Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden and has recently written an illustrated history of his church from its beginnings in the 1850s to 2006. He has also written two volumes on the stained glass windows at the church and their background, which can be found here and here. I asked him about this project and its relationship to the practicalities of ministry and mission within his church.
IP: What factors made you want to investigate the history of your church?
SK: I have always loved history and been keen to integrate it with theology in the teaching at my church. Planning the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Christ Church, New Malden in December 2016 made me realise the potential of doing this in a way that was more focused on the history of the church itself. Surviving photographs, old church magazines and the memories of our older members all pointed to the potential of the project. Two previous histories of Christ Church existed, the first covering 1857-1952 and the second 1952-1982. Both, however, had significant limitations now able to be rectified through the much greater accessibility of source material through The British Newspaper Archive, online census records and the internet more generally.
The ease with which photos can now be scanned and reproduced was another key factor prompting the new history. But the most important motive was a desire for the current members of Christ Church to have a renewed appreciation of ‘the cloud of witnesses’ that had gone before us. Reflection on their legacy to the church and its strengths and weaknesses would, I hoped, play an important role in informing its future development.
IP: Your history of the church sets its narrative within wider developments in the nation and Church of England. What are you trying to achieve by doing this?
SK: My hope was that by placing the history of Christ Church within its broader context, we could learn from the way that it had responded to the issues arising in each era. Church magazines from as early as 1894 (preserved at the local history centre) and local newspapers from even earlier revealed much about the response of Christ Church to national issues. These included the Depression in the 1930s, the two World Wars and more fleeting episodes such as the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 and the dangerous appendicitis of King Edward VII that delayed his coronation in the same year. All of this encouraged greater reflection upon making a Christian response to current events.
More specific to the Church of England, research revealed more about the church’s response to happenings such as the growth of Anglo-Catholic ritualism in the 1880s and 1890s, the Billy Graham ‘crusades’ in the 1950s, the development of ‘Keele evangelicalism’ from the 1960s and the ordination of women in the 1990s. Examining the local response made to these issues facilitated a greater appreciation of their nature and the contemporary application of this. Members of Christ Church who might otherwise have shown little interest in the history of the Church of England have been enabled to grasp the key developments within it over the last two hundred years and the impact of these upon the current nature of the national church.
IP: How challenging was the research involved?
SK: The most surprising element of the project was the vast amount of material that existed and how accessible most of this was. The popularity of postcards during the Edwardian era, for example, provided far more visual material than I had anticipated and it was extraordinary to discover the detail with which local newspapers (all available online through The BNA) covered funerals, the openings of new buildings and other events involving the church. The websites Ancestry and Find my Past provided valuable access to census, marriage and funeral records. Local historians couldn’t have been more helpful and generous in sharing their research, which in every case included material about the church.
Once word got out about the project, members of Christ Church and the locality provided visual and written material from the lives of their relatives. This included wedding photos going far back as the 1920s and some stunning pictures of Edwardian garden parties at the church. Research included attention to the various memorials and ten stained glass windows at Christ Church with an astonishing amount of information fairly easily discovered about the people associated with them. Googling the names of the soldiers remembered on plaques in the church, for instance, swiftly revealed photographs of two of them placed by their families on a website remembering those killed in the First World War.
IP: Were there any discoveries that were surprising?
There were plenty! These included the huge row that took place between the first Vicar of Christ Church, Charles Stirling in 1870 and his then Churchwarden, the author Frederick Merryweather, over Christ Church School and how this resulted in a breakaway church in New Malden. This was followed by the discovery of the same vicar’s public allegation in 1887 that W.E. Gladstone’s ‘heart and soul were devoted to the papacy’, leading to an equally public rebuttal of this by the four times Prime Minister. More happily, another discovery was the series of Christian novels written by the wife of the second Vicar of Christ Church, Jessie Challacombe, between 1897 and 1913. Copies of these were able to be purchased from antiquarian booksellers on the internet. Published by SPCK, chiefly to serve the strong demand for Sunday School Prizes during this era, these stories were a fascinating insight into the spirituality of evangelical Anglicanism during that period and its response to issues such as poverty, upper class decadence, illness and sudden death and the growing secularisation of Britain.
More was also discovered about Bryan Green, an influential curate at Christ Church, New Malden from 1924–28 who went on to have very significant ministries at Holy Trinity Brompton (1938–48), St Martin’s in the Bullring in Birmingham (1948–70) and through his development of international evangelistic missions. This led to much greater appreciation of the legacy of a man, largely forgotten today, but once described by Billy Graham as ‘the world’s leading evangelist’! Just as valuable was the discovery of the stories of the ministries of lay members of the church such as a woman called Elizabeth Bunn, remembered by a stained glass window, who led the Sunday School at Christ Church from 1909-55, a remarkable 46 years!
IP: You included quite a lot of theological reflection at the end of each volume. How can the history of a local church being used as a teaching resource?
Each era of the church’s history turned out to have very obvious characteristics, represented by the titles I gave to each volume. These characteristics invited consideration of the specific opportunities and threats faced by former generations of the church and evaluation of how they responded. This included wonderful examples of commitment and faith in the face of hardship and loss, particularly the sudden death of members. It also involved critical reflection on the angry responses made to the growth of Anglo-Catholicism in the Victorian age and the church’s subsequent retreat, during the Edwardian era, into a more insular pietism that then made it more difficult to respond to the horrors of the First World War. Sermons were preached on each of the church’s ten stained glass windows using the stories of the people they remembered, alongside their biblical imagery, to draw out their messages.
Time and again we were inspired by the stories of ordinary Christians seeking to serve and honour God, often in heartbreaking circumstances. During the Covid pandemic, like many churches, we recorded services for our members. This included burning an audio version onto CDs for older members, without access to the internet, to listen to. As a ‘bonus feature’ for these members, I included a chapter of a Jessie Challacombe novel each week, read by me and my teenage daughter. This proved extremely popular, especially with those who were isolated. One of the novels, Little Christopher’s Cross from 1898, about a young boy determined to live out the truth of his baptism, had a great deal to say to us as a church. Another from 1904 called Nell Garton, about a young Christian governess determined to witness to the non-Christian family for whom she worked, was equally inspiring.
The overall effect of the project was to make current members more appreciative of the legacy that we have received, the need to steward this faithfully and give greater consideration of what we are currently building for God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 3.10–15). In overall terms, it helped to foster a greater sense of identity in both Christ Church, New Malden and ‘the communion of saints’ ie. the church not just throughout the world but down the ages. As one member commented, it felt rather like the whole of Christ Church was appearing in an episode of the BBC TV series Who do you think you are?
IP: What advice would you give to other churches interested in doing something similar with their history?
There is an excellent Grove book by Neil Evans and John Maiden called What can Churches learn from their Past? The Parish History Audit which is well worth reading. The challenges are obviously greater for older churches because, generally speaking, the further a church’s history goes back the scarcer the source material becomes. However, certainly from the mid-Victorian age onwards, it is probably true that for most churches far more material exists than they realise, much of it available online. Local history centres, found in most towns, and local historians are, more often than not, both helpful and a mine of useful information. Once started, such a project is extraordinarily energising and exciting, with it having many of the characteristics of detective work.
Every church has an existing narrative about its past, often strongly underlying its identity. Once its history is examined afresh and new discoveries about its past emerge, this narrative starts to be amended, sometimes quite dramatically. This can be uncomfortable as well as inspiring but it is always instructive. Investigating afresh the story of those who have gone before us is a wonderful way of inspiring the contemporary church in our calling to proclaim afresh the gospel of Jesus Christ in our generation and the setting in which God has placed us.
IP: Thank you Stephen—I hope this inspires many others to do something similar and also make some surprising discoveries!
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of the Parish of New Malden and Coombe in Southwark Diocese.