About ten years ago, the Rector of St John’s Princes Street, the Edinburgh church where I sing in the choir, gathered together a very small group of us interested in history. The question was how to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the church in 2018. All of us expressed interest in different areas.
I was interested in the founding of the church, about which very little was known, and the result was my PhD, The Episcopal Congregation of Charlotte Chapel, Edinburgh, 1794-1818, which studied the congregation from its foundation until the point where they moved into St John’s in 1818. It turned out to be a far more interesting group of people than I expected, and led me in all kinds of historical directions.
Now, the bicentenary year is upon us, and a much larger committee is organising all kinds of events. The first of these will be an exhibition of stories and pictures of people in the church. Here is a sneak preview of the stories I contributed of the first two rectors, whose acquaintance I very much enjoyed making in my studies.
Bishop Daniel Sandford, 1766-1830
St John’s founder and first rector
Daniel Sandford was a junior member of a large and important family, the Sandfords of Sandford Hall, Shropshire.
His father died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother who was a member of the bluestocking circle of aristocratic female intellectuals, some of whom remained lifelong friends. Unlike some of their male counterparts in the universities, the female bluestockings never doubted that the intellectual enlightenment was compatible with Christian faith. This conviction became central to Sandford’s ministry.
It was also clear in all his writings that it never crossed his mind that women’s intellect might be in any way inferior to men’s. Of his seven children, four were girls, and his son John recalled how with his daughters he always ‘united tenderness with respect.’ This memoir was the last book read by the elderly Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was deeply impressed by this aspect of his character, and wrote that ‘I have never met with this remark in any other book’.
Equally formative for Sandford were the years he spent in Christ Church, Oxford. He specialised as a linguist, learning Greek and Hebrew when few clergy did. He retained a reputation for being a linguistic scholar all his life, and his sermons often hinge on the need for attention to linguistic detail to understand the true meaning of a text, instead of rushing to an opinion on the impression of a translation.
Oxford also inspired Sandford’s most lasting legacy. It was where he learned his love of gothic architecture, ancient liturgy, sacred music, the church year. After a 25 year ministry in Edinburgh, Sandford at last had the opportunity to recreate that worship experience, in the unlikely setting of a booming commercial, presbyterian, enlightenment Scottish city.
Sandford suffered from chronic rheumatic pain for much of his life, and perhaps because of this he could be cantankerous, fussy, anxious and unreasonable. Correspondence between exasperated vestrymen or fellow bishops record their efforts to ‘manage’ him in these moods. But he also had a wry wit, and a share in the high Regency sense of fun. He began collecting comic anecdotes late in life, which perhaps inspired his young assistant Edward Bannerman Ramsay to do the same.
Dean Edward Bannerman Ramsay 1793-1872
St John’s second rector
Dean Ramsay is remembered as a ‘moderate’, which is often understood to mean he had no strong convictions. But this is a serious misunderstanding of the man chiefly responsible for building up the Episcopal Church from a tiny and amateurish ‘society’ into a significant denomination, and keeping it together in the face of serious threats of schism.
Between 1830 and 1872, episcopal churches were built all over Scotland, with a professionalised, trained and financially supported body of clergy. And again and again it was the energy, the practicality and organisation, the networking skills, and the detailed legwork of Dean Ramsay which brought these projects to fruition.
One of his last acts was to recruit an energetic and effective new bishop for Edinburgh, and to choose with him a design for St Mary’s Cathedral, which gave the Scottish Episcopal Church a diocesan structure equal to England for the first time.
Through the 1840s and 50s, partisan ‘tractarians’ and ‘evangelicals’ threatened schism if their demands to were not met, or if those of their opponents were. The mud they slung at Ramsay from both sides has damaged his reputation ever since, but his tireless work to keep the church together, and his deep distress at the episode, testify that he was far from a ‘lukewarm’ Christian.
While convinced episcopacy was the best form of Christianity, Ramsay refused to allow it was the only form, and therefore struck up ecumenical friendships and collaboration with anyone who would share the task of Christian evangelisation — beginning as a curate in Somerset with the local Methodists.
At St John’s, Ramsay’s ministry, like Sandford’s, was marked by a passion for education, and a conviction that the best way to preach the gospel was to teach people to think for themselves.
Whereas his most famous work is the Reminiscences of Scottish life and character, his most important was surely his Catechism for the Young Persons of St John’s, which ran into many editions and was used all over Britain. ‘The main object is, to make it the means of forming precise and correct ideas,’ he wrote in the introduction. Children learned through his catechism that to cultivate curiosity, and ask questions back instead of merely learning answers by rote, was to imitate Christ, who was found asking teachers questions as a child in the temple.