Sunday 14th September 2014
History of The Free Church, St Ives
The Free Church was opened in 1864 as a place of worship for the coming together of the Independents (or Congregationalists) and the Baptists in St Ives. It was built following the Gothic style with a spire as tall as the parish church with a clock tower from the town council in the centre of the market place to be a visible presence of non-conformists, having in the past met in private homes and meeting houses down back lanes. Having gained recognition as Christian community of faith since the 17th Century when dissenters were ejected from their parishes, this prominent position was to show the importance of dissent and to prevent anyone ignoring its demand for equality with the state church. Revd H Allon of Islington in his address at the laying of the foundation stone Oct 6 1863 said, ‘In the exercise of our Christian liberties and preferences, the worship of the house will be burdened by no priestly rites, fettered by no authoritative rubric expressed in no inflexible liturgy...It will be simple as the religious instinct that it expresses, free and varied as man’s moods and necessities...’ They wanted to reform the state church so that it returned to the practices of the early church, using a communion table rather than an altar, and giving explanation of the Bible through preaching and not being restrained by using the Book of Common Prayer.
In the 1850s half the people in St Ives which had a population of about 3,000. 1,200 went to various chapels, 600 went to the parish church and 400 attended the Independent chapel. The independent chapel had grown substantially in number and in wealth and was now a challenge to the Church of England as the national church. The minister at the opening of the new building was a Welshman, the Revd Thomas Lloyd. He was secretary to the London and Baptist Missionary Society. Mary Carter in her book, A Remarkable Journey describes how the church in Victorian times had led the way in providing education, health and assistance for the poor – now many of these responsibilities have been taken over by the state. It provided a forum for debating the great issues of the day like slavery and evolution. Thomas Lloyd was as interested as his predecessors in the welfare of the poor and persuaded wealthy friends to buy medical aid so that he could give help to the sick and poor. He encouraged debate on the issues of the day; they began to realize that Genesis did not match with their observations of rocks and the evolution of different species. They questioned whether a loving God would damn sinners to eternal punishment.
In many ways I see our church today continuing the work of our forebears – We are grateful that they had a vision to be a visible presence in the community and are pleased that our church is in the centre of the town. Our Churches Together project to set up a church in the market place offers a Christian visible Christian presence to be where the people are to spread to good news that God loves us all. We continue our non-conformist heritage by including a sermon and by celebrating HC around a table rather than an altar and by operating under the URC non-heirarchical understanding of church allowing the councils of the church to make the decisions. We may use the RC Lectionary, but are not bound to it, so may deviate from it on special occasions – like today and Harvest in a couple week’s time. We too seek to care for the poor and the sick through Fairtrade, through visiting those at home and in hospital. We too seek to debate and address moral and social issues in our day such as medical ethics, global warming and science and Christianity through our discussion groups; we too seek to be welcoming of all.
In the address by ... on the opening of the Free Church on September 17, 1864 the preacher said ‘everything the church touches should say come, every building for the worship of God ought to have a winsome aspect’ to stand in an attitude of invitation and say come. Everythng in it should have something of God’s character about it; the building the benches the music the whole fabric and apparatus should say come. Some to the water of life and drink freely.
And we would affirm his words that the building was only the scaffold however fine these did not make up a church. It was the stones of holy lives stones that could think fee, live and pray, instinct with Christ’s own spirit and love that could make a holy temple unto the Lord united out of love , united to care for the poor. May this church be a home of peace, the centre of Christian unity. May we continue to live out these values and principles in our church life for years to come!