During the time of Queen Elizabeth the first, there were many Christians in Farnham who discovered God through the Reformed way, known then as being puritans (don’t judge that term through 21st century thought!). Despite the residence of the Lord Bishop of Winchester in Farnham Castle, the town was stocked full of puritans. All the prominent people in the town, it seems, were Presbyterians. They worshipped in the parish church as members of the Church of England for over a hundred years, but their Reformed faith is clear from the historical records, particularly the forms of words used in wills, and the records of tradesmen in the town.
ln l643, during the Civil War, the Anglican Minister, Paul Clapham, was ejected from the parish church for his poor behaviour and lifestyle, and a Presbyterian Minister, Samuel Stileman, was instituted in his place. In l660, upon the restoration of King Charles Il as King, the puritans were ejected from the parish church on 24 December. They soon built a Meeting House in West Street, in the back garden of one of their members, somewhere near where the Lower Hart car park is now: that was our second building.
History repeated itself in the l790s, when a group of evangelical Independents were ejected from the parish church after their protests at the lack of what they perceived as the truth of the gospel in the preaching. They built what was known as the Ebenezer Independent Chapel in East Street, now the site of Swain and Jones’ garage: that was out third building. It wasn’t easy to raise money for the new chapel, and they stated their case in a printed leaflet, endorsed by many leading ministers of the time, called the Case of the people of Farnham, seeking funds to help them build the chapel.
By this time the Presbyterians from 1660 were few in number and low in morale, and so they abandoned their building and threw in their lot with the Independents. We know this because they had some South Sea Annuities from 1763 which they took with them, and which became an asset of the new church. It wasn’t always easy being a Nonconformist in anywhere, even in Farnham. On one occasion soldiers came to break up a mob throwing stones at the chapel.
The national mood towards Nonconformists eventually began to change, and by the 1870s, the various restrictions on what Nonconformists could do in civic and national life were eventually removed. Farnham town was changing just then, with the coming of the railway, and a new road was built from the town to the station. Our predecessors bought a plot of land, and built this magnificent edifice, which they couldn’t really afford, to show everyone that they were a true church, as good as the Church of England, and our presence was permanent: our fourth building.
Yet now we live in a different world. Niceties between different branches of the Christian family mean nothing to those outside it, and increasingly less to those within it. We face challenges instead from aggressive atheism and secularism. If we think the pattern of the past can still go on, and somehow all will be well, I fear we’re deluding ourselves. Nonconformity, as a particular expression of Christian faith in England, is at a pretty low ebb. We need to be quite clear what we have to offer people, and speak up very loudly and very clearly to have any hope of being heard by a noisy world.
There is, of course, a parallel with God’s people in ancient Israel. They found a home in Jerusalem (we’ll leave for another time the fact that it was already someone’s home), and they built a Temple, which began as a home they wanted to put God in, and gradually came to stand for how important they thought they had become. Then all this was swept away as they lost power, and were taken into exile in Babylon. Their nation was captive, and their precious Temple destroyed.
They came back, eventually, and built a new Temple to suit their new situation. This is what Ezra was talking about. The people had returned from exile, and Ezra told of how they built a new Temple in their situation. The point of mentioning this is not to say that it necessarily happened in every detail as described, but to ask what it teaches us – although you might note the complex procedures for planning permission in chapters four and five!
Nonconformity has had its golden age, and now l think we’re in exile. Our ancestors have moved on as the years have passed. We’re now in our fourth building, but we’re in another era. What changes to do we need to make to this building, to make it fit for this era, which you might think of as a time of exile?
I grew up in rural Warwickshire, and we often went into the city of Coventry for shopping. My recollections of it as a child were nasty grey concrete everywhere, which was in equal measure ugly and boring, and a modern cathedral, unlike any other. But those a little older than me remembered that was left of Coventry after the blitz was very little, and there are countless pictures of the ruins of much of the city. Yet to look at the city now, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it was like when faced with ruins.
That’s exactly the rebuilding task that Ezra and his companions faced. They returned from their exile to a city, and their beloved Temple, lying in ruins. People weren’t very inspired, and they didn’t have the energy or the inclination to do very much, but Ezra and Nehemiah managed to fire them up and get them going. So much of that applies to us as well. It might feel that we’re in exile, that we’re lacking in energy or enthusiasm, but we need to move forward in faith, to rebuild our own building in this age. If we think we can stand still, and carry on as before, we’ll not be acknowledging the kind of exile a Christian church faces in the twenty-first century, and will continue to face as things will get worse before there’s any hope of their getting better. Will we rise to challenge as our ancestors in the faith have done in this place before us, as the people of God did when they came home from their exile?
God’s call is strong, but God is with us, and the power behind us in greater than the task ahead of us.
I’m going to end by reminding of a sense of proportion. A building, however useful, however much it helps us in God’s mission, is nothing more than a tool to help us. As our reading from the Acts of the Apostles reminded us, it’s not place where we can contain God, it’s not really a house for God, because God lives in and through us. May our decisions and our actions show God at work in this place.