Stone" that is DRBC hardly seems a safe way to express faith and it is unlikely to elicit the respect of today's touchy-feeley Christians for whom it will not register as a product of authentic heartfelt religion

However, the church, now somewhat marginalised, is much less part of the trappings of civic society than it used to be and has had to re-adapt. The community church has superseded the municipal church, and yet the community church often has little choice but to make best use of an architectural legacy. We may feel more at home with that legacy if we try to judge it on its own terms. To the Christians of its day the quasi-civic architecture of DRBC was clearly significant and betrayed a pride in their public connections, connections that for us are all too thin on the ground.

The general idea I tried to express here was that in those days the non-conformist church felt itself to be part of the civic establishment, and this showed in their use of civic architecture. In the case of DRBC they used the gothic style, but often the “secular” classical style was also co-opted to express how Christians felt about their role and position is society; they didn’t think of themselves as a marginalized pressure group or social charity on the edge of an otherwise alien culture but saw their role as much needed Christian salt well, qualified to help run society. They identified with their society and to some extent they were that society.

The conclusions I drew in 2003 have since been corroborated in my mind by a recent delving into the archive of back copies of St Mary’s church magazine. I randomly selected the year 1939, opened up the first page of the January edition and this is what I read:

(click to enlarge)

…we take it as recognition of the place the free churches fill in the life of the community and the service rendered by them to the public well being…. Have made a notable contribution to the moral, educational and spiritual welfare of this city… St Mary’s honourable association with the Sheriff… George White MP…. eight members have filled the office of Mayor….public servant…..President Lincoln…

This stuff sounds so much like parts of America today*. But over here? Things, of course, have changed. In my original article I contrasted the “municipal church” of the past with the “community church” of today, but I added a footnote saying that I really wasn’t sure just what the so called “community church” was:

I am sure it means something, if only to express the self image and aspirations of churches groping to find an identity and role as they attempt to adapt to changed and changing circumstances. My use of the term “Community Church” doesn’t mean to say that I know what it means; I am attempting to understand this self proclaimed role of contemporary churches by contrasting it with something that it certainly is not, namely, the old style municipal church.

“Adapting to changed and changing circumstances…” is probably the key point here. But as Christians adapt to changed circumstances they may be egotistical enough to think that their contemporary expression of church is not a mere adaptation to the current milieu but the restoration of a timeless blueprint and the only way of doing church. In this connection it is perhaps worth noting that today’s marginalized church probably finds itself in circumstances similar to those of the early emerging church. This may help explain why some contemporary Christians connect with the emerging church of the first century and find a ready expression by doing things the “New Testament way”. But human restorationist conceits may underrate those who in times past did their emerging church differently in order to adapt to the opportunities society provided in their day.

This scene from the NCBC launch service of 8/6/03 looks to be a nostalgic throwback!

* Footnote
Interestingly evidence suggests that St Mary’s Baptist church had sympathy for the Americans in the war of independence. In 1781 Rees David, minister of St Mary’s Baptist church, preached a sermon attacking the war against the Americans.

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