||Wattisham is a fairly
remote place, up in the hills beside a large airfield,
which cuts it off from its nearest neighbours. It lost
its parish church to redundancy back in the
1970s. Thankfully, St Nicholas was taken over by a charitable
trust, rather than lost to us for ever as a private home
conversion. However, you still can't get inside it unless
there's a function on.
I hadn't been feeling terribly charitable
towards St Nicholas, because the day I visited I got
caught in a tremendous downpour in the graveyard. The
outer doors of the porch were locked (I find that so
petty) and there was very little shelter among the
More than a little
damp, I headed on in the direction of Buxhall, and was surprised to find, on
the edge of this sleepy village, another graveyard. This
one was quite different; about 100 upright stones, all in
neat rows across a clipped lawn. At first, I thought that
it might be an overflow from the churchyard; but that
could not be. The graveyard of St Nicholas has some
modern graves in it, and some of these here in the tidy
rows dated back to at least the early 19th century. What
was going on here?
from the middle of the village, I found the neatly
An oddly shaped red
brick building on the edge of the graveyard supplied the
answer. Wattisham Strict Baptist Chapel it said,
a seemingly archaic phrase on such a modern signboard.
The busy activities of the place were listed below. To
the right of the chapel stood a pleasant 19th century
villa in woolpit brick, with the words The Manse
on the gate.
Rural Baptist churches
are common enough in Suffolk. It would be true to call
Suffolk a Baptist county in the way that some in the West
Country are Methodist ones. The independent
congregationalist tradition has always been a strong one
here. In Ipswich, there are probably as many Baptists
these days as there are Anglicans; on the large housing
estate where I work, there are three large, modern
Baptist churches, while the local Anglicans have recently
closed one of their two churches.
chapel to the left (the entrance appears to be an
extension) and manse to the right. Note the upper windows
in the chapel, which light the gallery within.
Be that as it may, this
pretty little corner seemed an incongruous find; for one
moment, I might have imagined myself in rural County
Antrim rather than anywhere in England.
The way I
came in - a step out of time. There's those
gallery windows again.
||I thought that
it would be interesting to take a look. I got off
my bike, and went into the graveyard. But as I
did so, it started to rain again. I tried the
chapel door, not expecting it to open - but it
did, and I stepped inside.I found myself in a
There was a little bookstall, with
newspapers and magazines, and a stairway led off
to a gallery. Ahead of me, a simple doorway led
into the chapel itself, and I went through it.
I felt as if I
had stepped out of time. I was in a superb early
19th century meeting house. The wooden gallery
swept around on three sides, supported by cast
iron pillars; there were contemporary benches
beneath, all focused on the reading podium at the
well-kept, finely polished, and that was what
made it strange, I thought to myself. Where is
the dust and decay, the neglect I associate with
church interiors of this time? This place felt as
if it had been cared for constantly over the
I sat for a
while in silence, and then wandered about. There
was a highly polished parquet floor, and
memorials to former ministers around the walls.
front of the podium was a modern light wood table
and chairs - for communion, I assume. I wondered
if there was a total immersion font in the space
clear windows, the rain had stopped, and the sun
sent shadows of branches scurrying across the
I wandered back into
the anteroom. I took a closer look at the bookstall, and
discovered that Wattisham Chapel was a member of the
Grace Baptist Association - or at least, there was a pile
of GBA directories, and I found this church inside it.
There was also a pile of a newspaper called The
Burning Bush - a protestant witness in a day of apostasy,
published by Kilskeery Free Presbyterian Church, Omagh in
carelessly at the opening sentence of the main
article: Tony Blair is the product of
ecumenical religion. He is said to carry a copy
of the Koran in his pocket and frequently peruses
Well, as you can
imagine, I was hooked. This particular edition of
the newspaper was for October, and the whole of
it was taken up by responses to the September
11th attacks on the World Trade Centre and the
Basically, it argued that, as
well as targeting Osama Bin Laden, the western
industrial military complex should also go after
Sinn Fein. Whether it was actually advocating the
carpet bombing of republican west Belfast, I
I read on, fascinated. Such
terrible events as those witnessed on Tuesday
past are not a matter of injustice to the victims
but of mercy granted to the living, it said.
There is not one of us who dies in what are
termed "tragedies" but deserves to!
There is not one who escapes while others perish
who deserves to! All of us are worthy of death
and we can escape only by repenting and turning
to Christ for mercy and forgiveness.
Wow. I turned to the back page.
One of the most horrific incidents... was
watching as poor people, demented by the heat and
flames behind them, hurled themselves into space
in order to escape those flames. Of course, there
was no escape for them in such action. But
tonight, there is escape from everlasting hell
for you if you but take one step, the step of
faith, and come to Christ.
desk and communion table.
Well, they certainly
weren't pulling any punches. I leafed back through the
paper. The gross hypocrisy of Blair and the British
Government cries out to heaven for God's judgement. It
won't be long in coming. Again and again, the
writers attacked the evils of ecumenism: This
two-facedness is what ecumenism breeds. Every
branch of ecumenism displays this same two-facedness. Wow.
Slightly stunned, I
stepped out into the clear daylight. I wandered among the
graves, most of the old ones indecipherable now.
"Are you looking
for someone?" said a voice behind me. I turned to
face a formidable old lady who had followed me into the
"Er, no", I
"It's just that
lots of people come to the graves looking for someone,
and we have all the records here."
remembrance of Mr John Cooper, for nearly fifty
years the valued Pastor of this church. He was
beloved and revered for his great worth as a
faithful and zealous minister of Jesus Christ, of
no ordinary abilities, as well as for his high
moral consistency kindness and courtesy.
mortal remains are interred in the adjoining
Drinkstone Nov 21st 1805,
at Rattlesden April 9th 1826,
his ministry at Wattisham April 25th 1830,
from the pastorate Sept 28th 1879,
the faith Feb 15th 1881.
||She was Mrs
Hawkins, the Pastor's wife, and when I explained
my interest, she told me something of the history
of the place.
Originally, 18th century non-conformists
from the local villages had walked the
fifteen-odd miles to Woolverstone every Sunday. I
imagined them; farm labourers mainly, with their
decent wives and poor children, they must have
thought it revolutionary to find a way to God
without the need to go through Parson and Squire
to Woolverstone because the preaching there was
first class", Mrs Hawkins told me, as if it
was something that had happened last week.
"But in the end they found a man in their
midst who could preach to them, and they gathered
around him here."
was everything. His name was John Hitchcock.
In 1889, an article in the East
Anglian Daily Times recalled the setting up of
Suffolk's first Baptist congregations, and noted
that, within two years of joining the Baptist
church at Bildeston,
John Hitchcock,with a minority of the other
members, resigned from it over the question of
This small group joined
Woolverstone Baptist church in the same year
(1759), a step which demanded of them a journey
of fifteen miles there and back every Sunday.
They sustained this for nearly four years; on
March 9th 1763, the group, now numbering 28, was
dismissed from Woolverstone with the mission to
set up a Church in its own neighbourhood.
In the years of attendance at
Woolverstone, John Hitchcock had become their spiritual
leader, and in the autumn of 1763 he was solemnly set
over them as their honorary pastor. He was just 30 years
old. As they had no meeting place, they met in each
other's homes, in particular at Joseph Enfer's house at Buxhall and a barn at Nedging.
the 1780s, Hitchcock led them to build their first chapel
on the current site. In the 1840s, it was replaced by the
current building. "We still have all the
records", said Mrs Hawkins. "We still do things
the same way now as we did then. We still believe exactly
the same things, and sing the same hymns. We're very
traditional. We still wear hats."
She was forthright, and
a bit formidable, but utterly compelling. Drawn by her
honesty, I asked a question I rarely feel brave enough to
ask people at churches. Exactly how many people were in
the congregation here?
"We get sixty or
seventy", she replied. "It goes up and down.
People come because they like what they hear. Sometimes
they hear something they don't like, and they stop
coming. That's up to them. There are always others who
come to take their place."
|I told her
that I'd noticed that St Nicholas was now closed.
Did the villagers treat the Baptist chapel as if
it was now their parish church? She shook her
head vigorously. "No, they'd never do that.
There's the history, you see. The Anglicans and
us. No, we're a gathered congregation. People
come here because of what we preach."
Had her husband been
here long? I wondered. He had been Pastor for 37
years, she told me. He was chosen by the people,
and if they didn't like what he preached they
could throw him out. "But they never
have", she smiled.
about the Baptist tradition in Suffolk,
mentioning 17th and 18th century names that meant
nothing to me. "We're the same now as we
were then", she said. "We're still true
separatists." Separatists. I caught on the
word, and mentioned the Brethren community on the
east side of Ipswich, where I live. "Yes,
that's right", she enthused. "They
practice Believers' Baptism and preach the Bible.
They're like us."
She paused. And
then she said something quite extraordinary.
"We're truly ecumenical", she said.
"We'll stand firmly alongside anyone who
believes the same as us."
We said our
farewells, and she invited me to visit them one
Sunday morning. This is the kind of invitation
that I often receive, but she made it sound as if
it would be in my interests rather than theirs.
cast iron pillar to the preaching desk.
I headed on along the
narrow road, strangely relieved to be on the move again
in the chill air, reaching the main Hadleigh to
Stowmarket road after a couple of miles. A field of
ostriches beside the road sustained my sense of the
I hadn't told her that
I was a Catholic, of course, but I don't suppose that it
would have made much difference. From the Strict Baptist
point of view, we are all drowning or we are saved. There
isn't much point in distinguishing the drowning from each
other, Catholics from Anglicans, Pagans from Atheists.
As a Catholic, there is
much in Baptist theology that I find very difficult, if
not wholly alien. It seems a hard lesson - too harsh to
sustain me, I think; I need enfolding in the healing arms
of sacramental love. But there is a small part of me that
admires communities like this; what they have done, and
what they are doing now, separated, in our midst.
Strict Baptist Chapel is located on the edge of the
village, about two miles to the east of the B1115
Stowmarket to Hadleigh road. I found it open.
also visit the Burning
thanks to Maggie Driver for her help (and that of her
ancestors) with this entry.