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)

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