13 September 2023

Christian Scientists in
Oxford are almost
hidden in a quiet
corner of Saint Giles

The First Church of Christ Scientist, Oxford, has been at St Giles since 1934 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The First Church of Christ Scientist or the Christian Science Church in Oxford is one of the least known religious bodies in Oxford. The building is in an almost hidden location at 36A St Giles’ Scientist, Oxford, just north of the former Saint Benet’s Hall, opposite Saint Giles Church, but I noticed it recently when I was visiting churches and church-liked sites in the area, including the Quaker Meeting House, Blackfriars Hall and Pusey House.

The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Oxford, was built in 1986 and the Christian Science Reading Room was completed in July 2004. But there has been a Christian Science presence in Oxford for 120 years or more, and over the years Christian Science services were held in different venues in the city.

Mary Baker Eddy and 26 followers formed the Church of Christ (Scientist) in Boston in 1879, and the church was reorganised as the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1892.

Christian Science services were held at No 6 Canterbury Road from 1902 to 1907, in Taphouse’s Music Room from 1907 to 1921, and in a specially built hall behind No 24 St Michael’s Street from 1921 to 1934.

The congregation was known as the Oxford Christian Science Society until 1924, when it changed its name to the First Church of Christ Scientist, Oxford. This group moved to Nos 34-36 St Giles in 1934.

Previous residents of No 36 Saint Giles have included the Revd Richard Michell, the Revd Edward Tindal Turner, Fellow of Brasenose and University Registrar, and Henry Le Blanc Lightfoot, Bursar of Corpus Christi College. It was a hostel for Exeter College Hostel from 1929 until the First Church of Christ, Scientist, Oxford bought Nos 34, 35 and 36 St Giles from Exeter College in 1933 and began building a church in the grounds at the back of 35 and 36.

This church opened in 1934, and 20 years later, when it was free of debt, it was dedicated on 23 May 1954.

Nos 34 and 35 were let and then sold in later years, while the church used No 36 for a caretaker’s flat at the top, church offices, Sunday School, and a Reading Room open to the public.

The old church was demolished and a new one was built in 1986. A Sunday School and paved gardens were added, and it was dedicated in May 1991. A fire started maliciously in 1996 destroyed the main part of the church, but it was restored and reopened eight months later on 6 October 1996.

By selling 36 St Giles in 2003, the church could afford to build a modern ground-floor Reading Room behind, complementing the church and enhancing the self-contained site, now known as 36a St Giles, with a new gate, glazed canopy, and improved landscaping.

The Reading Room moved in 2004 to separate, pavilion-style accommodation in the grounds. The courtyard garden was remodelled, with a pool and fountain added, together with a glazed canopy entrance. The new gate includes a showcase where passages from the Bible and recent religious articles from the Christian Science Monitor can be read by passers-by.

Awards from the Oxford Preservation Trust have recognised the features of the buildings and the site.

Sunday Services at 10:30 are described as ‘simple and free of ritual.’ The major part of the service includes a ‘Lesson-Sermon’ with readings from both the King James Bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

The Wednesday meeting at 7:30 includes hymns and readings from the Bible and Science and Health.

The Reading Room is open on Fridays from 11 am to 1 pm.

The First Church of Christ Scientist in Oxford opened in 1934 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (108) 13 September 2023

The Church of the Saviour, on Edward Street, Birmingham, was founded in 1845 for the Revd George Dawson (1821-1876)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIV, 10 September 2023). The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today celebrates Saint John Chrysostom (407), Bishop of Constantinople, Teacher of the Faith.

Later today, I am involved in a meeting of clergy in the Milton Keynes area, and then speaking on behalf of USPG at a meeting of the Daventry Deanery Synod in the Diocese of Peterborough. But, before the day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

This week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a Unitarian church I know;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The former Church of the Saviour on Edward Street, Birmingham, was finally demolished in 1960 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Church of the Saviour, Edward Street, Birmingham:

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the Sundays at this time are also counted as the Sundays after Trinity. In contrast to this way of counting the Sundays and the weeks at this time in the Church Year, my photographs in my Prayer Diary this week include a selection of Unitarian churches.

James Pearse (1839-1900), father of two of the 1916 leaders in Dublin, Patrick Pearse and William Pearse, was born in Bloomsbury in 1900 but was brought up as a Unitarian in Birmingham, although he was expelled from Sunday school, supposedly for asking awkward questions. Perhaps this was the same Sunday school run by Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914). James Pearse would later return to England and he died in Birmingham on 5 September 1900.

So, during one of my recent visits to Birmingham, I went in search of the site of Brimingham’s best-known historic Unitarian church. The Church of the Saviour in Edward Street, a liberal Unitarian church founded in 1845 for the liberal nonconformist preacher, the Revd George Dawson (1821-1876).

The presence of Unitarians in Birmingham dates back to the mid 17th century. The scientist Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was the Minister at Birmingham Lower Meeting House, where New Street Station is today, in 1780-1791.

The Unitarian Church of the Saviour in Edward Street, Birmingham, started in 1847. It had a paid choir and its own hymnbook – largely written by George Dawson.

Dawson was originally a Baptist pastor in the rapidly expanding industrial town of Birmingham, to which he moved in 1844 to become minister of the Mount Zion Baptist Chapel. The eloquence and beliefs that the young man expressed soon attracted a large following.

However, Dawson’s views did not fit the orthodoxy of the Baptist church, so in 1845 he left, followed by much of his congregation, to become minister of the theologically liberal Church of the Saviour, a ‘Free Christian’ church built for him by his supporters, where ‘no pledge was required, of minister or congregation; no form of belief was implied by membership; no difference in creed was allowed to bar union in practical Christian work.’

The new church was formally opened on 8 August 1847. Its interior was modelled on a lecture theatre in the University of London, with benches instead of pews, and a platform instead of a pulpit.

The key doctrine preached there was inscribed on a marble tablet above the entrance: ‘There is but one law – thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself.’ Charles Kingsley described him as ‘the greatest talker in England.’

The Church of the Saviour became the centre of the programme of social and municipal improvement known as the Civic Gospel, and was instrumental in launching Joseph Chamberlain’s political career.

Dawson developed the concept of the Civic Gospel and called on his congregation to join him in the struggle ‘to improve conditions in the town and the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens.’ His sermons were unconventional for the time. It was said he ‘preached not as a dying man to dying men – that was the old idea of preaching – but as a living man to living men who found life no simple or easy matter.’

His sermons galvanised the Birmingham public, and influential members of his Church who took on his ideals went on to play important roles in civic life. They included Joseph Chamberlain, who took Sunday School and oversaw the accounts, Jesse Collings, George Dixon, JT Bunce, editor of the Birmingham Daily Post, JA Langford, Robert Martineau, Samuel Timmins, William Harris, and the Kenrick family

Between 1847 and 1867, 17 members of the congregation were elected to the Town Council, and six of them were elected mayor. From his pulpit and in public lectures and articles, Dawson advised Christians, particularly those experienced in business, to become councillors and help transform the city, a call that Joseph Chamberlain answered in his work first as councillor, and then as a visionary social reforming mayor.

The organ built by Gray and Davison was installed in 1847. It was first built for the Berkshire Musical Festival in Reading Town Hall. It was replaced in 1861 by an organ by John Banfield of Soho Hill, Birmingham.

Dawson died in 1876, and Unitarians largely succeeded him as ministers of the Church of the Saviour. One of his assistants, George St Clair, became sole minister. However, the church was sold to a Methodist congregation in 1896. The proceeds from the sale were donated to another Unitarian church in Waverley Road and its church hall, named after Dawson. It was one of the first churches in England to appoint a woman minister, the Revd Gertrude von Petzold (1876-1952), a German Unitarian minister who trained at Manchester College (now Harris Manchester College), Oxford.

The former church on Edward Street was finally demolished in 1960, and there is no sign on the street today to mark where it once stood.

There is no sign on Edward Street, Birmingham, to mark where the Church of the Saviour once stood (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Luke 6: 20-26 (NRSVA):

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

The Chamberlain Memorial Fountain in Birmingham was erected in 1880 in honour of Joseph Chamberlain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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 ‘Holy Cross Day Reflection.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (13 September 2023) invites us to reflect on these words:

Ahead of Holy Cross Day, we give thanks for the Holy Cross Theological College in Myanmar and the work they do to train clergy in the Province of Myanmar.

The Collect:

God of truth and love,
who gave to your servant John Chrysostom
eloquence to declare your righteousness in the great congregation
and courage to bear reproach for the honour of your name:
mercifully grant to those who minister your word
such excellence in preaching,
that all people may share with them
in the glory that shall be revealed;
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 of truth,
whose Wisdom set her table
and invited us to eat the bread and drink the wine
of the kingdom:
help us to lay aside all foolishness
and to live and walk in the way of insight,
that we may come with John Chrysostom to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The church calendar remembers Saint John Chrysostom today … an icon of Saint John Chrysostom in the museum in Arkadi Monastery in Crete (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