Sunday, April 29, 2012

CENTRAL BAPTIST CHURCH, NORWICH

I few years ago I became aware that Norwich Central Baptist Church had a name-sake in America; well, near enough – it’s actually called Central Baptist Church, Norwich and the “Norwich” here is the Norwich just off the West Coast, not far north of New York. CBCN is, I think, placed in that part of America populated by early English settlers; it is thick with place names taken from English towns and cities: Canterbury, Colchester, Marlborough, Glastonbury, Coventry, Exeter, Andover, Manchester, Portsmouth, and of course Norwich! (They ran out of English place names as they moved west!) Although I have known about CBCN for a while, it’s only very recently that I’d thought I’d have a snoop at their web site. (I have to admit it; looking at other people’s stuff on the web still feels like entering someone’s private home!) 

Externally the building CBCN use is a grander version of the Victorian/Edwardian mock gothic style that Dereham Road Baptist church left behind when they merged with St Mary’s Baptist church to become the current “Norwich Central Baptist Church”. However, inside CBCN, or at least where the congregation meet for worship, the style is predominantly classical. (NCBC’s current building also mixes classical and gothic styles) The interior of CBCN’s building is pleasingly immaculate and well cared for – they appear to love their building; definitely a point in their favour as far as I’m concerned. 

Like NCBC, CBCN are good traditional Baptists who embrace the local church concept and the separation of church and state. But therein is the paradox, the same paradox found at NCBC when it was St Mary’s Baptist church: The church gives outward signals of being well linked to the establishment. Established styles of architecture are supplemented with ministerial gowns suggesting a state sponsored separation of laity and clergy. I guess that these outward displays originate from the early settlers who, although earnest nonconformists, nevertheless inherited Church of England styles of doing church. In the case of our own St Mary’s Baptist church the establishment look may have grown over time as it became better connected with civic life; increasing numbers of its members signed up as pillars of society; MPs, Sheriffs, Lord Mayors, councilman, committee members, business grandees etc.

Looking at CBCN’s photo gallery I would have said that many Christians today would regard them as unfashionably traditional and formal in the way they do their church. For example, unlike us, they have made no attempt to get rid of their wooden pews even though it is likely they are a wealthy church who would have no trouble financing new seats. If anything they seem to be proud of their very churchy building, traditions and formality. There is an irony here: What we over on this side of the Atlantic regard as fashionable "swinging" church has probably been, in most cases, imported from America. Today’s fashionable quasi-charismatic Christians are more likely to prefer flat worship warehouses to spires, pinnacles and naves, exuberant emotional worship to formal liturgy, patriarchal and impassioned preachers to men in establishment ermine, and the inner light of faith to reason. I may caricature a little here, but the tendencies are there and NCBC has been mildly influenced by them*: I well remember how many worshippers from Dereham Road Baptist Church instinctually reacted against the idea of moving to St Mary’s Baptist Church. I have always suspected that this was a reaction to the establishment and traditional ambiance that pervaded the church building; like all things that are just out of vogue it seemed intolerably unfashionable and a newer and fresher version of Christianity was being sought for in an era of post-civic Christianity. This was part of a swing away from the ecclesiastical into an esoteric experience of Christianity.

CBCN, in contrast, give every appearance of being completely at ease with their identity and their unassuming spirituality. Signs that have reached my door suggest that in America there are large swathes of very traditional looking church, of both fundamentalist and liberal persuasions, secure in their size and strength; such are unlikely to be easily dominated by the their brash and noisy fellow countryman who major in a charismatic in-yer-face spirituality. In the UK, on the other hand, we may feel that we have to follow the latest noisy happenings in the leading Nation of the Western world. 

By some standards CBCN may look unfashionable but they are go-ahead enough to have a female minister and I suspect they have a fairly modern interpretation of Christianity. Compare that with the worship warehouse movement which can sometimes be very patriarchal; I only need mention Terry Virgo in this country and Mark Driscoll in America - and there’s a lot, lot worse out there too: In the swing away from the ecclesiastical in favour of the esoteric, the ecclesiastical may reassert itself in a new authoritarian guise. Moreover, fundamentalist bigotry and backwardness are so often found in the worship warehouses; it is irony that it is amongst the traditionalist fellowships that Christian values of freedom of conscience and tolerance are being cherished and preserved for the future.

* I'm certainly not suggesting the influences are all bad

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