11 February 2023

The Georgian meeting house
is part of a 350-year Quaker
presence in Northampton

The Quaker Meeting House at the north end of Wellington Street in Northampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During my self-guided tour and walk around Northampton, I went in search of churches and chapel, cathedrals and castle ruins, and also found the site of a mediaeval synagogue, the present modern synagogue, and the Quaker Meeting House on Wellington Street.

The Quaker Meeting House and burial ground are at the north end of Wellington Street, a short distance south of the busy junction with Lady’s Lane, from which they are separated by a public green open space.

The meeting house appears to be the only historic building of interest in this area of Northampton, and most of the neighbouring buildings are commercial, apart from a small Pentecostalist church next door.

During their early days, Quakers in Northampton were severely persecuted. Many were arrested and held in the gaol. For example, in 1659 Margaret Palmer was held for 27 months ‘in close confined among Murderers, Thieves, Whores, and some called Witches, in a close nasty place, where her friends were not admitted to see her, otherwise than through the key-hole of the door.’

The House of Lords noted on 3 September 1660, ‘That there are great Multitudes of Anabaptists and Quakers, that assemble themselves together in great Numbers, to the endangering the Peace of the County of North’ton; and that they scatter abroad seditious Papers against Ministry.’ It ‘recommended to the Justices of the next Assize for that County, to give special Charge and Directions to the Justices of Peace, and all other Officers, to take Care to suppress and prevent such Meetings; and that the Sheriff of the County do take special Care to prevent such riotous Meetings, and preserve the Peace of that County.’

By the end of 1660, about 40 prisoners were being held in ‘the Low-Gaol, twelve Steps underground.’ They were ‘locked up every night among Felons, and in Winter the Gaoler kept the door fast sixteen hours together, and they lay so close one by another, that he who was up last could hardly let his Foot between them to go to the Place where he should lie.’

Other Quakers were not allowed to visit them, and food and necessaries were often kept from them.

However, Quakers became more accepted in 1662. They bought a barn, a garden and a small piece of ground in Crackbowl Lane, now Swan Street. Meetings were held there from 1668, while the garden was used as a burial ground. In 1705 a meeting house was built on a new site in Kingswell Street.

A new meeting house was built in Kingswell Street in 1705, and Quaker meetings continued there for the next 125 years. A new meeting house was built in 1829-1830 on land on Wellington Street, which was bought from a Quaker named William Collins, and the old building was later sold. The new site included a burial ground, replacing the Swan Street burial ground which was also sold.

When it opened in October 1830, the building was described as ‘an elegant plain edifice and so constructed as to be made perfectly comfortable by steam ... during the severity of the winter season ... About 600 persons can be conveniently accommodated.’

The meeting house built in 1830 is rectangular in plan with a hipped overall roof. The external walls are of brick; the north and west sides are laid in Flemish bond with grey headers and red stretchers, the south and east walls are of plain red brick. The roof is cov
ered is Welsh slate.

The main front to the north has a Doric columned brick porch off-set slightly to the right (west). The east half of the front has two tall, single small-paned timber sash windows lighting the main meeting room; the west half has six modern rectangular small-paned timber windows on two storeys. The wall rises to a moulded timber cornice, which is continued on the west elevation.

This front has an entrance with a modern timber Doric-columned surround. To the left (north) of the doorway are two modern rectangular timber windows on both ground and first floors.

The front porch now leads to an internal stair hall with a modern door into the main meeting room. This room rises the full height of the building and has a flat ceiling with no cornice and curved corners at the eastern end. The side walls have panelled dados with benches and there is a raised stand across the full width of the east wall with curving stairs and curving ends to the mahogany handrail. The other parts of the building appear entirely modern.

It seems likely that the building originally had only two full-height meeting rooms divided by timber screens. But, by the 1880s, the western meeting room had been subdivided.

The timber screens were replaced in 1962 by a solid wall. A floor was inserted over half of the west or women’s end in 1966, and the windows on the north and west sides of the building was altered to reflect the internal change. More internal alterations were made to this part of the building in 1988.

The burial ground to the north of the meeting house has been used for burials since 1831, the date of the earliest grave marker. The last burial was in 2014. The burial ground was elaborately landscaped in 2012 with the help of a legacy, retaining the headstones. The space is now enclosed by 20th century brick walls

The meeting house has Grade II Listing since 1968. Sadly, my view of the meeting house from the street last week was rather spoiled by car parking. The meeting house has been used continuously by Quakers since it opened in 1830 and more recently by other community groups.

Sunday meetings for worship take place at 10:30.

Beside the meeting house, Christ Image Assembly (CIA) is church that held its first service in 2014. The church is a branch of the Global Ministry of Christ Image Assembly, based in Lagos, Nigeria. The pastor, Dr Henry Akintunde, is the Lead Minister of CIA Northampton and is also a General Practitioner (GP).

Christ Image Assembly beside the Quaker Meeting House in Northampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 11 February 2023

The Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora overlooks the harbour of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Before today becomes a busy day, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

These weeks, between the end of Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, are known as Ordinary Time. We are in a time of preparation for Lent, which in turn is a preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday later this month (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

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

The shrine of Saint Theodora is to the right, behind the iconostasis in the cathedral in Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Agios Vlassis or Saint Blaise, an Armenian miracle worker and martyr, and Saint Theodora (815-867), the empress who brought to end the conflicts and divisions of the iconoclastic heresy, both have their feast days today (11 .February).

These two saints are celebrated together in Corfu in Greece, where the Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora.

Corfu’s most-visited church is the Church of Saint Spyridon, with the relics of Saint Spyridon and a landmark bell tower. But the cathedral has served the Diocese of Corfu, Paxos and the Diapontian Islands since 1841 and was built in 1577 on the site of a much earlier church.

The Cathedral of the Virgin Spiliotissas and Saint Vlassis and Saint Theodora stands on a small square at the top of marble steps looking out over the harbour of Corfu and across to the Ionian Sea. It is one of the many beautiful churches in the Old City, but is often difficult for visitors to find in the labyrinth of narrow streets and warren of side alleys.

Even then, the impressive marble stairway and the purple façade of the cathedral with a decorative sunburst surrounding the rose window are only appreciated by stepping out of the cathedral and down into Mitropolis Square to which it gives its name.

The Diocese of Corfu traces its history to two disciples of Saint Paul, Jason of Tarsus and Sosipatrus of Achaea (see Acts 17: 5-9 and Romans 16: 21). The Bishops of Corfu took part in ecumenical councils from 325 to 787, originally as suffragans of Nicopolis and later of Kephalonia.

The diocese was transferred from the oversight of Rome to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the eighth century, became an archbishopric in the 10th century, and became a metropolitan see later in the 11th century.

After Corfu fell to a Western alliance of the Genoese, Venetians and Angevins in 1204, a Roman Catholic archbishopric was established on the island. Under Roman Catholic rule, the Orthodox people of Corfu were served by a head priest (protopapas), who were often in episcopal orders.

However, the Orthodox Diocese of Corfu was not restored until 1800, following the fall of Venice in 1797 and the formation of the Septinsular Republic.

Until the Ionian Islands were united the modern Greek state in 1864, the Diocese of Corfu remained under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Since then, it has been integrated into the Church of Greece.

The cathedral was built as a church in 1577 on the site of an older church dedicated to Agios Vlassis or Saint Blaise, an Armenian miracle worker and martyr whose feast is celebrated today (11 February).

The new church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary Spiliotissas after the destruction of an older church with the same name. The name Spiliotissa is derived from spilia, meaning cave, a reference to an older church at a cave at the foot of the New Fortress.

The cathedral is a three-aisled church built in a Baroque style that is typical of many churches in the Ionian islands, and with many Renaissance details and features.

Like all Greek Orthodox cathedrals, Corfu Cathedral is filled with icons, treasures and large chandeliers. But here too is a carved wooden iconostasis or icon screen and important paintings from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, Byzantine icons like the Panagia Dimossiana, painted in the 15th century on both sides, icons by Mikhailis Damaskinos from Crete, Emmanouil Tzanes and Panayiotis Paramythiotis, and three remarkable but dark paintings of Old Testament scenes.

When I visited the cathedral, I was invited behind the icon screen to see and reverence the most celebrated relic in the church, the shroud-wrapped body of the Empress Saint Theodora (Θεοδώρα), kept in a lined silver sarcophagus in a shrine on the right-hand side of the iconostasis.

Saint Theodora (815-867) was empress and wife of the emperor of the Byzantine, Theophilos. She lived during the conflicts and divisions of the iconoclastic heresy, and she brought that conflict to an end in the Great Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople on 11 March 843, an event celebrated in the Orthodox Church as ‘the Triumph of Orthodoxy.’

Her husband Theophilos was an iconoclast, but Theodora held fast to the veneration of icons she kept in her private rooms in the imperial palace.

One story recalls how a servant witnessed her venerating her icons and reported her to the emperor. When her husband confronted her, she stated that she had merely been ‘playing with dolls.’ Two of her icons are kept at the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos to this day and are referred to as ‘Theodora’s Dolls.’

When her husband Theophilos died on 20 January 842 at the age of 29, Theodora became the regent for her son Michael. She called a council chaired by the Patriarch Methodius, at which the veneration of icons was finally restored and the iconoclastic clergy were deposed.

Theodora died sometime after the murder of her son Michael in 867. She was recognised as a saint because of her zeal for the restoration of icons. Her body and the body of the island’s patron saint, Saint Spyridon, were moved to Corfu after the Fall of Constantinople.

Saint Theodora’s feast day is 11 February – the same day as feast of Saint Vlassis, and they both share the dedication of the cathedral.

The relics of Saint Theodora the Empress are carried in procession through the streets of Corfu on the first Sunday of Great Lent, celebrated in the Orthodox Church as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On the same day, the church distributes pieces of watermelon in remembrance of a miracle attributed to Saint Vlassis, who cured the children of Corfu of a disease of the throat.

Inside Corfu Cathedral … built in 1577 and a cathedral since 1841 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 8: 1-10 (NRSVA):

1 In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, 2 ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way – and some of them have come from a great distance.’ 4 His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ 5 He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ 6 Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. 7 They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. 8 They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.

The gallery at the west end of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary for the past week has been ‘Christianity in Pakistan.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Nathan Olsen.

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

Let us give thanks for the witness of the Church in Pakistan and its passion to educate and train its clergy and laity. May we be inspired by their example and never take our freedom for granted.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Looking out to the harbour and the Ionian Sea from the steps in front of the cathedral in Corfu

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

The bust of Patriarch Athenagoras outside Corfu Cathedral … he was Metropolitan of Corfu in 1922-1930 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)