Rejoice! The church has sent another missionary to save us godless Brightonians! Our new saviour comes in the shape of the ever so trendy Reverend Archie Coates. He knows what we need: more god. He’s so wrong.
When it comes to beliefs and religions we’ve got plenty. It’s just not necessarily Church of England or god based or even formal worship but we do have spirituality. Just see the crystal and mystical shops in the North Laine, Jedis on the census, Hare Krishnas jiving down Western Road, consider Brighton and Hove’s Jewish community, we have mosques and temples, the quiet Bahais near Preston Park, even the burning of the clocks on the winter solstice. You can even argue that radical politics forms a civic religion. Our souls are nourished in a myriad of ways.
When Rev. Coates calls us “godless” he means that we don’t have enough of his god and he thinks that, by extension, has resulted in social decay. But the established church has had a chequered experience in Brighton and has never been at the centre of the city’s culture.
From Conversion to the 17th Century…
I suggest that there is something in the heritage of Brighton that means the established church has given way to religious and spiritual plurality. Rev. Coates follows in the footsteps of St Wilfred who was attacked by belligerent Pagan locals when he tried to land in Sussex in the year 666. He didn’t return as a missionary for another 15 years. Despite our relative proximity to Canterbury, dense woodland and the treacherous weald proved tricky to penetrate. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 598 and yet Christianity may not have been widespread in Sussex until the 8th century, long after many more distant people in England had converted. We were slow starters on the Jesus thing.
Thinking more specifically about Brighton, the mother church St Nicholas’ has Saxon roots and is recorded in the Domesday Book. There was a small monastic institution where the Town Hall is now, an offshoot of Lewes Priory, but it was likely insignificant. What is clear though is that in the small maritime town of Brighton between conquest and reformation, religion wasn’t a dominating force. The little town literally clung onto survival with attacks from the French (Brighton was burnt down in 1533) and the constant onslaught from the sea.
In 1650, the population of the town is estimated at 4000. St Nicholas’ was the only church in town and there is no way even half the population could have squeezed in to what is quite a small building. In the middle of the seventeenth century, Brighton was the largest town in Sussex. Compare it to Lewes, which would have been smaller in terms of population. Lewes has at least half a dozen churches at that time, many of them bigger than Brighton’s sole church. This strikes me as clear evidence that Brighton’s people were not much troubled by churchgoing and formal religion.
It’s in the seventeenth century too that we see Brighton’s religious diversity emerge. A religious census of 1676 records 1740 Anglicans in the Brighton parish, 260 dissenters and not a single catholic. It wasn’t necessarily a tolerant time though. In 1658 a Quaker meeting was disturbed by Anglicans returning from church. Windows were broken and one worshiper was thrown out of town. One of the attackers was a woman with a bible. The Quakers established their first dedicated meeting house in central Brighton in 1700.
Enter our Patron Scientist and Patron Sinner…
Fast forward to 1750 and I think we learn a lot from the two ‘founders’ of modern Brighton: Dr Richard Russell and George, Prince of Wales, later Prince Regent and King George IV. Our Patron Scientist and Patron Sinner. Russell popularised the sea water cure and established Brighton as a resort town. The Regent developed that with his patronage in the following decades and attracted aristocratic and fashionable visitors.
The Regent ordered the building of the Chapel Royal near the Pavilion reputedly because he couldn’t be bothered to go all the way up the hill to St Nicholas’. It opened in 1795 and was only the second Anglican church in town at the time. He later gave up worshipping there too after a sermon offended him. Despite becoming later head of the Church of England, it’s worth remembering that the Regent bribed a vicar to marry him illegally to the Catholic Mrs Fitzherbert and that seems emblematic of his view of religion.
So Russell establishes Brighton as a kind of secular Lourdes and the Regent reinforces the town’s reputation for hedonism. The town expands dramatically and by 1818 the population is roughly 18000 (and that’s presumably greater when swelled with visitors) and yet there are still only two churches with 3000 places and a handful of chapels for dissenters. Clearly the majority of Brightonians could not have been godly church goers during this period. And such was the concern the vestry (essentially the council) resolved in 1818 to build a new church, St Peter’s was built between 1824 and 1828.
Only the enthusiasm of the Revs. Wagner in the 19th century bucks the trend. They oversaw a massive expansion in the burgeoning Victorian town and we can thank them for the great church buildings of St Martin’s, St Michael’s, St Bartholomew’s, St Paul’s and the lovely understated Church of the Annunciation on Washington Street. And while there may have been a boom in churchgoing for a while, it was their Victorian, patrician zeal that means the city has had a surplus of pews for bums far exceeding demand for a long time.
Not godless just less god…
The nineteenth century also saw the coming of the railways. After 1841, and to the present day, Brighton became a popular holiday resort and a daytrip destination. I think it’s fair to say that they don’t come here for god. I don’t think anyone ever came here for god. They come here for fun and sex and drink and drugs and excess and escape. Brighton is raffish and has a reputation for naughtiness and it’s certainly one of the reasons I love it.
My point is that Brighton’s long history shows that unlike many other places, this city is not an overtly godly place by Rev. Coate’s terms. The results of the 2001 census show we have fewer Christians and fewer churchgoers than anywhere in Britain. But it’s not a weakness. It’s not an illness to be cured. Rev. Coates has come to lead the “re-evangelisation of Brighton and transformation of this society.” I think he’ll find that it’s easier said than done because the church has rarely been an agent for change round here.