Emmanuel Anglican Church is a new Church for Tunbridge Wells. We are seeking to revive the work and vision of Selina, the Countess of Huntington. She established an Anglican Church for Tunbridge Wells in the 18th century. After some open air meetings in Tunbridge Wells, a church began meeting in her home, then moved to borrow an Independent Church building before erecting a new building in 1769. The church was called Emmanuel Church. George Whitefield was the first preacher at it. The services were similar to a Church of England church, but with the preaching modeled on the Bible teaching that energised the greatest religious movement England had seen – the 18th century revival.
Many today have little experience of church. Many today feel the strain of trying to live life without knowing God in a deep meaningful way. Our times are similar to the 18th century. Then, as today, ministers such as Charles Wesley and George Whitefield laboured outside the structures of the Church of England. They preached about Jesus in ways that led thousands to turn to God.
A wealthy and strategic woman, Selina the Countess of Huntington, financed building churches. She longed to uphold and promote all that was good in Anglicanism, including the 39 Articles, liturgy and episcopacy. The Free Church of England continues to stand for that today.
Selina was concerned for Tunbridge Wells. She wrote, ‘I have waited on the Lord and I did not visit Tunbridge Wells till I was confidently assured that he had called me there. The fields are white for harvest. May the precious name of him who died be made very dear to many in this place.’
The work in Tunbridge Wells developed in an entrepreneurial, faith-filled way. The Church of England refused to allow evangelists to use their buildings, so Selina arranged for Charles Wesley and others to preach in an Independent Church building. She then organised open air preaching – the first such event in Tunbridge Wells featured as the preachers none other than Rev’d Martin Madan and Rev’d Henry Venn. J.C. Ryle called Venn one of the ‘spiritual heroes’ of his century. Ryle wrote, ‘The effects produced by Henry Venn’s preaching appear to have been singularly deep, powerful, and permanent.’
Selina recorded that when Madan and Venn preached to the crowds ‘The Word came with power and the arrows of conviction stuck in the hearts of many.’
Sensing that God wanted to do a spiritual work in Tunbridge Wells, Selina purchased a house on Mt. Ephraim. From this base she hosted preachers such as George Whitefield and arranged for them to preach in the open air of the town. Reflecting on one such occasion, Selina wrote, ‘Truly God was in the midst of us. This leads me to hope God will smile on my humble efforts for the glory of his great name and the good of his people in Tunbridge Wells, and ultimately crown them with distinguished success.’
The Countess built a church called ‘Emmanuel Church’ near her Tunbridge Wells home in 1769. The opening service was led by George Whitefield. So many people crowded to hear him that the preaching had to continue with the most famous clergyman of his century standing on a tree stump outside.
Selina’s intention was that her churches would be organised into a denomination – the Free Church of England. It would be a Church which in the words of one of its early leaders would ‘Hold the Church of England’s doctrines, liturgy and government, but freed from what we consider unscriptural.’
As the Church of England continued over the years to drift from the teachings enshrined in its formularies, groups of clergy left to serve in the Free Church of England alongside ministers in churches that had been established by Selina. Some were prosecuted for doing so – many gave up financial security and prestigious positions for their convictions. The evangelical passion of Whitefield, the financial and organisational genius of Selina, the pastoral experiences of former Church of England Ministers – all this came together in the Free Church of England.
Tunbridge Wells had a key role in the story. The first president of the Free Church of England was Rev’d George Jones. He was minister of Emmanuel Church from 1849-88. After Selina’s death papers were found in which she detailed her plan to bring all her churches into the Free Church of England. While the Free Church of England in general benefited from a union with the American Reformed Episcopal Church in 1844, Emmanuel Church in Tunbridge Wells was demolished in 1974 to provide better access to a hospital. The Civic Society called it an act of ‘cultural vandalism’.
The history of Emmanuel Church in Tunbridge Wells is a story of entrepreneurial faith and outreach. Come visit us to discover how ‘Emmanuel Anglican Church’ is reviving the exciting vision of Selina, Venn and Whitefield.
The Free Church of England is an episcopal church – which means that we value the role of bishops who oversee a number of local congregations.
Several important aspects of our church government seek to ensure we remain faithful to scripture. Firstly, there is the doctrinal statement that governs all our appointments and priorities – The Declaration of Principles. This grew out of a need to correct past errors, but remains a concise summary of reformed evangelical Anglican Christianity. Secondly, our Church has a set of carefully crafted Canons (detailed legal procedures) and a Constitution, which govern matters such as ordinations, worship, discipline etc. These ensure that important decisions are taken in ways that benefit from past wisdom and experience. Thirdly, members of our local churches debate and vote on matters that affect our denomination. This occurs at the annual Convocation, which gathers Bishops, ministers and lay representatives from local churches.
In a culture that has both great need and great suspicion of leadership, we believe that our Anglican government structures commend themselves on the basis of their wisdom, longevity and fidelity with Scripture.