An anniversary, be it a personal one, or a community one as today, is, among other things, an occasion for reminiscence and historical musing.
The Church I attended as a child in Stalybridge, close by Manchester, was built in 1870, the Sunday school pre-dating this by some five years. I recall thinking as the anniversaries approached and then passed 70 years, that perhaps one day I would see the hundredth anniversary. Well I have. That has come and gone.
And now in this ancient chapel today, perhaps the thought crosses ones mind that on this, the two hundred and ninety sixth anniversary of the building, one would like to be present at the three hundredth.
Though an anniversary is simply a date. Like a birthday, nothing is dramatically different from the day before, for change and aging are continuous, imperceptible from one day to the next. But there is nevertheless a sense of occasion in celebrating an anniversary, and to look to entering a fourth century of development is an exciting prospect. I should like to be part of those celebrations.
Of course, the founding of this dissenting chapel has already entered its fourth century. It goes back over three hundred years, to 1662, when secrecy had to be observed in worship to avoid persecution. John Billingsley and James Ford, vicar and curate respectively, dissenters of conscience, chose the hard path of putting honest belief before material security. and preached accordingly.
It is hard for us to grasp that in Chesterfield as in other places throughout our land men and women, and their families, risked imprisonment and persecution in order to worship God in their own way. To be told what one ought to believe is one thing. To be compelled under threat of criminal indictment to encompass and proclaim those beliefs is a monstrous act of tyranny.
Some of course took the extremely hazardous step of sailing in small ships, enduring unbelievable discomfort, to start new lives across the Atlantic Ocean, where they might worship as they chose. The fortitude, determination and strength of character of those early non-conformists, whether emigrants or not, and amongst the latter were those who built this Chapel, is a source of wonderment to us today, a humbling memory for us to cherish.
Our times today are seen as troublesome and anxious – threats of war, inflation, violence, poverty and the rest. But perhaps we ought to think back to the times when our forefathers were meeting and founding this Chapel. It was by no means a time of quietness.
Animosity between Catholic and Protestant was intense. The land had seen Civil War with neighbour fighting neighbour. A King had been tried and beheaded. Law-breakers were cruelly put to death, or imprisoned in vile jails. Life was hard for most people, with disease, malnutrition, hunger and poverty common experiences.
But our dissenting fore-fathers risked further hardship in order to worship in a manner of their choice, and according to their conscience. Their courage, which at the time some no doubt referred to as obstinacy, mulish stupidity or in similar terms, is something which we must not forget today as we worship in freedom, and with no fear of prosecution for our beliefs.
What a lot of history has been encompassed in the years this Chapel has stood. When it was erected this area was largely agricultural. The industrial revolution, as it was to be called had not yet started. The building of the railways was decades ahead, as was the building of the canals which preceded them. As the first worshippers came to this building, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were a hundred years into the future. The battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo would not be fought for more than a century.
Not for nearly a hundred and fifty years would Charles Dickens publish his novels. There were no daily papers. Indeed, even if there had been, few people could have read them. Universal state education was not to start for close on two hundred years. The transmission of voice and music through radio would not come until half a dozen generations had been born and passed away. The cinema likewise was far into the future, and even more distant the now ever-present television.
Neither electricity nor gas was available to light the chapel for most of the first two hundred years of its life, and it would be nearly two hundred and fifty years from its founding before a motor car would be used to convey congregational members to and from worship.
It is doubtful that even in their most fantastic flights of imagination, those early worshippers, or indeed many who followed them, could have envisaged the terrible slaughter on the fields of France and Belgium that were the first World War battles of the Somme, Amiens, Ypres and the rest.
Certainly they would have thought the idea preposterous that men and women should fly through the air to distant parts of the continent to lie on beaches in the sun. A holy day had not then extended in to a fortnight or more holiday. One day of rest was the most many ever took at one time unless ill-health prevented labour.
The everyday lives of those who founded this Chapel were far removed from ours not only in time, but in the manner. Work and survival played a large part. No formal education for the majority, an expectation of life, at most, of barely 50 years, little in the way of entertainment, a monotonous diet, long days of toil.
And yet they built this chapel in faith. They worshipped here and thanked God for what they had. In order to worship they had to endure, if not persecution, then certainly derision. They came, not because they had to, quite the reverse pressures were upon them, but because they believed and trusted in a God of mercy. Truth was more important than physical discomfort, conscience than the opinion of others.
Yet though the lives of those original worshippers and of those who for decades followed them, were worlds away from our own, in essential respects they were the same.
In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, you will recall that Shylock, the Jew, makes the point to his tormentors that though his race and religion are different, his feelings and emotions are the same as theirs. “If you prick us, do we not bleed”
Though the life-style and generation of our founding fathers were different from ours, without doubt, their feelings, fears and hopes were fundamentally the same. They desired peace, they wanted a secure future for their children, they sought shelter and food, they feared disease, they found love and tranquillity within the family and community.
But these are largely material desires. We should find much more in common with those who bequeathed us a legacy. They built this Chapel not merely that they might find joy within a community of like minded neighbours. They built a spiritual home.
The peace they sought and found was not merely an absence of aggressive attack, but an inner peace – “that peace which the world can neither give nor take away”. The security for their children was bound up in a desire that the children’s feet should tread a path of righteousness all the days of their lives. The food and shelter they sought was not only to sustain a physical life, but to feed and nurture a spiritual existence. If they feared disease which decimated their physical bodies, much more were they anxious about a malignancy which could destroy the soul of man. Love was found within the family, but its expression relied upon the sure conviction of the love of God.
I am sure all of us here today have the hope that worshippers will gather here for the coming three centuries as they have done for the same period in the past. Perhaps our optimism is clouded by the fear that it might not be so. It would be sad if pessimism prevailed. But much sadder would be our failure, and the failure of future generations to lose sight of those central fortresses of faith held by those brave families or individuals who founded and built this place
And what were those strongholds? Not to sacrifice truth to expediency. Not to fear man, but rather to love God. That worship is the nourishment upon which faith feeds and by which it is sustained. That love of God and love of neighbour are not separate, but indivisible parts of a whole. That our duty, our obligation, is not merely to the present, but to bequeath to the future the wisdom of the past, modified by the experiences of the present.
These and other tenets were the bricks of faith with which those long dead built this Chapel, both in a physical sense but also in a metaphorical sense. That this building as a symbol of the devotion of brave men and women should continue is important. That the unseen temple built from bricks of truth shall be safe-guarded is imperative. In both may God preserve our coming in and our going out.
Chesterfield 4 November 1990