30 August 2023

The Strict Baptist Chapel
in Jericho, Oxford,
has no welcome sign,
but is it closed?

The ‘Strict Baptist Chapel’ in Albert Street, Jericho, Oxford, was built in 1881 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Jericho has become a gentrified part of Oxford in recent years and is one of the trendiest areas, with its fashionable wine bars, cafés, restaurants, shops and night clubs.

I was in Jericho last week, visiting Saint Barnabas Church and the former Saint Paul’s Church, and found myself wandering through the narrow streets and terraced houses between the Oxford University Press and the Canal.

Squeezed between the houses that face onto the front of Albert Street is the small building that was once Albert Street Chapel or Oxford Baptist Chapel, also known as the Strict Baptist Chapel. Until it closed, this was the only non-conformist chapel in Jericho that had remained in use.

A carved stone above the porch or entrance reads: ‘Strict Baptist Chapel 1881.’ There is a sign board on either side of the porch. One has recently been filled with a poster that reads: ‘Jesus said, Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’

On the other hand, the signboard to the right of the porch has been left blank. I mused how it offered no indication to the wary and heavy-laden on how they might take up that invitation to come in and be given rest.

But I ought not to jest. I have long given up on trying to inject any sense of fun into fundamentalism.

If the chapel is closed, why was there a fresh poster in one noticeboard? If the chapel is open, why are there no words of welcome or indication of when or where to find services?

Oxford has at least seven Baptist churches or chapels, including New Road Baptist Church, Bonn Square; Headington Baptist Church; Botley Baptist Church; John Bunyan Baptist Church, Crowell Road; Oxford Baptist Chapel, Albert Street, Jericho; Woodstock Road Baptist Church; People’s Baptist Church or International Baptist Church, Crowell Road; and Oxford Baptist Chapel.

The New Road Baptist chapel dates back to a Presbyterian chapel in 1721, which was almost entirely rebuilt in 1798. A Baptist chapel was founded in George Street in 1821 with JH Hinton as minister, but it closed in 1836. A small chapel built in Middle Way, Summertown, in 1824 may have closed by 1829 when one of its founders, William Carter, registered another meeting house at his ironworks in Walton Street. There may have been a Baptist meeting in a private house in Summertown in 1831.

The first major new Baptist chapel in Oxford, the Adullam chapel on Commercial Road, Saint Ebbe’s, was built in 1832 for and largely at the expense of HB Bulteel, a former curate of Saint Ebbe’s Church. It was designed by William Fisher and for many years it was the largest nonconformist chapel in Oxford, seating 800 people.

Bulteel’s preaching attracted large numbers, but the precise religious affiliations of the chapel are uncertain, since his own views fluctuated. Bulteel left Oxford in 1846 and his successors were unable to hold together the congregation. The chapel was described as Particular Baptist in 1851, and its congregation was said to be 500-600. However, it was ‘dissolved’ in 1858, and it was taken over by the Methodist Reformers in 1862.

Then, in 1868, the remnants of the ‘Bulteelers,’ under Alexander Macfarlane of Spurgeon’s College, bought back the chapel. and the renovated chapel was opened by Charles Spurgeon in 1869. The group was at first known as the Tabernacle Baptist Society, but the chapel was later described as Particular Baptist. When it closed in 1937, the remaining members joined with a Baptist congregation from South Hinksey to open a chapel in New Hinksey.

Other Baptist chapels and meetings in Oxford were found in Caroline Street (1869-1887), Pusey Lane (1883-1891), and Bridge Street, Osney (1883-1921). The New Road chapel also sponsored the formation of the North Oxford church and the John Bunyan church was built in 1941 and rebuilt in 1964.

Meanwhile, the earliest records of Baptists in the Jericho area are in 1843, when William Higgins registered a meeting of Particular Baptists in his house in Clarendon Place, Jericho. Higgins may have been their pastor, and by 1851 the congregation averaged 60.

The address of ‘Higgins’s Room’ was given as King Street, Jericho, in 1869. Whether Higgins moved or whether Clarendon Place was an earlier name for King Street is not clear but there is no Clarendon Place on the 1850 map.

The King Street Baptists were derisively called ‘Hypers’ in the 1870s, and they may have been connected with the earlier group of Bulteelers known by that name. In 1881, they built a chapel in Albert Street, Jericho, described as the ‘Strict Baptist Chapel’. The term ‘strict’ refers to the strict or closed position held with regard to membership and communion, and their strict understanding of Calvinist theology. These Baptists are referred to as Strict and Particular Baptists.

By the time the chapel was built, most of Albert Street had been developed piecemeal in the 1860s and the 1870s. The chapel itself incorporates an interesting if not curious hints of the influence of Gothic architecture, and is embedded in rows of Victorian terraced houses facing onto the narrow streets of Jericho.

However, within a decade of the chapel opening, numbers had declined to a core membership of about a dozen. Throughout most of the 20th century it was even smaller than that.

As Jericho changed and developed in the 1970s and was transformed, the remaining members of the congregation moved to live outside Jericho, only coming in on Sundays and at times of special observance. They seem to have shared little identification with the local residents although, at times, the congregation contributed financially to local causes

Without a pastor, the chapel relied on visiting ministers from all over the country until 1992 when David Cooke was appointed pastor. Shortly afterwards, the church formally adopted the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, written by English Baptists who subscribed to strict Calvinistic views.

The 1990s saw a period of growth in the chapel, largely due to a small group of students, some of whom remained in Oxford after graduation. Around 150 students passed through Albert Street Chapel during this period, including a large number of Americans, many on short-term exchange courses. Church membership eventually peaked at 18.

From 2003 on, there was a steady outflow of young couples moving to other parts. The church never recovered from that loss, and the small Sunday school closed in 2005. The pastor’s impending resignation brought matters to a conclusion.

The congregation of Albert Street Chapel met for the last time on 28 December 2008. The pastor, David Cooke, had announced his resignation following his appointment to Banbury Evangelical Free Church.

The church decided to disband at the end of 2008. After the closing service, the chapel building remained in the hands of trustees. But, since then, it seems, the building passed into the hands of the Oxford Baptist Chapel, which dates from March 2010.

Oxford Baptist Chapel is an independent Baptist church in Oxford, the pastor is Derrick Morlan, and it has a fundamentalist approach to preaching, teaching and doctrine. It is the one of the six Baptist chapels involved in the Crown Christian Heritage Trust, formed in 2011. There are similar congregations in Blackheath, Brighton, Liverpool, Tyseley (East Birmingham), and Welshpool.

It seems Oxford Baptist Chapel no longer meets in the former Strict Baptist Chapel on Albert Road, Jericho. All services are currently held at ‘The Field’ on Southern By-Pass Road. They include Sunday services at 11 am and 6 pm, and Wednesday Prayer Meetings at 7 pm.

Jericho has been gentrified in recent years and is one of the trendiest areas in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (94) 30 August 2023

The Church of Saint John the Baptist at the entrance to Spon Street, an enclave of mediaeval architecture in Coventry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XII, 27 August 2023). Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the life and witness of John Bunyan, Spiritual Writer (1688).

Before the day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth and Lichfield. This week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Coventry;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist was founded in 1344 by Edward II’s widow, Queen Isabella (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint John the Baptist Church, Coventry:

The Collegiate and Parish Church of Saint John the Baptist, which I visited earlier this summer, is in the Spon Street area in the centre of Coventry. The church is at the entrance to Spon Street, an enclave of mediaeval architecture in Coventry’s mostly post-war city centre.

Because Saint John’s is on the fringe of city’s heart, it seems to get less attention than it deserves. Yet, Sir George Gilbert Scott, who restored the church in 1875-1877, considered it ‘one of the most beautiful churches in England.’

The church is a Grade I listed building and stands on a relatively small site. But what it lacks in length and width it gains in height. Its tapering and unusually narrow clerestory windows and central tower give the impression of a cathedral in miniature. The tower has oddly corbelled-out turrets at its corners, an over-exaggeration of the original design by Scott.

The church consists of a nave, aisles, central tower, chancel, and north and south chapels. There is a clerestory to nave and chancel. Scott added flying buttresses and battlemented parapets, a new pulpit and a reredos.

Inside, the church is a delight, filled with stained glass, carvings, altarpieces, green men and grotesques, and it has been described as the ‘jewel in Coventry’s mediaeval crown.’

The church was founded in 1344 following the death of Edward II by his widow, Queen Isabella. She had been exiled from public life by her son, Edward III, and when she settled at Cheylesmore Manor in Coventry she began to involve herself in local affairs. She granted the Guild of Saint John a piece of land called Babbelak (Bablake) for building a chapel in honour of God and Saint John the Baptist.

The chapel was used for the guild’s own services, and included a chantry of two priests to sing daily Mass for the royal family. The east part of the church was ready for consecration on 2 May 1350 and it was dedicated on 6 May 1350.

Edward, the Black Prince, Isabella’s grandson, continued the royal patronage of Saint John’s, and the church was enlarged as Coventry flourished in the late mediaeval period. In 1393 the college of priests was increased to nine members, and in the early 16th century this was raised to 12.

With various enlargements and endowments, the chapel became a collegiate church. It remained a guild chapel until the religious guilds were dissolved during the Tudor Reformation. The college was dissolved in 1548 and the priests were pensioned with sums varying from £5 6s. 8d. to £2 13s. 4d. Five of these pensioners were still living in 1555.

The church ceased to be used for worship around 1590, but was restored in 1608. However, during the English Civil War, the church was desecrated in 1648 and used as a prison for royalist Scots soldiers captured at the Battle of Preston. The people of Coventry were Parliamentarians and treated the soldiers coldly, giving rise to the saying ‘sent to Coventry’.

Later, the church was used as stables, then as a dyer’s stretch yard and a market place.

The church was finally restored as a place of worship in 1734 and was created a parish church on 24 July 1734.

The second, Victorian restoration by Scott was instigated by the Irish-born Revd George Cuffe, Rector of Saint John’s in 1874-1896, who worked closely with Scott during the restoration.

The foundation of a wall running north and south through the middle of the chancel was discovered in 1875. Scott thought this was the east wall of the first guild chapel, and that the bases of two piers near the east tower belonged to that earlier chapel.

Almost all the furnishings are Victorian or early 20th century, although most are in the mediaeval style, heavily influence by the Anglo-Catholic Movement. They include a carved rood screen in late mediaeval style.

The reredos above the High Altar was given after the restoration in 1875-1877 by the children of the Revd Thomas Sheepshanks (1796-1875), who had been the rector for 50 years. His children included John Sheepshanks (1834-1912), Bishop of Norwich in 1893-1910.

This late Victorian reredos is an alabaster bas relief with an unusual central figure of Christ in Gethsemane flanked by panels of apostles and angels. It was originally plain and copied from a fresco in Florence under the direction of Scott’s son, John Oldred Scott.

The introduction of rich colourings and gilding in 1908 came with a bequest from Miss EM Powles. Each figure is individually crafted, with many of the apostles identified by their traditional motifs on their garments.

In 2011 the then rector, Father Paul Such, challenged the origin of the work, claiming that the reredos was based on the Ascension fresco by Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua.

The north chapel or Lady Chapel has a triptych with panels copied from works by Raphael, including the Madonna and Christ Child with Saint John the Baptist, known as the ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch,’ now in the Uffizi in Florence.

The south chapel has a fine and very characteristic reredos by Sir Ninian Comper with a central Crucifixion group. He also gave the chapel a reliquary for a relic of Saint Valentine, which gained the admiration of Sir John Betjeman. The reliquary with the saint’s finger has been displayed on the altar during Mass on Saint Valentine’s Day, 14 February.

The carved oak lectern designed by Sir Gilbert Scott was given in 1887 in memory of the Revd Algernon Courie Child, a former curate, who died in 1886 at the age of 23. The brass inscription is by a prominent Coventry based brass metalworker, Francis Alfred Skidmore, who worked closely with Scott on many projects.

A profusion of 14th-century carved figures decorates the nave and aisle pillars and the arcade arches. Some are grotesque, grinning beasts, others are human figures.

A piece of alabaster carving set on a north aisle pillar shows the Three Wise Men. It was carved at Nottingham in the first half of the 15th century, and originally formed part of a screen, or reredos.

A brass plate under the west window recalls the depth to which the church was flooded on 31 December 1900. Rapidly thawing snow and heavy rain caused the River Sherbourne and the Swanswell Pool to overflow their banks. Hales Street took the brunt of the floods.

The rector, the Revd Augustus Gossage Robinson, started work immediately as the floods subsided, but the fittings and furnishings and the organ were damaged beyond repair. The church was closed for seven weeks and services were held in double shifts at the new Mission Church of Saint Saviour’s.

It is an irony that PCC pressed for the church to be raised 4 ft during the 1870s restoration, but Scott advised them to save their money as the chances of a flood, in his view, were minimal.

Saint John’s has an interesting mixture of stained glass, from Victorian and Edwardian pieces that survived the Blitz, to more prominent and colourful windows installed in the 1950s.

The post-war glass predates the windows in nearby Coventry Cathedral by only a few years, but is highly figurative and traditional in approach, and a far cry from the revolutionary new works for which Coventry Cathedral became famous within a decade.

The east window, with its vibrant hues, is the one of the last works of Margaret Aldrich Rope, the younger member of a celebrated pair of artists who were cousins, both named Margaret Rope. It depicts the Annunciation above, flanked by Saint John and Saint Luke, balanced by the Expulsion of Adam and Eve below, flanked by Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist.

The War Memorial window with Saint George, Saint Patrick, Saint David and Saint Andrew (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The War Memorial window on the south wall is by Burlison and Grylls (1922) and lists 98 men of the parish who died in World War I. The window depicts the four nation patron saints, Saint George of England, Saint Patrick of Ireland, Saint David of Wales and Saint Andrew of Scotland.

At the top of the window is a depiction of the Crucifixion; the four figures beneath represent Faith, Hope, Justice and Fortitude. The positioning of the saints is explained by the fact that Lord Montgomery of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was Irish-born.

The window survived the Coventry Blitz, but was damaged in a fire in 1945; it was restored after World War II.

A window by Burlison and Grylls (1910) in the north aisle commemorates Queen Isabella, the Black Prince, and of the founders of the church, with her coats of arms flanked by banners representing the Guild of the Assumption and the Guild of Saint Catherine.

A paired window by Burlison and Grylls (1910) commemorates Edward the Black Prince, with his coat of arms flanked by banners representing the Guild of Saint John and the Guild of the Holy Trinity.

The Cuffe Window by Charles Eamer Kempe depicts Saint John the Baptist pointing to the arrival of Christ at the River Jordan. It was given in 1897 as a parish memorial to the Revd George Cuffe (1843-1896), who was Rector for 22 years from 1874 to 1895. It survived the Blitz, but had to be repaired in 1988 having been vandalised.

The Robinson Window by George Cooper Abbs of Exeter in the North Chapel was installed in 1959 in memory of the Revd Augustus Gossage Robinson, Rector in 1896-1918, who died in 1956 aged 92.

The window depicts the five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary: the Annunciation and the Visitation (left), the Nativity (centre), and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and Finding Christ in the Temple (right).

The Madelaine Rollinson Window is dated 1961 and is by the Harry Clarke Studios of Dublin, over 20 years after the death of Harry Clarke.

The window depicts Christ the High Priest superimposed on the Tree of Life whose branches are the Seven Sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Holy Unction and Holy Communion. The Hand of God is seen above pointing to the Risen Christ, while an image based on a photograph of Madelaine Rollinson is placed discreetly in the bottom left-hand corner.

The east window in the south chapel depicting Saint John the Baptist, by Arthur E Buss of Goddard & Gibbs (1951), is in memory of Barbara Ann Weaver, a parishioner.

Saint John the Baptist Church escaped major damage in the November 1940 Blitz that destroyed much of Coventry, beyond the loss of much – but not all – of its Victorian stained glass.

Saint John’s is in the Anglo-Catholic tradition and has passed a resolution to receive alternative episcopal oversight, which it receives from Bishop Paul Thomas of Oswestry. The Rector of Saint John’s, Father Dexter Bracey, who is also the Bishop’s representative of The Society in the Diocese of Coventry.

Saint John the Baptist Church is open from 10 am to 12 noon every Saturday, and on occasion during exhibitions. The Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays at 11 am and 6 pm.

Saint John’s was restored and became a parish church in 1734 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 23: 27-32 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 27 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30 and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31 Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.’

The carved rood screen is in the late mediaeval style (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 the ‘República de Jovens Home in Brazil.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (30 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray for children around the world who are orphaned. May they be surrounded by family love however that may look. We pray too for all who step up to parent orphans.

The reredos above the High Altar has a central figure of Christ in Gethsemane flanked by apostles and angels (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Collect:

God of peace,
who called your servant John Bunyan
to be valiant for truth:
grant that as strangers and pilgrims
we may at the last rejoice with all Christian people
in your heavenly city;
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 Bunyan to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The south chapel has a characteristic reredos by Sir Ninian Comper (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Cuffe Window by Charles Eamer Kempe depicts Saint John the Baptist at the River Jordan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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 Madelaine Rollinson Window by the Harry Clarke Studios depicts Christ the High Priest and the Seven Sacraments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)