September 1992 marks the centenary of a unique church building in London at 131 Burton Road, Brixton. Now known as Michael Church, it had been purpose-built as a school with a hall suitable for use as a place of worship. It was among the first buildings constructed to further the ideals of “The Academy”, a movement within the organized New Church. As far as we are aware it is the only one of the original edifices remaining in use. It continues, as it has done throughout the century, to be the home of a congregation with ideals and forms of worship stemming from The Academy movement.
To appreciate the complex history associated with this building, we need first to uncover a few of the roots of this Academy movement.
By the middle of the 19th century the New Church (a body which based its tenets of faith on what it understood to be truths revealed to the world through Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had congregations of members scattered world-wide. In England these congregations were under the ‘umbrella’ of the “General Conference” of the New Church, while in North America most were organized under the “General Convention” of the New Church – both bodies essentially with congregational forms of government.
The Academy in America
The Academy movement arose in Pennsylvania in the late 1850’s led by Rev. William H. Benade, an ordaining minister in the General Convention. In its early days it took a form similar to a private but not secret club to which no new members were admitted except by the unanimous vote of the others. It resembled a species of scientific fellowship which met to study doctrinal matters in depth aimed at internal evangelization and a deeper understanding of what it considered a Divine revelation. It stressed the authoritative nature of this revelation and looked to its ordained priesthood for enlightened perception and leadership.
The establishment of schools in which its children would be educated in harmony with these ideas was also emphasized and by 1877 The Academy had applied for and obtained a legal charter from the state of Pennsylvania giving it the rights of:
- Propagating the Heavenly doctrines of the New Jerusalem and establishing the New Church signified in the Apocalypse by the New Jerusalem.
- Promoting education in all its forms.
- Educating young men for the ministry.
- Establishing a library.
In September of that year its divinity school was opened in Philadelphia. Most Academy members led by Benade were then also members of the General Church of Pennsylvania – a body which under Convention rules had the power to establish an episcopal form of ministry and to receive as members any society anywhere which wished to be associated with it. Benade was elected its President and in 1873 took the title of Bishop.
All of which would appear to be very remote from our little church in Brixton! So – how did it all happen?
The Academy in Britain
Apparently a serial publication published by this Academy and called “Words for the New Church” first drew the attention of others in both the General Convention in the USA and the General Conference in Britain to the doctrinal emphasis of this new group. Trans-oceanic travel spread the knowledge too as visitors travelled back and forth and met in each others houses. Dr Rudolf L. Tafel, a German-trained pedagogue who had been a charter member of the Academy became a tutor at the New Church Theological School in London. He also had a pastorate at the Camden Road Society in London and a small group of interested potential “Academicians” began to form. In an attempt to publicize the new Academy in Britain, Tafel awarded (in the name of the Academy) the degree of B.Th. to Robert J. Tilson on his graduation from the Conference theological school in 1879.
As could have been expected this action stirred up a hornets nest and not only was Tafel removed as tutor at the college but a bitter and vitriolic correspondence appeared in print on both sides of the Atlantic. In the midst of the furore, Rev. Tilson took up his pastorate – first at Liverpool and six years later (1885) with the Camberwell congregation in its fine premises at Flodden Road in Brixton. Tilson was blessed with considerable talents as a missionary and pastor and under his leadership the congregation grew and prospered. Not only did he provide leadership to the small group of Academy followers scattered throughout Britain, but he began to spread its ideals to his congregation.
The General Church of the Advent of the Lord
On both sides of the Atlantic the strongly felt differences in interpretation of the meaning of the Writings became more and more clear and apparently unreconcilable. Friction grew and by November 1890, led by Bishop Benade the American Academy members withdrew from the General Convention and re-organized themselves as “The General Church of the Advent of the Lord”. Benade, now old and infirm, held that this new body really consisted of two churches – one therefore representing the external branch and known as “The General Church of the Academy”, and the other being more internal and known as “The General Church of the Advent of the Lord”.
While this was occurring in September 1890, an Academy School under the leadership of Rev. C. Bostock had been opened in London using as premises rooms in the Masonic Hall in Camberwell not far from the Flodden Road Society and patronized by the children of some of its members.
However, open animosity from some members of the General Conference toward the Academy’s interpretation of the nature of the Writings (and especially of the work “Conjugial Love”) became more and more vehement. In the summer of 1889 Bishop Benade became seriously ill while passing through London on his way to the Continent. Leading American Academy members also on tour rallied around and eight members were cordially welcomed at a special gathering of the Camberwell Society. Despite the kindness and cordiality, the problem of the genuine differences was not solved. To preserve peace, on March 5th 1891, Tilson tendered his resignation as pastor of the Camberwell Society.
Fifty-nine members of the congregation joined him and on 28th March 1891 they re-commenced worshipping together in rooms at the Masonic Hall. Tilson advised his followers to join the General Church of the Advent of the Lord if they felt ready to do so, but advised those who felt unsure to take time for instruction and thought first. He himself felt it his duty and great privilege to seek a home in the General Church of the Advent of the Lord.
Back to Burton Road
But where was this “home” to be? Many members of his “new” group already lived in the area. Centred around the attractive new Myatts Park, the Minet Estate was just being developed and seemed an ideal location.
Among the members of the Academy in the London area was C. J. Whittington – a successful city financier, amateur musician and talented composer. As member and organist of the Camden Road Society under R. F. Tafel he had become a leading and active supporter of the Academy ideals and for several years had been in close contact with the leaders in Pennsylvania and at their behest had begun to set the words of the Psalms to original new music to be used in worship.
In common with many other Victorian gentlemen, he was father to a large family and concerned with their education. All of these qualities proved to be to the benefit of the nascent society for by September 1891 he wrote to friends in America that he had secured a very good site in Burton Road on which he proposed to erect
a School House – a two storey building containing a hall or school room about 40 X 25 feet in the upper part and with appropriate offices below. The hall is to be used on Sunday for worship conducted under the auspices of the General Church of the Advent of the Lord.
Plans were apparently quickly drawn up and approved and by September 1892 the building was ready for occupation.
Little is known of the details of the actual construction – neither the name of its architect nor builder – just that it was on a long leasehold of ninety years for an annual rent of £25; that the building had cost about £1,000 and to quote Whittington’s own words:
I have not gone in for anything extravagant. I will offer the building to the Academy and General Church rent free. I shall pay the ground rent and the building will remain my property but to put matters on a business footing I will let the building to Rev. E. C. Bostock at a nominal sum subject to the usual notice on either side.
And so our centennial story begins…
NEXT - Chapter 2 - Early Years