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.
In 2013 St Ninian's left the ACC again and
it isn't very clear what's going to happen to
it now. It may be part of the Old Catholic
Church in Europe but that isn't completely
Discover more about
St Ninian's here.