A BRIEF HISTORY OF NORWICH CENTRAL BAPTIST CHURCH.
In November NCBC will host the 2013 UK conference of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission. The following historical resume accompanies the publicity for the conference.
Norwich Central Baptist Church is among the oldest Baptist churches in England. It dates itself from 1669 when its congregation appears on a record commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. This record was compiled to help keep an eye on Christian congregations that were not part of the state church, the Church of England. Under the reign of the Stuart Kings the state was suspicious of non-conforming congregations and outlawed them. However, freedom of worship for non-conformists was granted shortly after 1688 when the Catholic slanting Stuart monarchy was deposed and the constitutional monarchy of William of Orange instituted. After the 1688 revolution NCBC’s congregation met freely in various locations but eventually settled at the current venue in 1744 where they have been ever since.
After the repeal of the Test Act in 1823 (an act barring non-conformists from civic office) the way was clear for non-conformists to take up public appointment. The progressive ethos at NCBC favoured an involvement in liberal politics and business. Subsequently its congregation has included members of parliament, mayors, sheriffs and notable local business grandees. Their contribution to civic and industrial life has been memorialised in city street and school names.
The industrial revolution started not long after 1744 and runs in parallel with the rise in the status and influence of NCBC. Throughout the nineteenth century the effects of the industrial revolution took hold of the country, radically changing the conditions of life and bringing about a world not seen since historical record had started. Baptists, such as we find at NCBC, were in the thick of these changes and its members became increasingly respected and well placed in society. They were progressive and whiggish in their outlook. In 1781 their pastor Rees Davies denounced the war against the American revolutionaries and in 1831 the anti-slavery campaigner William Knibb preached at the church. Simon Wikin, a member of one of NCBC’s high status families, edited the first complete edition of the works of Norwich polymath Sir Thomas Browne. Liberal MP and industrialist Sir Jeremiah James Colman and his family attended the church (then known as St Mary’s Baptist Church). Philanthropic businessman and Liberal MP George White was also a member of the Church. The Baptist Sir Samuel Morton Peto, a businessman who pioneered the world’s first railway networks, was a friend of Rev. William Brock pastor of NCBC from 1833 to 1849. NCBC’s move into a more mainstream Christian affiliation and away from their sectarian and separatist past is symbolised by their 1860 defeat of a legal case that attempted to force closed communion on the church. Subsequently NCBC assumed more and more the culture of an established church as expressed by its fascinating architectural legacy; they were changing and their mission field was changing with them.
The history of NCBC covers a period that saw the formation of modern times, from the nascent English democracy of pre-Newtonian days, through the enlightenment and the growth of the New World, to the huge social, political, and Weltanschauung changes driven by industrialisation. As we have just seen, members of NCBC were at the forefront in the exploitation of the new mechanico-industrial paradigm that now suffused society. Latterly, however, NCBC has witnessed the late twentieth century marginalisation of Christian influence and a recrudescent Christian sectarianism and separatism. NCBC merged with its daughter church in 2003, an event driven by the decaying Western Church population. With its loss of influential and unifying Christian benefactors NCBC, like all contemporary churches, now faces big challenges about how to respond to tensions between fundamentalist and liberal interpretations of the faith and between schismogenic tendencies and compromise.
NCBC’s history of adaptation to prevailing conditions cuts across the idea that there is a timeless blueprint for Christian community; changing conditions changes how Christians think of themselves, their practices and how they communicate the eternal truths of the Gospel to the vicissitudes of their mission field. Today, European Christians effectively find themselves as Vulnerable Missionaries in their own society, but not because they have chosen this role: They no longer hold the reins of power or act as benefactors with overriding influence. Therefore using only their local resources and language Christians are thrown back almost entirely on the intrinsic persuasiveness of their lives and the message they bring.
Beyond the walls of the European church the general populace has become increasingly cynical, disaffected and confused about its Weltanschauung. That Weltanschauung is in part a legacy of the enlightenment discovery that vitality is found less in magic than in mechanism. The material wealth generated by the mechanico-industrial paradigm, a paradigm that NCBC members have themselves exploited, is seen as proof of that newly discovered vitality. Today’s science of mechanism has provided an all but comprehensive list of the mediums of influence. These mediums are almost exclusively particulate in nature and work by and large through close contact interactions; that is, without what Einstein referred to as spooky action at a distance. But if the science of mechanism is regarded as exhaustively comprehensive it then leads to great difficulty in making sense of and coming to terms with the numinous and the paranormal. The ill-fitting remnant of phenomena that are not easily placed into the categories of mechanical science may then be referred to as “magic”, often with pejorative connotation. Significantly, this very same question about the incommensurability of magic and mechanism is uppermost on the agenda of the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission. As this Alliance grapples with very fundamental questions about mission, NCBC is privileged to host the November 2013 UK conference. The Alliance’s cutting edge ministry is very much in line with NCBC’s forward looking traditions. There are lessons here that go well beyond foreign mission fields, because it seems that in today’s secular Western societies Christians are themselves Vulnerable Missionaries.