Walpole Old Chapel

I spent most of my holiday in Suffolk viewing the great medieval churches there, in all their gothic splendour. Yet one which may rank as a favourite did not look much like a church at all, but a farmhouse. And that is what it originally was. The Old Chapel outside the village of Walpole is as plain a church as you will find, yet I found it beautiful in its rusticity, homely and sincere in its flaking whitewash and rude timbers. Though it no longer boasts a congregation, it is one of the oldest Congregational meeting houses in the country.

The church began in those heady days of 1649, and it was meeting openly during the Great Oliver’s time. When Charles Stuart and his parliaments returned and commenced persecution, the church met ‘underground’- though probably in this old, Tudor farmhouse which they registered as a chapel in 1689 when the laws were changed. Inside is all wood, and pews and galleries are all turned towards the pulpit that dominates the room.

Here there is no altar, nor clerk’s desk from which the Prayer Book would be read. This is a preaching house, its worship plain, its worshippers sincere. It is now ‘owned’ by the Historical Chapels Trust, and it hosts a regular programme of poetry recitals and folk music nights. The one Christian specific act of worship I could see advertised was a candle-lit carol service, of the kind that would have caused the original members to have apoplectic fits.

While lamenting the loss of evangelical witness in a place of such rich heritage, I am glad it remains open (of sorts). Yet Walpole offers Salem a challenge and a warning. Our building might currently be protected from the developer’s grasp, but our congregation and place in God’s community is not. May we be faithful in our doctrine and practices while unflagging in our zeal. The time may come when all our building is fit for is the recitation of poems, the hearing of string quartets and the hosting of heritage open weekends.

Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee. Revelation 3:3