Ipswich Meeting House

Readers of this blog will know my love of church buildings, especially old chapels. I like to imagine those former generations in their peculiar dress gathering together to hear the beautiful old gospel preached. One of the best old meeting houses I have ever seen is in Ipswich. Its grand chandeliers, dignified pulpit and austere, heavy woodwork is testament to the solid theology and stately simplicity of the old English dissenters. Sadly, it is now Unitarian. I appreciated that Unitarians reading this will think this some affrontery on my part. Like the nice lady who showed me around, Unitarians are intelligent, open-minded and liberal folk, with a keen eye for the spiritual. The Ipswich members describe themselves as

“…a warm inclusive community of spiritual seekers, we value open-mindedness, free enquiry and a liberal religious spirit. The congregation is spiritually broad, and our worship draws upon many religious and non-religious sources. All our services offer a space of open-minded enquiry to encounter with the sacred in your life.”

This is the kind of religious sentiment the establishment and the media enjoy tolerating. A number of written sermons appear on the website, supporting the LGBTQ Pride movement and ‘celebrating wisdom’. This is the kind of inclusive stuff to unite us all. Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, is divisive. You are a believer or an unbeliever. You are redeemed, or you are damned. You are a forgiven sinner, or an unforgiven sinner.

Jesus is not just a role model, a pronouncer of wise words and thoughtful cliches, but a judge and executioner. Unitarianism is the acceptable face of Christianity. The evangelical gospel is the embarrassing relative, the black sheep of the religious community, the awkward department of the Christian Church. Yet this is what the Ipswich Meeting House’s founders will have known and been. Rev Fairfax, its early Presbyterian pastor, spent over a year in prison at Bury St Edmunds for illegal preaching. His message was not one of world-affirmation; sticking to the Prayer Book would have kept him in his pulpit. Rather, he denounced the compromise and worldly religion of his day. He stood for definite and specific truths, not a mellow acceptance of all and sundry. Forty years after his death, minister Thomas Scott led the congregation away from Presbyterian orthodoxy to Unitarian heterodoxy. Christ was a mere man, the Bible was a record of human thought, Christianity one expression of religious truth as valid as any other.

Our chapel and pulpit might be only a fraction as impressive as the Ipswich Meeting House, and our message and raison d’etre rather less popular. Yet we shall remain faithful to the old gospel- the message of Rev Fairfax, of Peter, of Abraham:

Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. Acts 4:12

Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent. Revelation 2:5