Reading back through my diary about a trip we took one May I was reminded of a visit we made to St Mary de Crypt right in the middle of Gloucester. Nice as it was I am reminded that a Church is not just a building- it is people – and here St Mary’s has some claim to fame. It was at St Mary’s that George Whitefield preached his first sermon after he was ordained and the pulpit he used is still in use today. Whitefield’s name, along with that of John Wesley, has become synonymous with the 18th Century Evangelical Revival which undoubtedly changed the course of English history. The same year that Whitefield preached his first sermon a child was baptised at St Mary’s and later attended its Grammar School – that child was Robert Raikes.
Many people credit Raikes as being the founder of the Sunday School movement. Now when we say Sunday School we should not think of what we have today, these were much different. They were designed to give poorer children, many of whom worked long hours in factories and fields, the chance to learn the Three R’s. In an age when education was only for those with money, this was revolutionary. – Not a bad heritage to have as a church.
In the 18th century Britain was not a democratic nation. With fewer than one in eight Englishmen entitled to take part in elections. If you were a woman or working-class you were excluded from the electoral process, and so were most middle-class men. Among the elite ruling class, many were opposed to change, since political reform would mean they had to give up some of their privileges. But thanks to the likes of Whitfield and Rakes the foundation of change was laid. The Evangelical Revival brought with it a longing for fair play and justice. Concern for those who were suffering and Methodism gave rise to the first trade unions.
Education gave working people the tools to organise and to pass on ideas to those outside their immediate circle enabling the Chartist movement to eventually span the whole country. The fight for justice was hard. People died and others were transported to hostile lands so that we can enjoy many of the freedoms we take for granted today. That is one reason I am appalled at the low number that turn out to vote in elections. This May sees both Local Council and European Parliament Elections. If you read this before then, please use your vote. If not, then May next year brings with it a General Election that will decide the fate of this country for the next five years. Please use your vote.In the 18th Century St. Mary de Crypt was, like so many Churches, at the forefront of social revolution and care. It is sad to say that three hundred years later, churches are once again having to take on that role as the social conditions of many return to levels not seen for a hundred years. That is why we at St. David’s are happy to support our local Food Bank.Jesus’ ministry contained two prongs. One was to call those that oppressed to account and the second was to help and support people whenever possible. Jesus was less concerned with a Kingdom of Heaven ‘up there’ and more to do with a Kingdom of Heaven ‘here and now’. Today we can call to account, through the ballot box. We can also, in some small way, help those who through circumstances are worse off than ourselves.
As the Bible teaches us: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” History shows that small actions by individuals can have big results.
(This article by Dave was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in May 2014)