Alfred Place Baptist Church

Guernsey

We went by train from Aberystwyth on the first part of our journey to the Channel Islands . We called Alec Taylor from the train as it hurtled along from Birmingham New Street and Birmingham International. Bev Taylor answered briefly and very quietly. It was her “there is a prayer meeting going on in the background” kind of voice, though she didn’t mention the fact. She arrived at the International station in her car about the same time as the train arrived and within ten minutes we were at their Manse. The Prayer Meeting was going strong. When it ended I joined the congregation and was introduced to the new pastor, Gearoid Marley, and his wife. He is an Irishman and was raised a Roman Catholic. He had some aspirations after the priesthood and began studying at Maynooth College in County Kildare , but he found no peace there and many questions were unanswered, so he didn’t finish the course and left for the Midlands to become a psychiatric nurse. A colleague witnessed to him, and the questions for which he could find no answers in Maynooth he found in the Bible. He later studied at London Theological Seminary, graduating last May, and getting a unanimous call to the Reformed Baptist Church and now has smoothly taken over from Alec Taylor. They are working in tandem with Alec steadily withdrawing from the preaching.

 

We were up at 5.20 on Thursday morning to get the 7 am flight to Guernsey . Alec’s car was covered in frost and ice, and he leafed through his wallet and took out a credit card to scrape the frost off the windscreen. Pitying his struggles I took out a credit card too and scraped off the frost on the passenger side and the side windows. When we had finished Alec put his credit card away and said, “I hope that wasn’t a good card of yours. I just use an out-of-date card from my wallet.” Thanks Alec.

 

The flight to island of Guernsey , near the French coast, was via the neighbouring (rival) larger island of Jersey . Jersey is about twenty miles away, France about forty, and it is 125 miles to Weymouth , England . We didn’t touch down at our destination until after 9 am. Most passengers on our flight had de-planed in Jersey . I think we were six or seven passengers who continued to this island of 60,000 people. It is famous in our circles as the place of birth and upbringing of John Blanchard. I saw the Anglican church building, Holy Trinity, which he had attended and where he read the lesson (still evangelical with the inevitable Alpha advertisements and stickers on the glass doors to the church). We stayed with a man whom he had taught in the church youth group. Young Life was the evangelistic organisation which brought evangelists to the island, like David Shepherd from Wales . John has retained his strong affection for Guernsey . He calls his home ‘ Sarnia ’ which is the old patois name for this island. I think there have been two occasions when he has arranged to have freely distributed a copy of one of his smaller books to every house on the island. Certainly he did that with the Y2K book.

 

I had gone to Guernsey to take the 187th anniversary services of La Villiaze Evangelical Congregational Church. There is one other confessional free grace church on the island, a Strict and Particular Baptist Church with a pastor, the congregation of which being the same size as La Villiaze, and there is some movement of members from one congregation to another. We were last here at this church on their 175th anniversary. Numbers have dropped since then, but the pastor Bob Chapman remains as its minister, and he is a wee bit older than me. I guess there is hardly a single congregation on the island numbering a hundred people; most are much smaller.

 

We stayed in the house of Bill and Pat, and another couple of English people, Tony and Jean, were also staying there. Good fellowship marked our days together. The atmosphere was a bit like a Scottish communion season. Bill’s house is overlooking a rocky bay in St Samson’s with the French coast a fine line to the north, and then to the east and west the nearby islands of Herme, Alderney, and Sark, while Jersey is discernible to the south-east. Economically Guernsey depends on international offshore banking. This is the one contemporary industry that brings young people to live here. Moving here they become fiercely loyal to the island. It is a lovely place, the warmest spot in the English speaking world in Europe (though it rained part of every day we were here). Tourism is in decline as English holidaymakers can get to Spain and the south of France more cheaply, and there is guaranteed sunshine in those places at this time of the year and long before Easter. The biggest hotels in the capital, St Peter Port, have been knocked down and self-catering flats or condominiums have replaced them. There are, however, fine country hotels dotted all over the island. The bottom has also dropped out of agriculture. It is cheaper to buy flowers from Israel or Kenya than to grow them here, and the number of Guernsey cows had dropped to about 1,800 cattle, producing just about enough milk for the island population. So the finance industry is the basis of the island’s economic future. One has to be a virtual millionaire to be allowed to purchase a house and live in the Channel Islands . There is a yuppie feel to the main street in the capital with its power-dressed men and women, shopping-mall type shops, boutiques, jewellery outlets and restaurants.

 

During the Reformation a Huguenot preacher took his family to Guernsey . His wife was Katherine Cawches, and his married daughters were Guillemine Gilbert and Perotine Massey. They were arrested and the justices observed that the three women had not been obedient to the commandments of “holy church”. The clergy examined them and found them guilty of heresy. They were condemned to be burned ‘until they be consumed to ashes.’ The three were tied to three stakes, partially strangled and then burned to death. Perotine was pregnant and a baby boy was born as she fell on her side. A man picked up the baby and laid it on the grass but the Bailiff ordered that it be thrown into the fire to be burned with his mother, grandmother and aunt. After the death of Mary, Protestant Queen Elizabeth came to the throne and the Dean and Bailiff who had passed sentence on the women were summoned to London . There they disavowed the Roman Catholic faith and begged for mercy. Very substantial fines were imposed upon them and all who took part in the brutality were dismissed from office. In the Guernsey museum a fine old volume of the 17th century edition of Fox’s Book of Martyrs is on display, its pages open on the account of this martyrdom. The Roman influence on the island was effectively destroyed by this evil and during the next century Puritanism thrived in Guernsey and a fine network of Presbyterian churches was established. At other times real religion has flourished here too, especially during the 18th century awakening and many living Wesleyan churches were established. The atmosphere of the island was changed for a hundred years.

 

1923 and 24 also saw a real awakening in one part of the island, as there were also some powerful works of the Spirit around that time in Sunderland, Lowestoft, Neath and Ulster, and by the end of the 20s in Port Talbot too. On Guernsey the work took place in Saint Pierre-du-Bois in the north west of the island. It began with a young woman visiting the cottages along the coast with some friends distributing tracts. They
spoke to a group of men who met to play cards on a Sunday afternoon in a greenhouse attached to a smithy. They held open air services and then, when the winter came, prepared a room in an empty cottage and invited a local teacher, Walter Brehaut, to preach to them. He had been converted in 1916 and had preached among the various denominations in French and English. He accepted their invitation with much diffidence, but once he had overcome his feelings of inadequacy and began to preach then the word of God had the most powerful effect on the congregations. The room was packed every night. They sang the old hymns unaccompanied. There were no musical instruments. They sat on hard forms. A wind blew though the doorway. The floor was concrete. Men came there straight from work and Walter spoke to them as people he knew. There were as many listening outside through the open windows and door as filled the room. It was at this time of the year that these meetings took place, but the people didn’t stay away because of the cold. Many were convicted of their sin. There were no appeals to instant ‘decision.’ No hand raising. No coming to the front or staying behind after the service. Walter Brehaut maintained a strong aversion to those things throughout his life. The conversion of a soul was a sovereign work of God. It was a regular thing for young men who were under conviction to walk with the evangelist part of the way to his home which was three miles away in order to seek guidance. On the Thursday of the first week two men were given assurance of salvation, both were heavy drinkers, one markedly so. Others followed, none directly under the preaching nor at the meetings. The Lord met with these people on their beds at night or at their places of employment or even on the road. The blessing continued night after night, and these special meetings lasted for about three weeks, but the work of grace continued throughout that winter. The notorious local blacksmith was one of those converted. A habitual drunkard who spent every penny on alcohol was also gripped by the Word. Months later he turned up with framed pictures of the Gospel Ship (with texts on every part of its rigging), and he presented a copy to everyone. There must have been between thirty and forty people converted, most of whom went on in the faith throughout their lives. I met Walter’s son last time I was on Guernsey , but though he is still alive he is not a well man with some senility, and so I could not speak to him on this occasion. Walter Brehaut kept a record of those days and in 1967 wrote a moving account of them in the Banner of Truth magazine (no. 47). The 21st century is a day of small things as the tide of relativism, materialism, apathy, evolutionism and anti-Christian conviction increasingly drowns European media, cultural life and education. As Walter wrote, 35 years ago, “What is needed is a ‘Breath from heaven’, to fill the sails and then the ship will resume its course. For this breath we wait in patience and in prayer; it is ours to set the sails, it is for the Spirit to blow the gale. May we experience it in our day!”

 

I wondered whether there was any plaque to commemorate the murders of these three women and the baby. There never had been until the church at which I was speaking, La Villiaze Evangelical Congregational Church, decided that that absence should be remedied. They purchased and designed a fine bronze plaque on which they inscribed a modest strong account of what happened with the names of the three martyred women upon it. They found a local businesswoman, Mrs Cecily Whittam, very agreeable to the plaque being attached to a high wall she owns bordering the Tower Hill Steps near the place where the three stakes had been set up. So in April 1999 a service to commemorate the murders was held on the steps, and Mrs Cecily Whittam herself unveiled the plaque. Sixty people turned up for the meeting and the hymn of Horatius Bonar was sung,

 

“Far down the ages now,

Much of her journey done,

The pilgrim church pursues her way,

Until her crown be won;

The story of the past

Comes up before her view;

How well it seems to suit her still,

Old, and yet ever new.”

 

We were taken there and were glad to see it inviolate and now on the tourist guide walking tours. It is not far from a Christian book shop, but that is a poor place without books published by the Banner of Truth, Evangelical Press, Christian Focus, Day One etc. Alpha is everything. There are a scattering of Christians in all the churches, and the faith that yearns for God to make bare his arm is still alive there. May the breath of God breathe upon the place, and on us all.

 

GEOFF THOMAS