Home Page Church shows how not to get the community on your side 03/10/14

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Hart of the Matter

It feels strange to be writing this week in the knowledge that Cllr Gordon Cox will not be reading (and probably taking issue with) what I write – unless there is a direct line to Haverhill from Another Place which, if there isn’t, will probably be the subject of Gordon’s first campaign when he starts stirring things up there.


Gordon was, to his own great satisfaction, a considerable irritant to almost everyone involved in any way in local politics (including me) at one time or another, but that is exactly what local politics needs, like the grit in the proverbial oyster. And in amongst it all he actually got quite a lot done.


It is typical that he should grab the headlines at the end of a week when so much else has been going on within the local scene – the Tesco hokey-cokey of putting in planning applications and taking them out again, the rumbling discontent of many over the recladding of Havebury houses, ONE Haverhill announcing an annual PUBLIC forum this month and the surprise move by the United Reformed Church to do something about the Old Independent Church building.


This last has particularly caught my attention because it shows many revealing insights into local planning, local heritage and the general failings of many of our high-profile churches.


The United Reformed Church is part of the ‘chapel’ movement called the Free Churches, and those on the outside, as most are nowadays, might well wonder why so many of them were necessary. There have been at least four in Haverhill alone for more than a hundred years.


Sometimes, driving through an almost entirely unpopulated part of central Wales, I have come upon a little chapel on its own in the middle of nowhere, called Beulah, or some such biblical name, and proclaiming its allegiance to a strict and particular sect of, say, the Baptists or Methodists, and wondered what particular disagreement about theology or worship practice led people to break away from the regular chapel in the nearest village and go out into the wilderness and build their own.


From 1836 until 1972 Haverhill actually had two Congregational Churches, due to a split within that movement. The church hall behind what is now the Old Independent is where the original Congregational Church stood.


That church served those who, after the Act of Uniformity in 1662, split from the Church of England over a refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer, but part of the congregation split away again in 1836 and formed what is now the West End Congregational Church.


Both were liberally endowed with grand churches in the later 19th century, the West End being in Withersfield Road, what was then the western end of the town, and the other being created in front of the former building in Hamlet Road. It was called locally the Old Independent, because the congregation claimed they were the longer-established church.


In 1972, the Old Independent decided to be part of the national merging with the Presbyterians which created the United Reformed Church, but the West End stayed independent – confusing, isn’t it?


The result is that Haverhill has two grand Victorian churches, both with particularly fine organs. The Old Independent is the bigger, and its organ is among the best in East Anglia. In many ways, it is probably the town’s finest cultural asset.


One reads with mounting fury, then, of the pompously dismissive assessment by the United Reformed Church of its building. The way they talk about it as ‘unwelcoming’, unrepresentative of the modern ‘Church family’, whatever that means, redolent only of the past, and like a Victorian railway station, is not the way to get the local community on side for any alterations.


Among it is this extraordinary and revealing statement: "Whilst the architecture of the Church building is considered worthy of ‘listing’ it no longer reflects, if it ever did, the reaching out and spiritual nature of the Church today and the sense of a building reflecting the past is overwhelming. The resulting judgments are very damaging to the outreaching of the Church family.”


It appears we should think ourselves lucky they have decided to try to retain the building at all. They clearly would prefer something which looked more like a modern train station, or functional council offices, as most modern free churches do.


If the latest plans fall through, and they have to move, we clearly must not expect anything like the architectural triumph of the new St Felix Catholic church.


The efforts of church management people, of all denominations, to alienate as many potential new church members as they can, whether it be by cover-ups, or by arrogance, never ceases to amaze me. The URC need look no further than just up the High Street to see where this sort of arrogance can lead.


The assumption that nobody nowadays wants a historic building, or an old-fashioned hymn, or an ancient ritual is quite bizarre when we see that these are exactly the sort of things that are leading people more and more towards extreme spiritual outposts of belief.


In the end it will be, I am sorry to say, all about money, as it so often is in the churches. Of course the Old Independent is impractical in many ways, and much of what the URC wants to do will make a big improvement.


But the church is a part of the community, which also has a stake in the building, like it or not. Communities do not like their main assets to be lumped along with some real architectural horror like Queen’s Square as unworthy of retention, with the implication that we should all be grateful to be allowed to hang on to our little fantasies.


David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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