Column: Northampton's city status bid built on a history of faith

Rev Oliver Coss considers the town's colourful religious history

Friday, 10th December 2021, 1:40 pm
Religion has been important in Northampton since before the days of the Crusades

West Northamptonshire Council backed proposals last week to apply for city status for Northampton in 2022’s civic honours competition, celebrating the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen.

There’s an undeniable opportunity here. My own contribution is to point out the unrivalled collection of church buildings, a unique ensemble comprising examples of almost every architectural period still extant in these isles. And these are complemented further by the rest of Northamptonshire.

It’s not merely a matter of them epitomising the sort of heritage I want to focus on, but because the story of faith in a town like this is deeply consequent to its broader history.

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“Jerusalem is for us an object of worship that we could not give up, even if there were but one of us left,” said King Richard.

It’s no wonder that the Earl of Northampton, returning from the Crusades, felt so moved to construct a round church here, in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, chief among Christianity’s most important sites.

Acts like that were the beginning of the glories of the parish churches of Northampton, tracing the way from Norman buildings on Saxon foundations, through the Middle Ages and the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the great world wars, and unto the present day.

And we’re continuing to both maintain what we have and build what we need.

I recently spent some time with the vicar of Kings Heath where work is about to be commissioned to put St Augustine’s Church back into use, and a new church is being pioneered in Upton, where the parish church was made redundant many years ago.

And that’s to speak only of the Church of England, and not the many denominations reaching in and through our town.

Northampton has a rocky past when it comes to inter-faith relations.

The great St Hugh of Lincoln was famously brought here to put down an anti-Semitic lynch mob who had attempted to canonise a man who’d been terrorising Jewish groups.

But the recent history of the place has been of people of faith and goodwill committing themselves to one another; being of clear and consistent benefit to our neighbours; and of deepening their commitment to the place in which we live.

The recent developments to Stimpson Avenue’s mosque, or the new gurdwara on St James’ Mill Road has not only put faith at the heart of the town, but has provided a robust and confident safety net for many of its people.

The point of all this is that we’ve grown out of the ‘town’ label.

Sure, we’ll have to rewrite our songs and redesign our signs.

There’ll be some empty promises and failed schemes on the way. As long as there’s been democracy there have been people willing to over-promise in order to get on.

But among the towns of Northamptonshire – the cosy and the beautiful, the challenging and the troubled – it’s time we stood out for who we are, as much as who we want to be.

Sure, we can mute our expectations and protect this place from further knocks to its already battered self-confidence, but lets just remember the Norman earl who, foreshadowing William Blake by a few centuries, looked upon the town and determined that a piece of Jerusalem be ‘builded here’, in England’s green and pleasant lands.