History at 125 years in 2007

 then and now

The reason for naming the church after the famous dissenter and author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is not known but on Wednesday 29th March 1882 a group of thirty men and women stood hand in hand, agreeing to form themselves into a Church. They covenanted with each other to "faithfully fulfil all the duties of Church Members as we shall discover by a reverent and prayerful study of the word of God". So it was that Bunyan Baptist Church was established 125 years ago.

 

There is no direct link to John Bunyan but there had been a significant event in Kingston during the time the independent thinker spent in Bedford Gaol from 1660 to 1672 for preaching "licentious and destructive principles". The vicar of Kingston had resigned. Rev Richard Mayo had been presented to his living by Oliver Cromwell in 1658 but now along with many other clergy across the land he felt unable "for conscience’ sake" to accept the requirements of the Restoration Parliament’s 1662 Act of Conformity. Within a few months he was preaching privately in the town, and in time this would lead to the founding of Kingston Congregational Church in Eden Street. A hundred years or so later some nine or ten members of this dissenting church became convinced that they had a duty to undergo the ordinance of Believers’ Baptism, and they in turn left to form Kingston Baptist Church in 1790.

 

It was from this Union Street Church that those first members of the new Bunyan Church were withdrawing when they came to covenant together in 1882. There had been a dispute over the music at the church and the seceding members felt the dismissed organist had been treated unjustly! The new church however also had positive intent in choosing to give itself a distinct identity as “Bunyan Church (Open Baptist)”.

 

Meetings begin

 

During the months that followed, Sunday and weeknight services were held regularly at the Kingston Assize Court led by ministers, laymen, and students from Spurgeon’s College. By June a site on Queen Elizabeth Road was settled upon and a Building Fund started. Following the intervention of CH Spurgeon the original scheme to erect a cheap prefab tin tabernacle gave way to the proposal to build a substantial School Chapel at a cost of £1020 in which the opening services were eventually held on 7th January 1885.

 

With 40 members and a sizeable Sunday School it was decided to seek a minister as this was considered “conducive to the stability of the Church”.  The position was advertised in “The Baptist”, but it was locally from Teddington that Rev Joseph Clark of the Metropolitan Tabernacle County Mission offered to serve “at trifling expense”. He was accordingly invited unanimously to become the first pastor commencing his ministry in the month of the chapel opening.

 

Under Mr Clark’s ministry the church membership grew significantly and by 1889 the existing building was no longer adequate, but a solution was to hand. The adjacent plot on the corner of Hardman Road was surrounded by screens and “an awning to protect from the sun’s rays”, and services were held there. Later minutes do however note the inconvenience caused by the “uncertainty of the weather when worshipping in our Tabernacle”!

 

The church is built

 

A Building Committee drew up plans for a new chapel on the corner site. By the time local residents had had their say and difficulties with the local authority’s Improvements Committee had been overcome it would be February 1894 before the opening of the new church. The cost of £2950 had brought its own problems but it was with “heartfelt gratitude to Almighty God for permitting us to be his instruments in raising Bunyan Baptist Tabernacle” that the opening of the church was recorded.

 

Joseph Clark’s ministry had already ended but his influence had been profound in the early days. It then fell to Rev Douglas Thompson to oversee both the move into the new chapel and the ensuing development of church life which saw membership advance to 240 by his retirement due to ill health in 1897. He was succeeded by the Rev Isaac Stalberg whose twenty year ministry established a pattern that was to continue into living memory.

 

The founders and early members had included local businesspeople, some names familiar in the town until quite recently, alongside domestic servants and laundry workers. Around 1894 the death of Samuel Collins the first black member is recorded and in 1901 a Russian born gentleman became a member. Membership was not taken lightly. We read that Mr X and Mrs Y were disciplined “for disorderly walking” with Mr X being asked to resign. In 1896 there is reference to a Cricket Club Committee and subsequently the captain of the team was replaced because he was not a member of any church organisation. The deacons are recorded as taking a dim view of the Band of Hope inviting a conjuror to its Winter Treat and asked that “endeavours be made to find some other form of entertainment”.

 

The heyday of nonconformity

 

It was during Mr Stalberg’s ministry that many of the hallmark Nonconformist organisations were set up and flourished. Christian Endeavour, Band of Hope, the Mothers’ Meeting, Men’s Meeting, Young Men’s Bible Class and a branch of the Anti-Cigarette League as well as the weeknight services were among the marks of a thriving Free Church in the heyday of Nonconformity. The Sunday School was strong numbering about 300. Church membership remained fairly constant at around 350. As an open membership Baptist church, members included those with other Free Church or indeed Anglican backgrounds alongside those baptised as believers by immersion.

 

Nor was the church solely inward looking. It gave financial and practical support to a range of causes and took interest in the issues of the day. The Sunday opening of shops, the Education Bill of 1902, atrocities in Armenia, and a resolution on the death of former Liberal Prime Minister WE Gladstone feature in the minutes.

 

The latter years of Mr Stalberg’s ministry were overshadowed by the First World War. Members were called up for military service and a plaque would record those killed, but services and activities appear to have been maintained. However, the stability that the church had provided came to an abrupt end with the sudden death of the long-serving pastor on Christmas Day 1918, and an uncertain period was to follow.

 

During one of the ministries of this period a controversy led to the resignation of all the deacons. A Board of Management was appointed but some members transferred to the Union Street Church and the minister resigned. During a subsequent ministry the deacons complained of a “lack of sympathy with Church Officers” while the minister requested “a more kindly attitude towards his wife and children”. Despite the internal tensions church membership remained between 250 and 300 but the financial position was not healthy and it was not an easy situation to which Rev HE Stickler came in 1935. In his quiet way Mr Stickler went about healing the divisions and in 1937 a two-storey extension was made to the Sunday School premises.

 

Although the Second World War affected many of the members personally it does not appear to have disrupted the worship and witness of the church. There were again those called up for military service, among them the organist who lost his life, and another member was killed during an air raid. Having guided the church through this time Mr Stickler moved on to the West Worthing Church in 1945.

 

The transition from war to peace brought the desire for a return to the ordered and familiar life of earlier times. The church maintained a membership of over 200, a strong Sunday School, Youth Club, Girls’ Life Brigade, and a company of the Boys’ Brigade was added in 1953. A new successful Sunday School was started at the Tudor Hall in north Kingston followed later by an evening service and the possibility for a time that Bunyan Church itself might move to the Tudor estate.

 

The times change

 

But attitudes were changing. Local churches were ceasing to be the lively social centres for Sunday and weekday activities now that people came to have many more leisure options. Theological thinking was trying to adapt to the challenges of a less assured social context. Bunyan ministers were taking account of new trends towards inclusion, and ecumenical and community co-operation. From 1952 women could serve as deacons. The church participated in Kingston Christian Council which introduced a united service and Good Friday procession of witness. From 1954 Tiffin Boys’ School used the church for morning assembly and the halls as classrooms. But the general direction was not encouraging and three of the ministers from the post-war  years moved from local church ministry to pursue their calling in the context of education.

 

The reducing membership was more mobile, less tightly knit, and it was ageing along with the deteriorating church buildings when Rev Eric Blakebrough was invited to become the minister in 1967. Eric, a determined colourful character with radical views and a singular vision was in the next 25 years to bring a remarkable change to the life and mission of the church. Eucharistic worship and an ecumenical style became central to a renewed church life that found a fresh opportunity in the decline of the old structures.

 

Kaleidoscope

 

The church had space it could use for community needs that were quickly identified. The Kaleidoscope Youth and Community Project emerged alongside new youth cultures in Kingston. The Friday night club in one of the 1930s church halls preceded the development of the town as a centre for nightlife and enabled contact with young people among whom were those who had become detached from their families and had lost touch with healthcare. Medical support was made available which led to an informed awareness of the new drugs scene. A church-owned house next door also became a place of refuge.

 

The growing needs and reputation of the Project led to a complete redevelopment of the site. The new buildings comprised a modern chapel in the round with a hall above and club below, together with a hostel to accommodate both teenagers in need of support, and the growing staff of volunteers. After the inevitable planning delays the buildings, constructed at a cost of £500,000, were opened by the Speaker of the House of Commons George Thomas in 1977, the church now taking the name John Bunyan Baptist Church. A series of assistant ministers shared in the expanding work including Eric’s daughter Adele and son Martin both of whom would go on to be Directors of the Project. The story has been told in books, training courses and conferences which have inspired others to venture into new forms of church life.

 

The premises had been designed to enable an open community to form and for some years this operated successfully. Alongside Kaleidoscope’s own life, the hall became for a time home to a playgroup, a ballet school and to annual Hindu celebrations! Recognition of the Project’s contribution to pioneering methadone and needle exchange work among people with heroin problems however brought the need to professionalise, and though the church remained thoroughly bound up with the Project the trend began towards Kaleidoscope becoming an independent charitable company in its own right. This move was hastened when in an exciting development the Project was invited to set up a similar methadone service in Gwent, and the new company would finally come into being on 1st January 2007.

 

  Facing challenges

 

A further ambitious building scheme has stretched the Project and there is a possibility that some land might be sold off in another redevelopment. Though this would be likely to affect the church it might offer the opportunity of a further new start. Rebuilding on the site or indeed elsewhere in Kingston would not for the first time in the history of the church be among the options, and there could be some kind of restored relationship with the same town centre churches who feature in the story of the origins of the church.

 

As it was put at the time of the centenary, “John Bunyan Baptist Church has a tradition of facing challenges and stepping out into the future with faith”. The identity as Bunyan Church (Open Baptist) from the outset characterised the church in a way picked up in the more recent mission statement - “John Bunyan Baptist Church is an ecumenical fellowship serving the needs of the local community”. The small committed and enthusiastic congregation is heir to an ongoing and living tradition that has sustained and enriched lives both within and adventurously beyond the membership of the church.

 

The church currently values its relationship with the Immanuel Korean Methodist Church who also worship in the building, and is glad the hall is again used by community groups such as Refugee Action Kingston. The remarkable involvement in Kaleidoscope continues to set the church apart. But dare we look forward to the writing of another new chapter in 25 years time?

 

Queen Elizabeth Road 

(entrance up slope in Hardman Road) 

Kingston upon Thames 

KT2 6RJ