10 August 2023

The Methodist Church
in Stony Stratford has
a history of 250 years

Stony Stratford Methodist Church on Silver Street was built in 1845 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I pass by the Methodist Church on Silver Street, Stony Stratford, almost every day, and live less than three-minutes’ walk away. But I was only inside the church for the first time last week during a meeting in the church hall.

The Methodists or Wesleyans have had a presence in Stony Stratford since the mid-18th century. In the 1770s, a local group of Methodists began to meet for worship in a large barn behind the Talbot Inn, now 81 to 85 High Street.

John Wesley visited Stony Stratford on at least five occasions, and during his visits between 1777 and 1779, it is said, he preached both under the ‘Wesley Elm’ in the Market Square and in the barn off the High Street, behind the Talbot Inn.

The projecting porch and entrance at Stony Stratford Methodist Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Methodists continued to use this barn as their meeting place until 1845, when the present Methodist Church on Cow Lane, near Coffereys Close, formerly Cow Fryers Close and now Cofferidge Close.

Stony Stratford Methodist Church and Church Hall on Silver Street are a Grade II listed building on Silver Street, between Market Square and Horsefair Green, backing onto Cofferidge Close shopping centre.

The church was built in 1845, with a gable end facing south-west onto Silver Street. Two tall round-headed windows flanking central entrance. The projecting porch has an Doric entablature with renewed piers. The church is brick built with a stone plinth and a band at impost level that continues around the window heads. The windows have bracketted sills.

There is a two-storey return on the north-west with four windows on the first floor and three on the ground floor. The features include glazing bar sashes with stone heads and keys and stone sills.

The later brick-built hall was added at the south-east side ca 1900. It has two gables, and the toothed brickwork in the gables forms open pediments.

Inside Stony Stratford Methodist Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Cow Lane was the mediaeval ‘Back Lane’ along the western edge of the old town. It was renamed Silver Street as part of the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee in 1887. As for Coffereys Close, it became Cofferidge Close.

The ‘Wesley Elm’ in Market Square has long disappeared: this magnificent elm stood in the square for 400 years. It is thought the tree was planted to celebrate the naval victory over the Spanish Armada, and it grew to a girth of 7.5 meters.

John Wesley preached beneath the tree on 30 July 1777 and on several other occasions. He addressed the crowds, declaring the town was ‘Stony by nature and Stony by name.’

A mid-20th century plaque, now on display in Stony Stratford Methodist Church, reads: ‘Wesley’s Tree. John Wesley visited Stony Stratford five times and it is reputed that at least once he stood beneath this tree and preached. This plaque was unveiled by Mr JA Stead, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Saturday 3rd June 1950.’

The church hall at Stony Stratford Methodist Church was added around 1900 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The tree was subjected to attacks of vandalism and arson in the late 20th century and became a charred hollow. The tree then caught Dutch elm disease in 2007, and was removed. A new oak tree was planted on the same spot, and a plaque was unveiled by Ruby Beech, Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, on 18 May 2008.

Part of the old tree has been mounted and is displayed in the church.

Today, the Methodist minister in Stony Stratford is the Revd Dr Margaret Goodall. Sunday services at 10:30. The church is also used on Sunday afternoons by the Church of Mount Sinai, a French-speaking African church.

The ‘Wesley Elm’ in Market Square was replaced by an oak tree in 2008 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (74) 10 August 2023

The former Baptist Church beside the Old Stone Cross on Church Street, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (6 August 2023) and celebrations of the Feast of the Transfiguration. The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (10 August) recalls the life and work of Laurence, Deacon at Rome, Martyr (258).

We have been staying overnight in Dublin and we are catching a flight back Birmingham to later this evening. But, before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

As I recently spent a number of days looking at the windows in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, I am reflecting in these ways for the rest of the week:

1, Looking at some other churches in Tamworth;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Former Baptist Church, Tamworth:

It is said locally, with humour that Tamworth once had as many churches as it had pubs. The history of the Congregationalists, Unitarians and Baptists in Tamworth dates back to the presence of the Puritans in the early 17th century.

The former Baptist Church beside the Old Stone Cross on Church Street, on the corner of Lower Gungate, was built as a theatre around 1770. Long before the Victorian Assembly Rooms were built on Corporation Street, this building was Tamworth’s main theatre, with actors taking to the stage lit by reflected candles, playing to a pit as well as a gallery.

Outside, it looks like many other Georgian theatres of its time, particularly with its tall pitched roof, and it has been compared with similar theatres in Ashby, Loughborough and Wisbech. The exterior windows and the entrance date from the time when this was a Baptist chapel. But, after many changes during its life, little if anything remain of the original interior aside from the raised plaster ceiling over the stage with an elaborate plaster rose.

The celebrated actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) is said to have performed there in 1770s. The eldest of 12 children, Sarah Kemble was still in her early teens when she became infatuated with William Siddons (1744-1808), a handsome 22-year-old actor. When she was 18, Sarah and William were married in Trinity Church, Coventry, in 1773.

She returned to the stage as Mrs Siddons, and the theatrical producer David Garrick (1717-1779), who spent his childhood in Lichfield, brought her to Drury Lane in London in 1775, when she appeared as Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

She failed on the London stage, and in 1777 she went on the provincial circuit for six years. It was during this period that she came to Tamworth and Lichfield. Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) brought her back to Drury Lane in 1782, and her most famous role became that of Lady Macbeth.

Her other acclaimed roles included Desdemona, Rosalind, Ophelia and Volumnia, and she once told Samuel Johnson that Catherine was her favourite role was as Queen Catherine in Henry VIII.

She mixed with the literary and social elite of London society, and her acquaintances included Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Hester Thrale Piozzi, and William Windham. Her portrait was painted by Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds. and Queen Catherine in Henry VIII.

With the decline of the great families in the Tamworth area, the theatre went into decline too, and eventually it was turned into a four-storeyed malt house by the Peel family in the early 19th century. In 1869, Sir Robert Peel gave the building to the Baptists, and in 1870, the new Tabernacle was solemnly dedicated for public worship. The preacher on that occasion was the Revd JA Spurgeon, a brother of the famous Charles Spurgeon.

The church was enlarged in 1908 with the addition of an imposing porch, and an organ was installed at the same time.

The church was known at one time as Tamworth Baptist Tabernacle, and the ministers included the Revd Donald Fraser.

The building has changed hands and been altered much over the past two and a half centuries. It was bought by Tamworth Borough Council in 1972 and a new Baptist church opened in Belgrave in 1973.

However, the road widening plan was abandoned, and the chapel was converted back to a theatre with the opening of Tamworth Arts Centre in 1975. However, spending cuts forced the arts centre to close in 2001.

The building was sold, was renovated by Staffordshire County Council, and was then used as a registry office. The registry office later moved to the library, and the former theatre and former Baptist chapel is now Winterton’s Auctioneers.

The Old Stone Cross public house next door to the former Baptist Tabernacle was built in the early 18th century, but it may have been a public house for much longer for the cellars date from at least the early 16th century. The fa├žade was rebuilt in 1974 in brick with timber framing and concrete dressings.

‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16: 19) … Christ’s Charge to Saint Peter (centre) in a window in Saint Peter and Saint Paul Church, Newport Pagnell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 16: 13-20 (NRSVA):

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17 And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Saint Lawrence with the gridiron, the symbol of his martyrdom the Saint Lawrence and Saint Mary Magdalene Drinking Fountain near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘A reflection on the Exodus narrative (Exodus 1-13).’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Archbishop Linda Nicholls, who has been the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada since 2019.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (10 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Pray for the social justice of indigenous peoples. Pray they will be treated fairly and given the same rights and privileges as other citizens.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who made Laurence a loving servant of your people
and a wise steward of the treasures of your Church:
fire us with his example to love as he loved
and to walk in the way that leads to eternal life;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Laurence:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A portrait of David Garrick as Richard III in the Samuel Johnson Museum, Lichfield … he brought Mrs Siddons from the stage in Tamworth to Drury Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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