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Christianity frontpageSt 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.

St Ninian, Whitby, interior
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.

St Ninian, Whitby, apse
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, I found the furnishings dusty and a bit down-at-heel; the bookstall was threadbare; and everything had a makeshift, second-hand air. Yet what it also had was a palpable sensation of great 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. It's looked after by Fr Philip French, who has moved through a number of fringe denominations and is, let's say, not without controversy. People often make the mistake of thinking the church is under the actual Roman Catholic Church, but it is very much not, as the Diocese of Middlesbrough will tell you very definitely!

Discover more about St Ninian's here.

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