Whitby Church

St Mary’s Church in Whitby is a must-see for anyone interested in Britain’s religious history. It has a squat, Norman tower built of heavy, rough stones complete with battlements, yet upon passing through its doorway, one enters the late eighteenth century. This is what most parish churches looked like before the Victorians came to re-medievalise the fittings and fixtures.

First of all, there is a gigantic, three decker pulpit. This is surrounded by box pews, where families could hear the sermon in relative privacy and comfort. The old chancel with its altar was deemed an irrelevance, and the preacher stands with his back to it.

The eighteenth-century Anglican church was thoroughly protestant; the preaching of God’s word was paramount. Longer sermons required a congregation’s greater comfort. Sadly, being protestant is not enough; hearing sermons is not enough. If the medieval church was full of clutter and debris, the eighteenth-century church was deadened by formalism and spiritual frost. Just as Archbishops Cranmer and Grindall had to awaken the medieval church, so John Wesley and George Whitefield sought to stir afresh the Georgian Church of England, of which St Mary’s interior is a charming reminder. Religious clutter and stiff piety are both the opposite of true faith which is a lively relationship with a living Saviour.