Clarence Road Baptist Church – 135 years serving Southend

I love history and am particularly drawn to church history. I have even written about it (see here and here). Not buildings and organizational stuff but rather what made people tick and how they affected society is what interests me. Often, not an easy task, given a lack of primary sources, but hats off to those who write about it.

I was handed at the weekend a publication titled:”Clarence Rd Central Baptist Church 1882-1982”. The first thing I noticed was the author was Tim Whitney, who actually taught at the school I was attending for a year (he fostered my love for reading and made me a school librarian). I also found his father was once a minister at the church and it was he who taught me New Testament Greek. Tim admitted there was a lot he didn’t say and he relied a lot on church records and things like newspaper cuttings for more distant past stuff and there were periods when that record was sparse.

My purpose here is not to go over the history of the church except in one small area. As a community activist, Clarence Road Baptist and me have crossed paths on a number of occasions (and once swords when I was part responsible for an invasion of the homeless) and it has struck me, something Tim’s essay confirms, that the church has been active in the community in a number of notable ways. Shortly it will be hosting “57 West”, a church dealing specifically with the homeless. It still hosts Street Pastors; and for a period of eight years, once a month, that was my base for going out on duty. When I got involved in helping asylum seekers, some 12 years back, it was just after an organization, CART, which supported asylum seekers, finished up (for good reasons), having been based at the church.

My entrée into community work was in setting up a project called Growing Together, which helped people with mental health issues, around the turn of the millennium. We recognized there were gaps in the community concerning how needs were met and here was an opportunity for churches to work with the wider community to do something about the needs. What I discovered, was here also was another example of there being nothing new under the sun. Some years beforehand, the minister, Barry Walton, who at an advanced age still continues in ministry, along with another Baptist minister, Roger Collins, built up a work that arose part as a result of patients from mental hospitals being discharged into the community. They ran a regular day / community centre from the church and took on the management of several units of sheltered accommodation for folk with mental health related support needs. They even employed a social worker, Madge Higgs, who was paid by the local council, showing in the process how church and government can work together. This and other community work is detailed in Tim’s essay.

There was a lot of a social edged work the church undertook. For example, in the two Great Wars it gave help to troops, including running a canteen, being as it was strategically placed in the town centre. In the inter-war period it offered help to the unemployed and the rising numbers of holiday makers (I would be intrigued to know what exactly), and from what I could make out something not so dissimilar to the soup kitchen I am involved with. All this was alongside normal “churchy” activities. And reading between the lines, it had its own struggles and was even by the times modest in size as far as congregation goes. And as Tim also pointed out, it began because of a “split” from the nearby Avenue Baptist Church.

I suppose, as I reflect on my own community activist career, the areas of activism that heads the list are helping folk with mental health issues, asylum (sanctuary) seekers, homeless folk and members of the wider community in assorted practical ways. In all these areas Clarence Road Baptist Church has also been involved, for 135 years, and that involvement is ongoing. I find all this heartening and thought it something worth mentioning!

As a final thought, I think Tim Whitney should have the last word, who after all not only attempted (with success) a challenging piece of objective historical research but also was part of and lived on top of the church for a number of years: “Much of Clarence Road’s work, since it first opened the Lecture Hall to troops in 1914, has been untraditional in character and concerned with a wide ministry to the community. The results of such work cannot be measured in numerical strength of the Church. Rather it is what theologians have come to call being ‘the servant Church’ or as the New Testament has it making the Word flesh for people today.

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