A new book about a Lancaster church reveals how in the 1800s wealth determined where people sat in church. Here author Chris Park who took early retirement from Lancaster University to free up more time for writing, talks about his new book – To Love and Serve The Lord: The Story of St Thomas’ Church, Lancaster, 1841-210 – and his writing career.
Q Tell us about your writing?
This is the most recent book in a line stretching back to the late 1970s. As an academic with a particular interest in the environment I wrote a number of textbooks on environmental themes, but since taking early retirement five years ago I have enjoyed being able to write about anything that grabs my attention. This has included a biography of St Francis of Assisi, and last year I wrote Swaledale and Richmond: The Story of a Dale as a tribute to where I was born. I also wrote God: Real or Imagined? as a contribution to the debate started by Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion.
Q What was your most interesting book to write?
Oddly enough, a dictionary - The Oxford Dictionary of Environment and Conservation. That was a real labour of love. The task was relatively straightforward with modern word-processing software, and I have the utmost admiration for people who wrote dictionaries the old-fashioned way, on cards sorted in wooded drawers!
Q What made you write your latest book?
I have been a member of St Thomas’ Church on Penny Street (the one with the yellow doors) since the early 1980s, but have long been curious about its history and how that has shaped the church it is today.
Q How long did it take to write?
Rather naively I thought at the outset that it might take about three months, but that was before I discovered a rich treasure-trove of material that could be pulled together to tell a much more detailed story than I ever imagined possible. It took me two years in the end. The finished book is more than 550 pages long, so it might take some readers two years to read it!
Q What sources did you use?
I stumbled on searchable digital copies of The Lancaster Gazette, a local weekly newspaper which ran through most of the 19th Century, online, which gave fascinating details about Lancaster when the church was founded (the early 1840s), including reports on the opening ceremony, consecration service, and about church services and activities over that century. The church’s own archives include minutes of church meetings, details of marriages and baptisms (not of deaths; the church never had its own churchyard). Online geneology sites give useful information on important local people from the past, including national census information from 1841 to 1911.
Q Did anything interesting emerge?
Many interesting facts and stories emerged, but I’ll give just a few examples. I got particularly interested in some of the early detail, including how St Thomas’ was set up in 1841 as an evangelical (Low Church) break-away from the Priory Church (High Church), when there were already two other Anglican churches in Lancaster - St John’s (now redundant, High Church) and St Anne’s (now The Dukes Theatre, Low Church). It was also interesting discovering what the original parish of St Thomas’ was like - small and crowded, with multiple poor and often large families living in unsanitary, cramped houses between Marton Street and the canal (there were no suburbs south of the canal in the 1840s), with most people employed in the mills along the canal. The social and economic conditions in Lancaster were mirrored both in the church congregation and where they sat in church (through much of the 19th Century); the wealthy could afford large box pews at the front of church - the “best seats in the house”; middle class people could afford to rent wooden pews, with doors to keep others out; poor people had to sit on hard wooden benches around the edge of the church.
Q Where does the title To Love and Serve the Lord come from?
It is borrowed from the blessing said at the end of an Anglican service, where the congregation is called upon to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, in the name of Christ, Amen.” The text comes from Deuteronomy 10: 12-13, and I chose it because it captures the essence of why St Thomas’ exists, and what each of us is called to do as we walk out of church after each service and into the world outside.
Q The book stops in 2010 - what happened next?
The church lives on, but it made sense to tell the story up to the end of the time when Rev Peter Guinness was vicar; he moved south to serve a church in Gillingham, and his successor - Rev Jon Scamman - has been here since. Someone else can update the story sometime in the future, but of course that’s like chasing a moving target!
*The story of St Thomas’ Church is available from www.lulu.com