14 September 2022

A lonely church tower is
a reminder of ecumenical
diversity in Aylesbury

The surviving tower of the former Congregational Church in Aylesbury is surrounded by Hale Leys Shopping Centre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

During my visits to Aylesbury in recent weeks, I visited Saint Mary’s Church on each occasion. But, while Saint Mary’s Church is at heart of the county town of Buckinghamshire, there other interesting places of worship, and the sites of former places of worship in Aylesbury – some I have managed to visit, but others are now on my ‘to-do’ list.

Aylesbury identified strongly with Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarian cause. So, it is natural to expect that there was once a strong Independent or Congregational presence in the town from the mid-17th century on. Yet, the church tower is all that remains of the former Congregational Church that stood on High Street in Aylesbury.

The Independents or Congregationalists were the heirs of the Puritans who had been ejected from the Church of England in 1662. The Independent or Congregational church on Aylesbury’s High Street was founded on the site in 1707.

A new Congregational Church on High Street was designed in 1874 by the London architect Rowland Plumbe (1838-1919). Plumbe’s churches include the red-brick Perpendicular Gothic Revival Saint John the Baptist Church at Loxwood, West Sussex and the red-brick Grade II listed Saint Margaret’s Church at Streatham Hill.

Plumbe’s church in Aylesbury originally had a simple asymmetrical fa├žade, and stood on the site from 1874 to 1980. For its last eight years it was part of the United Reformed Church, following the merger of the Congregationalist Church and the Presbyterian Church of England in 1972.

With new commercial and shopping developments in the heart of Aylesbury in the late 1970s, the church relocated to Rickford’s Hill, and the church building was demolished in 1980.

All that is left of the church today is its tower. Now used as offices, it stands out from the surrounding Hale Leys Shopping Centre on a busy street, with modern office blocks nestling up to the tower.

A plaque on the tower is a reminder of the Congregational presence in the centre of Aylesbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

On these visits to Aylesbury, I did not get to see the Methodist Church in Buckingham Street, designed by James Weir and built in 1893. The church displays Italianate features as well as some Byzantine and Romanesque features. But it was described by the architectural historian Sir Niklaus Pevsner as having a ‘terrible Italianate style.’

Nor did I get to see the 20th century Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on the High Street.

However I did get to see the Quaker Meeting House on Rickford’s Hill, built in 1726-1727, offering an insight into the interesting story of Quakers in Aylesbury.

The Quaker Meeting House on Rickford’s Hill was built in 1726-1727 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Quaker Meeting House, now with a Grade II listing is a well-preserved, early 18th century meeting house in a discreet location with a modest appearance that is typical of the vernacular architectural style associated with the Society of Friends at the time.

Many meeting houses were built throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, and earlier meeting houses were remodelled. Quaker meeting houses are generally characterised by simplicity of design.

Two tenements on what is now Rickford’s Hill, then known as Green End, were transferred to the Aylesbury Friends in 1704 on a 1,000-year lease and a ‘newly-erected’ meeting house was registered. This building was superseded in 1726, when further land behind the tenements was acquired. The present meeting house opened in 1727. It was reached through a passageway at the west side of the frontage properties. The remainder of the site was used as a burial ground and the frontage properties were let.

A porch was added in 1804 ‘after the manner of Friends Meeting House at Chesham’ and double shutters erected in the meeting room, presumably to form a women’s meeting room. The meeting was discontinued in 1836 and from 1845 the building was let as a school. It later became as a Baptist chapel and was then used by the YMCA.

The Quaker meeting in Buckingham was revived in the 20th century, and the meeting house was restored by Walter Rose of Haddenham, a Quaker, in 1933. This included demolishing the early 19th century porch, removing the plaster ceiling in the meeting room, and installing new benches. The meeting house was refurbished again in 2010, when the architect was Malcolm Barnett.

There is a small burial ground to the south-west of the meeting house. The first burial took place in 1727, and it closed in 1855. Six burials are recorded, but none is marked by a headstone.

The attached building is now used by the New Tabernacle Church of God.

Other lost churches in Aylesbury that have been demolished over the years include Saint John’s Church in Cambridge Street, the former Wesleyan Chapel in Friarage Passage and, of course, the former Greyfriars or Franciscan Friary that founded by the Ormond Butlers and that was suppressed at the Dissolution of the monastic houses during the Tudor Reformation.

Parts of the Friary, including some of its crypts or tunnels, are said to survive in the King’s Head off Market Square, which claims to be the oldest pub in Aylesbury.

But more about the King’s Head and some of Aylesbury’s oldest pubs on another day.

The New Tabernacle Church of God beside the Quaker Meeting House in Aylesbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with USPG and the music of
Vaughan Williams: Wednesday 14 September 2022

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral seen from the gates of the Garden of Remembrance in Lichfield … the lettering on the gates says: ‘Pax 1919’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Holy Cross Day in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship (14 September).

I left Sheffield, yesterday following ‘gamma knife’ or stereotactic radiosurgery in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital on Monday as a follow-up to my stroke (AVM) six months ago (18 March 2022).

Two of us are spending a few days in York as I take some rest and time to recover, and perhaps we may visit York Minster and Durham Cathedral during these few days. But, before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season. In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The Calvary Ccrucifix at Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Startford, was renovated in 1996 in memory of Canon Eric Steer … today is Holy Cross Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The cross on which Christ was crucified has become the universal symbol of Christianity, replacing the fish symbol of the early Church, though the latter has been revived in recent times. After the end of the era of persecution, early in the fourth century, pilgrims began to travel to Jerusalem to visit and pray at the places associated with the life of Christ. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was a Christian and, while she was overseeing excavations in the city, it is said she uncovered a cross that many believed to be the Cross of Christ. A basilica was built on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and dedicated on this day in the year 335.

John 3: 13-17 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said to Nicodemus:] 13 ‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

‘Dona nobis pacem’ with the Eastman-Rochester Chorus, the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra and Michaela Anthony, soprano

Today’s reflection: 3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

For my reflections and devotions each day these few weeks, I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

For these six days this week, I am listening to Dona nobis pacem, a cantata for soprano and baritone soli, chorus and orchestra.

The oratorio falls into the six continuous sections or movements, and I am listening to these movements one-by-one in sequence each morning.

I am posting a full recording of the cantata each day, so each movement can be listened to in context, but each morning I am listening to the movements in sequence.

The six sections or movements are:

1, Agnus Dei

2, Beat! beat! drums! (Whitman)

3, Reconciliation (Whitman)

4, Dirge for Two Veterans (Whitman)

5, The Angel of Death (John Bright)

6, Dona nobis pacem (the Books of Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai, Micah, and Leviticus, the Psalms, the Book of Isaiah, and Saint Luke’s Gospel)

This morning [14 September 2022], I am listening to the third movement, ‘Reconciliation.’

3, Reconciliation

The heart of Dona nobis pacem is found in the third movement, ‘Reconciliation.’ In this movement, Vaughan Williams uses this heart-wrenching poem by Walt Whitman in its entirety.

Although Whitman’s long lines are not easily set to music, the words have an almost intolerable beauty, marked by truth and compassion in the face of the shocking carnage suffered by humanity.

‘Reconciliation’ transcends the threatening atmosphere with a striking, bitter-sweet moment. Set like a lullaby, Whitman’s text offers a promise to the dead enemy – ‘a man divine as myself’ – that time will wash away the awful deeds of war, a promise sealed with a kiss.

The text is matched in perfect spirit by the beautiful setting by Vaughan Williams, sung by the commanding yet gentle voice of the baritone soloist. The baritone introduces the first half of the poem, which the choir echoes and varies.

The baritone then continues with the rest of the poem, followed by the choir presenting a new variation of the first half.

At the end, the soprano repeats a variation of Dona nobis pacem, which we heard in the first movement, hauntingly soaring above the final lines of the chorus.

3, Reconciliation

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly,
Wash again and ever again this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin – I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

The war memorial cross in Grantchester Churchyard … the name of the poet Rupert Brooke is inscribed alongside those of parishioners (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer (Wednesday 14 September 2022, Holy Cross Day):

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who in the passion of your blessed Son
made an instrument of painful death
to be for us the means of life and peace:
grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ
that we may gladly suffer for his sake;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Faithful God,
whose Son bore our sins in his body on the tree
and gave us this sacrament to show forth his death until he comes:
give us grace to glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
for he is our salvation, our life and our hope,
who reigns as Lord, now and for ever.

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Holy Cross Day,’ and was introduced on Sunday with a prayer written by Naw Kyi Win, a final year undergraduate student at Holy Cross Theological College in the Church of Province of Myanmar.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Let us give thanks for the love of God, which knows no limits, and the sacrifice made so that we could be saved.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Crucifixion depicted on the rood in the chapel of Pusey House, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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