e-mail simon@suffolkchurches.co.uk

 

Strict Baptist Chapel, Wattisham

  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 overgrown gravestones.

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?

Cycling from the middle of the village, I found the neatly clipped graveyard.

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.

The 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 light anteroom.

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 far end.

Everything was 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 decades.

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.

Immediately in 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 below.

Outside the clear windows, the rain had stopped, and the sun sent shadows of branches scurrying across the woodwork.

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 County Tyrone.

I glanced 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 it.

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 Pentagon.

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 wasn't clear.

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.

 

Preaching 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 graveyard.

"Er, no", I stammered.

"It's just that lots of people come to the graves looking for someone, and we have all the records here."

In loving 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.

His mortal remains are interred in the adjoining burial ground.

Born at Drinkstone Nov 21st 1805,

Baptised at Rattlesden April 9th 1826,

Commenced his ministry at Wattisham April 25th 1830,

Retired from the pastorate Sept 28th 1879,

Died in the faith Feb 15th 1881.

Rev XIV 15.

  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 first.

"They went 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."

The preacher 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 free communion.

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.

In 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.

She talked 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.

 

Past the 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 unreal.

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.

Wattisham 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.

You can also visit the Burning Bush website.

My thanks to Maggie Driver for her help (and that of her ancestors) with this entry.