St Ninian's, Whitby
I mentioned St Ninian's to a friend who moves in Yorkshire ecclesiastical circles, who said, 'Oh yes, the mad church'.
Wandering round the fair city of Whitby, I was intrigued by the exterior of St Ninian's, which looked very much like an old
Nonconformist chapel. Its name, appearance, location, and welcoming open door simply didn't match one another. It matched even
less when I went in and discovered an Anglo-Catholic adventure playground of the most trad variety.
I'd assumed that this was a former Nonconformist chapel taken over by one of the various breakaway Anglican Catholic
organisations, and filled with their bits and pieces. I had it completely wrong. The church was built as a nominally-Anglican proprietory
chapel in the 1770s, hence the very Nonconformist look to the place, and was brought within the CofE mainstream by the great
Victorian-Edwardian vicar of Whitby, George Austen. He'd intended his own St Hilda's on the clifftop, staring symbolically across the
harbour at the low-church St Mary's, as the spearhead of High Anglicanism in the area (and, he dreamt, as the cathedral seat of a
bishop), but by the early 1900s St Ninian's was far outstripping it, becoming the home of a very advanced Anglo-Catholic
congregation. The membership had dwindled by the 1980s and the CofE moved to close the church. The congregation refused to be
closed, and after a bit of shillyshallying ended up joining the Anglican Catholic Church, which had in turn broken away from the
Episcopal Church of the USA in the 1970s.
This means St Ninian's is a bit odd. As
you can see in the photo above, it retains
its ranks of pews unbroken by a central
aisle - designed for people to sit and
listen to sermons rather than process to
an altar. Yet all around is the
paraphernalia of a very Catholic-minded
church indeed, including side altars and
swooning pre-War Stations of the Cross.
Apart from the high altar, which is
obviously well looked-after, the
furnishings are dusty and a bit
down-at-heel; the bookstall is
threadbare; and everything has a
makeshift, second-hand air. Yet what it
also has is a palpable sensation of
intense devotion, serious purpose, and
passionate dedication to what the
building represents. That doubtless
means the people who express that
dedication and devotion could, indeed,
be a bit peculiar, but that doesn't
undermine what this place does and how
it feels. And that earns my admiration.
Discover more about
St Ninian's here.