07 May 2022

United Reformed Church in
Newport Pagnell has roots
in 17th century dissent

Newport Pagnell United Reformed Church can be seen through an interesting arch on High Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Newport Pagnell earlier this week, I visited both the Parish Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and the site of Tickford Priory, now Tickford Abbey. But SS Peter and Paul Church also has a past association with the United Reformed Church, which I came across when I saw it through an interesting arch on High Street, Newport Pagnell.

Newport Pagnell URC began life as a Congregational Church in the 1660s and today it is part of the United Reformed Church, which has brought together English Presbyterians, Congregationalists in England, Wales and Scotland, and members of the Churches of Christ, through unions and mergers in 1972, 1981 and 2000.
In all, the URC has over 100,000 members and almost 800 ministers throughout the United Kingdom in 1,600 congregations.
The church in Newport Pagnell dates from 1660, when the Revd John Gibbs (1627-1699), a Puritan minister during the Cromwellian era, was ejected as the Vicar of the Parish Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul after he refused Communion to people he regarded as undesirable. He had known Baptist sympathies, although his followers identified with the ‘Independents’ or Congregationalists.

Gibbs was the son of a Bedford cooper, and he was a close friend from childhood days of John Bunyan (1628-1688), the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, who was part of the Cromwellian garrison in Newport Pagnell.

Gibbs studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1648. Two years later, he succeeded the Revd Samuel Austin, who was ejected by the Cromwellians as Vicar of Newport Pagnell in 1650. Gibbs was at the forefront of the social and political upheavals in the mid-17th century and an active supporter of the Parliamentarians or Cromwellians.

In the theological atmosphere in Restoration England, his preaching was unacceptable even before the great ejection of 1662. Gibbs was then licensed as a Presbyterian preacher in 1662, and a number of former parishioners started to meet with him in William Smyth’sa barn at the back of the site of the present church building.
Gibbs was influential in dissenting church circles, and he was jailed on several occasions. He was an opponent of infant Baptism and many of his contemporaries regarded him as an Anabaptist.

The new church was formed on ‘Independent’ or Congregationalist’ principles, and it predates almost all Congregationalist churches in Engand that began to develop from 1662 on. Gibbs continued his ministry in Newport Pagnell until he died on 16 Junein 1699. He was buried at the parish church in Newport Pagnell.

The first purpose-built chapel on the site was built three years later, in 1702. A beam from the barn can be seen in the remains of the chapel that was demolished to make way for the present church building.
The Revd William Bull (1738-1814), a key figure in the history of the church, was ordained in 1764, when he succeeded the Revd James Belsham as pastor of the Independent Church in Newport Pagnell. Bull was a friend of the hymnwriter John Newton (1725-1807), curate in nearby Olney in Buckinghamshire for 16 years, of the poet and hymnwriter William Cowper (1731-1800), and of many prominent of the Clapham Sect, including Zachary Macaulay, Thomas Babington.

With Newton’s support, Bull founded the Newport Pagnell Theological College, also known as the Academy, in 1782. He frequently preached in London chapels at the invitation of Lady Huntingdon.

The Revd William Bull, who died in 1814, was the minister in the church for 50 years until he died on 23 July 1814.. He was succeeded by his son, the Revd Thomas Palmer Bull, who died in 1859. William Bull’s grandson, the Revd Josiah Bull, also ministered in the church, so that these three generations of the Bull family had a ministry in Newport Pagnell that spanned 105 years.
Newport Pagnell Theological College closed in 1859. By then it had trained over 100 ministers. The remaining students and funds were transferred to Cheshunt College and later Westminster College Cambridge.
As the congregation in Newport Pagnell grew, alterations and extensions were made to the chapel. The present church was built in 1880-1881 and designed by the London-based architect Sir John Sulman (1849-1934), who emigrated to Sydney in 1885, where he became one of Australia’s most prominent architects.
The church is built of red brick in Flemish bond with Bath stone dressings, and it has a south-north orientation rather than the traditional, liturgical east-west orientation. There are memorials to the Revd John Gibbs, the Revd William Bull and his successor the Revd Thomas Palmer Bull.
Other tablets and memorials commemorate Thomas Hackett, a student at Newport Evangelical Institution, who ‘died unexpectedly’ in 1821; Jones Milas (d 1852), secretary of the British and Foreign School Society; and Arthur George Percy French.
Apart from a fire in the roof in 1979, the church remained largely unchanged until a major redevelopment of the building that began in 2006.
Today, the church describes itself as an inclusive church wherein which all are welcome. The Revd Jo Clare-Young has been the minister since January 2022. The regular Sunday service is at 10:30 every Sunday morning.
The present church was designed by the architect Sir John Sulman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
7 May 2022 (Psalm 73)

‘But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped’ (Psalm 73: 2) … a detail from Linda Brunker’s sculpture ‘Voyage’ above the beach at Laytown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I hope to visit London later today (7 May 2022) for a church service and a dinner. But, before this day begins, I am continuing my morning reflections in this season of Easter continues, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 73:

Psalm 73 is the opening psalm in Book 3 in the Book of Psalms, which includes Psalms 73 to 89. In the slightly different numbering scheme in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is psalm is numbered as Psalm 72.

This is the second of the ‘Psalms of Asaph.’ These are the 12 psalms numbered 50 and 73 to 83 in the Masoretic text and 49 and 72-82 in the Septuagint. Each psalm has a separate meaning, and these psalms cannot be summarised easily as a whole.

But throughout these 12 psalms is the shared theme of the judgment of God and how the people must follow God’s law.

The attribution of a psalm to Asaph could mean that it was part of a collection from the Asaphites, identified as Temple singers, or that the psalm was performed in a style associated with Asaph, who was said to be the author or transcriber of these psalms.

Asaph who is identified with these psalms was a Levite, the son of Berechiah and descendant of Gershon, and he was the ancestor of the Asaphites, one the guilds of musicians in the first Temple in Jerusalem.

Asaph served both David and Solomon, and performed at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (see II Chronicles 5: 12). His complaint against corruption among the rich and influential, recorded in Psalm 73, might have been directed against some of court officials. The words used to describe the wicked come from words used by officials of the cult or sacrificial system.

Several of the Psalms of Asaph are categorised as communal laments because they are concerned for the well-being of the whole community. Many of these psalms forecast destruction or devastation in the future, but are balanced with God’s mercy and saving power for the people.

Psalm 73 reflects on the tragedy of the wicked, and the blessedness of trust in God.

Divine providence and the internal battle within one’s soul are the two main themes of this psalm. It speaks of the journey of self-realisation about the evils of the world but also coming back and realising God’s plans.

Psalm 73 deals with how the righteous are to respond to corruption within the ranks of the wealth, power and influence. Initially, the good person is scandalised by the revelation that leaders are abusing their power and privilege. But as the psalmist reflects on the nature of God, he comes to understand that even the most powerful authority figures, if corrupt and unchanged, will receive their reward at God’s hands.

In this psalm, the psalmist questions why the wicked seem to prosper. He goes into the sanctuary where the sacrifices are offered and gains a fresh perspective. He observes God’s judgment of evil and accepts this.

This psalm is often categorised as one of the ‘Wisdom Psalms’. However, some commentators are reluctant to use this description because of its strongly personal tone and the references in the psalm to the Temple:
Verse 10: ‘the people turn and praise him’ or ‘his people return here’

Verse 17: ‘the sanctuary of God’

Verse 1 declares: ‘Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.’ Some commentators suggest that these words represent the conclusion to which the psalmist had been led through the trial of his faith.

The American Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that ‘in the canonical structuring of the Psalter, Psalm 73 stands at its centre in a crucial role. Even if the Psalm is not literally in the centre, I suggest that it is centre theologically as well as canonically.’

Psalm 73 was the favourite psalm of the Austrian Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965). He asked: ‘What is that draws me to this poem that is pieced together out of description, report and confession, and draws me ever more strongly the older I become?’

He answered himself: ‘I think it is this, that here a person reports how he attained to the true sense of his life experience and that this sense touches directly on the eternal.’

Psalm 73 was the favourite psalm of the Austrian Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965)

Psalm 73 (NRSVA):

A Psalm of Asaph.

1 Truly God is good to the upright,
to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
my steps had nearly slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

4 For they have no pain;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
5 They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not plagued like other people.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them like a garment.
7 Their eyes swell out with fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
8 They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
9 They set their mouths against heaven,
and their tongues range over the earth.

10 Therefore the people turn and praise them,
and find no fault in them.
11 And they say, ‘How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?’
12 Such are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches.
13 All in vain I have kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.
14 For all day long I have been plagued,
and am punished every morning.

15 If I had said, ‘I will talk on in this way’,
I would have been untrue to the circle of your children.
16 But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
17 until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end.
18 Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
on awaking you despise their phantoms.

21 When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast towards you.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterwards you will receive me with honour.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

27 Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
you put an end to those who are false to you.
28 But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
to tell of all your works.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Truth Tellers.’ It was introduced on Sunday morning by Steve Cox, Chair of Christians in the Media.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (7 May 2022) invites us to pray:

Let us give thanks for the media technologies which allow us to communicate with and listen to people from across the world church.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org