St John the Baptist church is a small stone building in the middle of the village. It has two parts: the chancel at the east end and the nave at the west end. At the west end there is a small turret in which hang a pair of bells. The reference books state that it was built over 1843-8 and so it essentially is an early Victorian structure. In fact, the history appears to be more complicated.
1. The early Victorian history:
There is no doubt that the church was extensively rebuilt in 1843-8 by the rector, the Rev Dr Thomas Rowley, also the headmaster of Bridgnorth Grammar School. He provided an account of this work in the parish registers,
- beginning with the rebuilding of the chancel in 1843,
- followed by the re-roofing in 1844
- the lengthening of the nave by 8 feet in 1845 for the new bell turret.
- The west window was added in 1846,
- in 1847 the inside of the church was clad in new stone
- and in 1848 the porch was rebuilt.
- Whilst this was going on, new fittings were added to the inside of the church;
- the replica Norman font was donated in 1845
Virtually the only possible surviving feature from the previous church could have been portions of the outside wall of the naves.
2. The mystery
The mysteries arise from two paintings of the church, held by Shropshire archives and which are accessible on the internet at www.secretshropshire.org.uk
- The first of these is not dated but is known to be from the middle of the 19th century. It seems to show the church before Dr Rowley’s restoration and probably dates from about 1840. There is no porch but above the door is a pointed arch which served as a window: the blocked remains of this can still be seen behind the current porch today. There are numerous differences between this and the current church.
- The second painting carries a date: 1791 and was the work of a well known church historian, the Rev Williams. The building differs from the one in 1840 painting. It has a timber porch. The end of the chancel appears to be timber framed and the windows are very different from the one in 1840. The south-west corner is supported by a brick buttress. Overall the building looks very dilapidated. It looks as though it was extensively restored before Dr Rowley’s rebuild in 1843-8.
- Indeed, a report of 1840 on the church states that it was in good repair.
- This of course raises the question as to why Dr Rowley decided to reconstruct what was probably a sound, modern building: it may be simply that he did not like it.
- The 17912 painting also raises questions about the earlier history of the church. It shows a building that had been much repaired.
My guess is that at some point, the end of the chancel had reached such a state that it was demolished and replaced with a cheaper (and presumably more sound) timber-framed wall. Partial demolition was a not uncommon option: the entire chancel of the Deuxhill church was pulled down long before the rest of the building was abandoned in the 19th century.
3. Earlier history
We know that in 1601 the church courts were concerned about the poor state of a number of local churches including Middleton Scriven. Even earlier in 1318, the Bishop of Worcester allowed an appeal for funds for repairs to the chapel and bell towers of Deuxhill and Middleton Scriven, in spite of popular wisdom. Medieval masons did not always build to last.
On the opposite side of the road from the present church are two Ancient Yews, known as “the Twins.” A tradition is that the first church at Middleton Scriven was built here and then moved to its present site. The building Dr Rowley restored was on the site of the present church and was most probably the 1791 one. However, churches can move about a village.
The church at Middleton Scriven first mentioned in the 1791 painting shows a window in the nave of that style I would expect from about that time or perhaps a little earlier. My guess is that the building in the picture was built around the 13th century, although old features could be re-used or copied in later rebuilds. Only archaeology is likely to tell us what, if anything, stood by the yews and the age of the site of the current church.
Whatever the answer to this might be, it is clear that references books do not always tell the full story about the history of even the simplest of churches.
We have no record of John’s doings in the next thirty years. When he grew up, though, he lived in the wild country by the river Jordan, eating locusts and honey, and dressed in animal skins in a strong echo of the ancient prophet Elijah. Indeed, there are Biblical references both in the Old Testament books of prophecy, and in the words of Jesus, to the return of Elijah before the coming of the Christ.
John preached a message of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Christ, God’s Anointed One. He told people that they should repent so that they would be forgiven, and to be baptised as a sign of being washed clean, and of dying to an old life and being born again into a new one – for his baptism was probably one of total immersion in the Jordan. Except, perhaps, for the dry season. This was a ceremony which had been used by the Jews since well before John’s time to welcome converts to their faith, so Christian baptism has a long pedigree back through John to the Old Testament.
When Jesus came to be baptised, John was reluctant, knowing whom he was, but Jesus insisted on identifying with humanity in this way. And Jesus’ first disciples had been disciples of John beforehand; John pointed them on the way from him to Jesus. These early transfers included Simon Peter, who was brought to Jesus by his brother Andrew.
As Jesus became better known, John slipped into the background. He was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. Herod had taken his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, for himself and John was outspoken about the rank immorality of this. Herod did not want to harm John, for he recognised him as a prophet. Not so Herodias. By a trick at his birthday party, she got Herod to grant a favour to her daughter Salome, who had danced well for his guests. She asked for the head of John the Baptist – on a platter!
The promise was fulfilled, and his disciples came to take his body away for burial. We remember him as the last of the prophets of the Old Testament style, ushering in a new world where everything became different with the coming of the Son of God into human life.