Here endeth the lesson

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Written by Dr Jack Binns

This is the 56th and last in the series on Christian Scarborough which began on June 9, 2013. My thanks to any remaining readers who have endured all of them.

Some might complain that a few current churches, chapels and sects have been omitted, but there never was an intention to write an exhaustive, comprehensive survey of everyone of Scarborough’s past and present Christians. Also, the clue is in the title, Nostalgia: the narrative was meant to be mainly historical rather than contemporary. Thirdly, I have tried to be factual and not opinionated, objective, not partisan, and so deliberately avoided analysis and argument.

Originally, the series was prompted by the findings of our national census taken in 2011, which revealed a dramatic and recent decline in Christian worship and attachment. Only 59 per cent then described themselves as Christian, 25 per cent of no religion, and the remainder Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and Jew. And though Scarborough has not experienced a large intake of foreign immigrants, at Langdale End it has Britain’s only Coptic Orthodox monastery and a Buddhist charity has just “saved” historic Londesborough Lodge. Also, I am told that Polish residents now have their own weekly mass at St Peter’s on Castle Road. So perhaps Scarborough is not so exceptional or untypical as we might think.

In fact, Scarborough’s Christian history has generally reflected that of the nation as a whole during the last 1,500 years. Whitby had a Celtic minster for monks and nuns as early as 657 and, after it was destroyed by pagan Vikings, re-established in the 1220s as a Benedictine abbey; but its first abbot was Roger of Scarborough.

However, unlike Whitby and Bridlington, Scarborough never acquired a great religious house, yet there was a pre-Conquest chapel on the headland and probably another in Falsgrave. More importantly, by placing the newly-founded St Mary’s parish church at the disposal of the Cistercians in 1189, King Richard Lionheart connected the town with an international monastic order until Henry VIII confiscated all the kingdom’s abbeys 350 years later. Though much altered, battered, bruised and “amputated”, today St Mary’s is Scarborough’s only remaining unbroken link with the town’s earliest Christian heritage.

As for Scarborough’s other medieval Christian institutions, they survive only as ghostly place-names. St Thomas Street records the disappeared church dedicated to the Martyr of Canterbury and the hospital next to it at Newborough Bar; St Sepulchre, the holy burial site of Jesus, the church once used by Scarborough’s Franciscans; St Nicholas Street and Cliff, the hospital refuge for lepers; and Friarage school, which sits on top of the Greyfriars. Other modern street names overlay medieval predecessors: Blackfriarsgate has become Queen Street; Greyfriarsgate is now Globe Street; and Rievaulx Lane we know as King Street.

At least one very old name with Christian association has changed its spelling and lost understanding of its meaning. Spreight Lane Steps, once written as Spretlane or Spritlane, still rise up from Longwestgate towards the place of the holy spirit, St Mary’s parish church.

Just as almost every major event in national history, from the Norman conquest to World War Two, had its local resonance, so our religious history has left a footprint in Scarborough. Henry’s forcible closure of the priories devastated the heart of the old borough, creating wastelands that took centuries to occupy. The church of the Holy Sepulchre was a victim of Scarborough’s Tudor impoverishment and the new priority given to secular commerce; whereas the chapel of St Thomas was a casualty of the town’s destructive involvement in the British civil wars.

The story of the Society of Friends is well illustrated by what has happened in Scarborough. First inspired by the presence and preaching of George Fox, mercilessly persecuted, grudgingly tolerated by law but still subject to every kind of discrimination and prejudice until the 20th century, the contribution of Scarborough’s Quakers to trade, education, politics and charity has far exceeded their small numbers.

Methodism has also thrived in Scarborough, though the Wesleyans have worn better than the Primitives. John Wesley made as many as 15 visits and, 250 years later, despite the loss of Claremont, Eastborough, the Jubilee, St Sepulchre and Hoxton Road, the survivors are still strong at Queen Street, Westborough and South Cliff as well as newer Wreyfield Drive.

From the beginning in 1662 when Dissent became permanent and organised, Protestant Nonconformity has always found ready followers in the town. Baptists, Unitarians, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, along with Methodists, were already outnumbering Anglicans by the middle of Victoria’s reign. After laying comatose and complacent throughout the Georgian century, Scarborough’s Anglican establishment at last made a huge effort to justify its privileged position. St Mary’s was purged of its accumulated clutter. New places of worship, Christ Church, St Thomas’s, St Martin’s, All Saints, Holy Trinity, St James’s, St Saviour’s and St Columba’s were built to capture Scarborough’s rapidly growing population. Attempts to win even the pagan poor with missions dedicated to St Paul and St John achieved early success. But Anglicanism could no more escape the national erosion of Christian faith and practice than Dissent. All Saints survives merely as a street name; Christ Church has become a supermarket; St Thomas’s and Holy Trinity have been put to secular uses. Today not one in a thousand would know where St Paul’s mission chapel once stood.

As further proof that Scarborough is not merely “at an out-angle”, the town has witnessed the growth of two of the most dynamic movements of contemporary conversion, the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their missionaries are the only ones who ring my doorbell.

What of the future? As the ancient festivals of Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide and All Souls and the rites of passage from birth to burial become increasingly pagan and commercial, throughout the world the phenomenal explosion of Pentecostalism is transforming traditional Christianity. All that can be said for certain is that in Scarborough’s case in whatever terms, architectural, educational, philanthropic or political, without its Christian inheritance the town would be immeasurably devalued.