Monday, 6 June 2016

Discovering an unusual religious
minority on a street in Lichfield

The Christadelphian Hall on ecclesia on Station Road, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

While I was researching my recent blog postings about Philip Larkin and the poems he wrote in Lichfield, I found myself on Station Road for the first time in many years, and for the first time noticed the small, redbrick Christadelphian Hall.

I have only ever known one former Christadelphian, and I started asking myself who are the Christadelphians, are they Christians, and when did they first come to Lichfield.

As a cathedral city, most visitors to Lichfield think of Lichfield Cathedral when it comes to thinking about places of worship, and was there this morning for the Choral Eucharist. But there are other Anglican churches throughout the city that are places of historical and liturgical interest, including Saint Mary’s, Saint Chad’s, Saint Michael’s, Christ Church and the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital.

Lichfield has a number of churches representing other traditions too. There are two Roman Catholic churches that form one parish in Lichfield: Holy Cross Church on Upper Saint John Street and Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s Church on Dimbles Hill.

The Quaker George Fox first visited Lichfield in 1651.In 1672, five houses in Lichfield were licensed for Presbyterian worship. The Congregationalists met in Tunstalls Yard in 1790, grew into the United Reformed Church in Wade Street, which is now both a United Reform and Baptist church.

Wade Street Church in Lichfield brings together the stories of the Presbyterian, Congregationalist and Baptist traditions in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Although John Wesley visited the Lichfield area in 1755 and 1756, and again in 1777, he did not preach here.

A Wesleyan chapel in Lombard Street was registered in 1813 and was built in 1814 or 1815. A new chapel opened in Tamworth Street in 1892. The former chapel was in Lombard Street was 1980 sold it to the Jehovah’s Witnesses to use as their Kingdom Hall in 1980.

There was another Wesleyan chapel in Wade Street from about 1815, and from 1826 the New Connexion Methodists used a chapel in Sandford Street that had been used previously by the Congregationalists. They later moved to Queen Street but their chapel was sold in 1859, the congregation having disbanded. The Primitive Methodists also had a chapel in George Lane. This closed in 1934 and was a Salvation Army hall for some years.

A Pentecostalist church met in 1961-1969 in George Lane until 1969, when the Emmanuel Pentecostal church opened in Netherstowe. It later became the Emmanuel Christian Centre, and is now known as the Life Church.

On the fringes or the edges of Christianity, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have met in Lichfield since at least 1956, and now have their Kingdom Hall in the former Methodist chapel on Lombard Street. They are a familiar site with the their stalls on the corner of the Market Place or on the sidestreets leading to the bus station.

There has been a Mormon or Latter Day Saint presence in Lichfield since 1861, when they had a meeting room in Sandford Street. The present Mormon church in Purcell Avenue was registered in 1972, and from 1972 to 1977, the Mormons’ English headquarters was in Lichfield.

However, the one of the less well-known groups in Lichfield may be the Christadelphians, with their small ‘ecclesia’ or church on Station Road, which blends in with the neighbouring redbrick houses and goes almost unnoticed by many despite its proximity to the centre of Lichfield.

Saint Chad’s School, Beacon Street, where the headmistress was forced to resign in 1870 because of her Christadelphian beliefs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The story of the Christadelphian presence in Lichfield dates back almost a century and a half to 1870, when the recently appointed headmistress of Saint Chad’s School on Beacon Street was forced to resign because of her Christadelphian beliefs.

A few years later, Thomas Sykes, who had formed a small Christadelphian community at Bourton on the Water in Gloucestershire, moved to Lichfield in 1874.

By 1885 eight Christadelphians were meeting in each other’s houses, and in 1890 a meeting room was opened above Thomas Sykes’s shop in Tamworth Street.

In 1902, the Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Canon CN Bolton, denounced the Christadelphians as heretical. At the subsequent public meeting, the Christadelphians of Lichfield defended their beliefs. Their numbers increased, and from 1903 meetings were held in Saint James’s Hall in Bore Street.

After Saint James’s Hall was converted into a cinema in 1912, the group of over 40 Christadelphians in Lichfield built their own hall in Station Road. It opened in 1914 and extended in 1959. The Christadelphians still meet there on Sundays to this day.

There are over 300 Christadelphian ecclesias in Britain and Ireland, and there are about 50,000 Christadelphians around the world. They resist calling their buildings churches, they are not part of Churches Together in Lichfield or other ecumenical groups, and some people ask whether they are Christians.

The Christadelphians are a millenarian religious group who are Unitarian in their systems of beliefs. The movement developed in England and in the US in the 19th century in response to the ideas and teachings of John Thomas (1805-1871), a surgeon from London who coined the name Christadelphian from the Greek for “Brethren in Christ.”

Christadelphians differ from mainstream Christianity in a number of doctrinal areas. They reject the Trinity and deny the immortality of the soul, believing these to be corruptions of original Christian teaching. Many of them are pacifists, and they generally avoid taking part in politics, the police and the army.

They held their most recent conference last week in the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, and coincidentally I am travelling there from Lichfield later today for the annual residential meeting of the trustees and council members of the Anglican mission agency USPG.

Christadelphian congregations traditionally use the name ‘ecclesia,’ from the New Testament Greek ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), meaning assembly or church, and they resist using the word ‘church’ because of its association with mainstream Christianity. To this day the Christadelphian building on Station Road in Lichfield, which I noticed on a recent sunny afternoon, is known as the Christadelphian Hall or ecclesia.

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