Category Archives: Church

Chapel Next The Green – Research

Chapel Next the Green cover

Chapel Next the Green cover

Forty years ago my history of the Twickenham Congregational Church (Twickenham United Reformed Church from 1972), Chapel Next the Green was published. This post and the one that will follow are about the researching and production of the history respectively, not the history itself. For this refer to the book itself or the church website.

I always had an interest in local history and having grown up in the church I had heard all sorts of stories of its past. Back in 1951 the then church secretary, Reg Peirce, had put together a history to mark what was though to be the church’s triple jubilee (150 years).

Some time in the 1970s I thought that it was time for an updated history and the church meeting agreed to me producing this. I had no background in historical research – at the time I was a council building inspector – and my original plan was to do a relatively quick update to Reg’s history. But I’d started on a journey which would last a good few years.

My starting point was with the church archives, such as they were. These included copies of leaflets, reports and other items of interest (including a programme for the 1902 Centenary Bazaar) and, most importantly, Church Meeting and Deacons Meeting minute books starting with the re-formation of the church in 1882 after a very testing few years. I soon realised I would need to read through these minutes twice: on the first read you get the facts, but because you don’t know what will happen next it’s hard to tell what is or isn’t significant. Needless to say, all this reading and note taking took an extended period.

By now I had a picture of church life from 1882. My next step was to visit the United Reformed Church History Society’s library. Congregation Yearbooks furnished obituaries of the church’s ministers back to the 1850s and sundry other information.

But now I had a problem. Reg’s history (probably based on Andrew Mearns’ 1889 London Congregational Church Directory: “1800 Church formed by B.H.Kluht assisted by Lady Shaw and Dr Leifchild“) left me puzzled. Debrett’s Peerage had failed to provide a suitable Lady Shaw. There was no Rev Kluht active at that time – only one who wasn’t born until 1816. And I’d also found that First Cross Road where the church stands was a result of the 1818 Enclosure Award; before this it was part of Twickenham Common.

Lady Shaw's School registered as a place of public worship

Lady Shaw’s School registered as a place of public worship

And then the penny dropped. What if Reg’s history was wrong? Yearbooks from 1862-1884 stated that the church was founded in 1838. All fell into place: Lady Shaw became such on her 1834 marriage to Sir Robert Shaw at Twickenham Parish Church. Benjamin Kluht came to the church as its first minister in 1840. During his seven year pastorate the first chapel was built on land at the rear of Sir Robert and Lady Shaw’s garden.

Then as I widened my research I found the December 1835 certificate of registration of Lady Shaw’s school room as a place of worship which can be taken as the birth date of the church. Now it all made sense.

My research took me to the Greater London Record Office, the Congregational Library at Caroone House, Dr Williams Library, the Guildhall Library, the Public Record Office and British and Foreign School Society Archive. And I made a visit to the elderly Rev Harold Bickley who had become the church’s minister in 1916. The more I knew the more there was to discover. But given that the aim was to publish an updated history, I had to stop somewhere. The decision was made to have a special weekend marking the centenary of the re-formation of the church on 27th April 1882 and so work switched to assembling all my research into a coherent account. Next month I’ll try and recall how this was done.

More:

 

1960s Sunday School memories

Although they weren’t churchgoers, my parents – like many others at that time – wanted me to go to Sunday School. A fellow school-gate mum told my mum that the Twickenham Congregational (now United Reformed) church had a good Sunday School. So late in 1959, aged six, I was enrolled. At that time well over 100 children attended each week, most like me having been sent rather than brought.

Each Sunday morning we met in the hall and paraded into church where we sat in our designated pews. After two hymns and the children’s talk, we adjourned to our classes. After nine months in the primary class I moved up to the junior department which met in the main hall. Demountable screens split the hall into classrooms, each class having around eight children – boys’ classes one side of the hall, girls the other. In due course we graduated to the young people’s class, where boys and girls were allowed to mix!

The Sunday School had its own calendar which superimposed the following special events on the regular Sunday morning classes. Roughly speaking it looked like this:

  • Early in the year those of us who wanted to, participated in the National Sunday School Union’s Scripture exam. For six weeks we would study the year’s exam theme and had to learn a memory passage. Then on a Friday evening we all turned up to sit the exam paper. Later a district awards presentation, preceded by a tea, was held at Twickenham Baptist Church. A member of the church was an amateur printer and produced beautiful Twickenham & District-specific certificates – sadly none of mine survive but here’s an example from Norwich (ack Leo Reynolds)
  • One highlight of the year was the Sunday School festival marked by a fully costumed and staged play. Maurice Stockdale, then Sunday School superintendent, took great pride in this. Parts were found for every child who wanted to take place with, by tradition, teachers taking the parts in the last act. We went to rehearsals on six Monday evenings, followed by a Sunday afternoon dress rehearsal (followed by the obligatory tea), then the performance itself in front of church members and proud parents on the Monday evening. I just remember playing Elisha’s servant in the play ‘So Small a Thing’ – the healing of Naaman.
  • To June and the Sunday School outing. Back in the early 1960s most people still didn’t have cars so, annual holiday apart, rarely went far, making the outing a great event. Our outing destinations were Oxshott Heath with its enormous sandpit, Frensham Ponds, Box Hill, and for seaside trips, Lancing or Wittering. An elderly near-blind member of the congregation, James Rennie, would give Maurice some money to be shared out towards the end of the outing so that each child could buy some seaside rock or sweets. He would be amazed to know that his simple kindness towards children he didn’t know is still remembered fifty years after his death.
  • Holidays over, September saw promotion Sunday. Everyone who was eligible moved up on the same date, and getting a new teacher was an exciting thing. Even more so, joining the young people’s group.
  • This one I can’t date, but like many children across the world in linked churches we were given collecting boxes to collect donations in support of the London Missionary Society’s John Williams missionary ship which served scattered communities in the southern Pacific. When the John Williams VII ship was commissioned at Tower Pier in 1962 our Sunday School ran an outing to visit her but my parents wouldn’t let me go, scared that I might fall in the Thames!
  • And so to year end. The Christmas family service would invariably include a short nativity play of some sort. Then we’d have a Sunday afternoon Christmas party with games and tea. Then aged about nine I can remember my teacher telling me “as it’s the party you can call me Christine instead of Miss Kerslake”! How things have changed!

Within five or so years the practice of non-church parents sending children to Sunday School was no more and numbers sadly collapsed. I’m so grateful to have been part of the preceding generation. So many happy memories of my teachers – Margaret Day, Christine Kerslake, Pat Sparks, John Cragg and Maurice Stockdale. Thanks for all you gave me as a small child.

2019 – Good memories

Another year ends and the 20s are about to begin. I can look back on 2019 with almost unalloyed satisfaction. High spots of the year:

  • A two-night mini break by rail to Warrnambool.
  • Seeing our church continue to grow, with the opening of a new service in Docklands.
  • Being headhunted to help with our church ‘mums and bubs’ midweek meeting creche. For some reason this old single guy seems to be quite good at looking after little people!
  • A four-night cruise, Melbourne-Sydney-Brisbane, on Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, made even more special by being upgraded to a suite. No upgrade for my 2020 cruise though!
  • Visiting Brisbane for the first time.
  • Through the year working as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, building homes in Yea.
  • Visiting friends and family in the UK – when I emigrated I promised to go back and visit them each year, a promise I had to break in 2018 following surgery, and taking a first-time stopover in Singapore on the way home, something I will do again
  • Through the year working as a volunteer guide at the Newport Railway Museum, also joining the works team.
  • Taking a winter holiday in Port Hedland – seeing big boys toys close up.
  • I only got to see one musical but it was a superb one, ‘Come from away’, the remarkable true story of thousands passengers and the small town in Newfoundland that welcomed them in the aftermath of 9/11
  • And continuing to run my software business, which celebrated its 30th birthday in April and once again reached my annual sales target (just).

So why has my church grown so much?

‘My’ church (OK, it’s God’s church), City on a Hill, started with in 2007 as Docklands Church, meeting at the James Squire Brewhouse in Melbourne Docklands. When I moved to Melbourne it had been meeting for a year and numbered around a hundred people. Not too long after I joined an evening service was started so as to take the pressure off the morning service (both, now all, our services are virtually identical, so you go to whichever suits you best).

By 2010 we could not accommodate everyone who wanted to come and with no suitable affordable space available in Docklands the decision was made to relocate to Hoyts cinema, Melbourne Central, at which point we changed our name to City on a Hill. Taking 130 people to a 400-seat cinema seemed (in ‘Yes Minister’ speak) a brave decision but before too long we were at capacity so moved to holding two morning services. In 2014 we started a Melbourne West congregation, and in 2017 a Melbourne East congregation. In September 2019 the continuing pressure on numbers led to us starting a Docklands service at the new Hoyts complex.

What a difference to my experience in the UK where the Congregational/United Reformed church of which I was part has been in decline for a hundred years. Why? What’s the secret

Inspired leadership must be the big one: more than a few church (and business) leaders have excelled in the one-person startup stage but have then come unstuck when it comes to building a team. We are blessed with a wonderful leadership team that has grown with the church.

Great teaching: Week after week our pastors serve up great messages that take a Bible passage and show us its application to our lives. In a digital age will people listen to 40-minute sermons?. Yes, they’re a key reason why people (nearly all in their 20s and 30s) come. Check out COAH podcasts

Consistency: I came from a church that for 30+ years had a half-time (shared) minister, with church members or visiting preachers conducting the other services, each bringing their own gifts to the pulpit. In addition we had a good number of special services. As a regular attender I really appreciated the variety. At COAH virtually every service follows much the same pattern: worship (possibly including a short interview), Bible reading, sermon, closing worship. But the big plus of this is that if you invite a friend, you know what will be served up. And people do bring friends who very often stay.

Culture: The downside of this is a largely monocultural church, nearly all (not me!) being young professionals. You’d struggle to find a retired person in our number! One of our leaders once admitted: “There’s no way I’d bring my parents here: they’d hate it!”. ‘it’ probably referring to the music type and volume. This challenges me: I spent decades believing in a ‘something for everyone’ church, but perhaps having a number of complementary churches with their own distinct way of being church is better?

Governance: My previous UK church held to its Congregational roots, in that the ultimate decision making body was the church members meeting and I found it challenging to move to a church with top-down decision making – it being announced on a Sunday that ….. Both have their advantages and disadvantages – consensus and wider ownership of decisions v. being able to make quick decisions and not being held back by the inertia of some.

Buildings: Having studied building at university it was all but inevitable that I would spend 30+ years as a member of our church building committee, working to keep our mid-Victorian buildings in order. Now we meet in a cinema and instead of endlessly grappling with heating, cleaning, leaking gutters etc etc, we just pay rent. So liberating, though it must be admitted that the setup and teardown each Sunday involves a lot of volunteer effort.

But with all this said, the key thing is that it’s God who gives (or withholds) the growth:

  • Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain (Psalm 127, 1)
  • I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Cor. 3, 6-7)

Or as Arthur Campbell Ainger put it in a hymn I love well:

  • All that we do is nothing worth, unless God blesses the deed;
    vainly we hope for the harvest-tide, till God gives life to the seed;

Thankfully, in our case he has. May this continue.

My church is 12!

Last Sunday my church – City on a Hill – celebrated its twelfth birthday. In person I’ve been part of the church for eleven of these twelve years but was in the loop from the beginning.

Our name, City on a Hill, comes from Matthew’s Gospel , chapter 5 verse 14: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” [ESV]. We started off as Docklands Church: St James Old Cathedral and St Jude’s Church had the vision of planting a church in Docklands, which then had a population of around 5,000 – it’s probably now three times that. Guy Mason was chosen to head up this project; we first met when I was visiting Melbourne in Easter 2007 and he’d just been appointed. Over coffee he outlined his vision, which was then light on detail but over the next six months a plan came together and on 28th October 2007 regular Sunday services began at the James Squire Brewhouse, kindly placed at our disposal by the then owners.

A year later I moved to Docklands. There was no doubt as to which church I would join. On my first Sunday I met lots of new people – the church had grown to around 100 – many names recognised from the emails I’d read over the months. Before long I’d been enlisted for setup – rearranging all the furniture for our service, then the mad scramble afterwards to make the pub ready for the lunch trade.

So why are we now City on a Hill? Word of this new church spread and our numbers increased to such a degree that we could not accommodate everyone. There was no suitable venue in Docklands so we had to move out, thus the need for a new name. On 9th May 2010 we held our first service at Hoyts Cinema, Melbourne Central. Taking over a 400-seat cinema when we had around 130 people looked (in ‘Yes Minister’ parlance) a courageous step but before too long we had to move to having two morning services, at 0900 and 1030 as well as our 1800 evening service.

And that was only the beginning: in addition to Melbourne Central we now have Melbourne West, Melbourne East, Geelong and Brisbane congregations, with Surf Coast and Gold Coast coming soon. And, coming full circle, we started a 1030 Docklands service at the new Hoyts Cinema this September. In total, several thousand people. Our stated vision is fifty churches in ten cities. Wait and see.

In my next piece I’ll venture a few thoughts as to why we’ve grown as we have.