The following is taken from a pamphlet produce by the late Rev Dr Ian Sellers for the Dedication of the current St Martin’s Methodist Church in 1975. The Rev Dr Ian Sellers was an Ordained Methodist Minister as well as a renowned historical scholar and University of Manchester lecturer who specialised in church history. He was very active in the planning and construction of the current church where he frequently preached.
Saint Martin of Tours did not achieve sainthood because of his scholarship, for he wrote very little, or because of his skill as an ecclesiastical statesman, for he disliked administration and was with difficulty induced to become a bishop. It was his burning missionary zeal, his tender charity (raising the banners of pity in a harsh age, as St. Ambrose put it), plus a certain charming naivety and playfulness and hatred of persecution which led ordinary men and women to recognize in him the genuine marks of saintliness. These were just the qualities which would appeal most to the inhabitants of these islands.
In England, apart from the biblical saints, there are only four (Nicholas, Lawrence, George and Margaret) who have more churches dedicated to them than Martin. And of these five, only the last named has a reputation which depends more on historical fact than on pious legend. What is even more remarkable is that St. Martin who died in 397 attracted both of those Christian communities which merged in the Dark Ages to make up the medieval Church in this country, the Celtic and the Roman. Indeed the only two churches in Britain of known dedication which were planted during the Roman occupation and which managed to survive the perils of Anglo/Saxon heathendom are both named St. Martin’s.
St. Martin’s Canterbury (a church which most visitors to the city seem somehow to miss) must have been built shortly after the Saint’s death, and was being used by Bertha, the Christian Queen of Kent when St. Augustine landed in 597 to effect the conversion of her pagan husband and his Kingdom. St. Martin’s, Witherne, Scotland, was likewise dedicated by the Celtic Saint Ninian, again shortly after Martin’s death.
By the late seventh century when heathenism had been subdued and Roman had triumphed over Celtic Christianity at the Synod of Whitby (664), King Whitred of Kent was building a church and monastery dedicated to St. Martin at Dover, while Willibrord, one of a number of English missionaries to the still pagan areas of northern Europe, was about to dedicate a church in Utrecht to the Saint who was so beloved by his own countrymen.
During the Middle Ages the popularity of Martin amongst ordinary Englishmen did not diminish. Martimas was the name given to those days around November 11th, the date both of Martin’s ordination and burial, when goose fairs were held (hence Martin is often symbolised in church heraldry by a goose) and there is a brief return of warm weather before the winter begins. As more and more churches were built so more were dedicated to this saint. A survey made in 1899 recorded 180 known Anglican churches, open and closed, bearing the name of St. Martin. No dedications were to be found in Northumberland or Durham, which are most remote from Hungary where Martin was born, Italy where he was brought up and France where he spent most of his life. Nor are any dedications to be found in Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire. Yorkshire tops the list with 15 churches, then follow Kent with 12, Somerset with 11, Norfolk with 10, and London with 5. Just a few of these churches, like West Coker in Somerset, give the full dedication to St. Martin of Tours, but this is unnecessary as the English Church knew only one St. Martin.
The vast majority of these churches are of pre-Reformation date, but not all, for St. Martin’s name was retained in the Anglican Calendar, and there is a trickle of dedications during 17th and even the spiritually decadent 18th centuries. One of these is rather interesting from our own point of view, that at Fenny Stratford, Bletchley, Bucks, where a local resident who had lived in St. Martin’s Lane, restored a ruined building in 1724 and secured from the bishop a dedication to St. Martin. Here we have a precedent for transferring a place name to a new church building, as we have unashamedly done in deriving our present church’s dedication from the site of the’ former building in Martinscroft.
During the 19th century when towns and cities expanded rapidly and the churches faced a new missionary situation in an urban setting, it is not surprising that the name of a great missionary saint was invoked when new buildings were erected in London, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere. With the even more difficult missionary challenge of the new estates of the 20th century, though the rate of church building has slowed, the number of new dedications to St. Martin has increased proportionately. And this too is wholly fitting.
Some of the churches which share with us a dedication to St. Martin are well worth a visit, if ever we are in their vicinity. St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, London, is the best known, St. Martin’s, Canterbury should certainly be seen, and St. Martin’s, Coney Street, York, has a very fine stained-glass window depicting the Saint, together with thirteen panels displaying incidents from his life.
Nearer home there are a number of St. Martin’s Churches or sites of former churches within a few miles of our new building. Proceeding eastwards down the Mersey valley, we discover several St. Martin’s parish churches in the Greater Manchester area. There is now none in Manchester itself. A St. Martin’s was built in Germans Street, off Oldham Road, in 1873, but had a very short life, being closed in 1906. But St. Martin’s, Castleton Moor, Rochdale (1862), St. Martin’s, Norris Bank, Heaton Norris (1901), and the dual-purpose St. Martin’s, Droylesden (1952, replacing a wooden building erected in 1940) are all extant and are architecturally typical of their periods.
On the Cheshire side St. Martin’s, Low Marple, is an attractive, towerless church, built in 1870, and St. Martin’s, Higher Pointon, a very small mission church, is almost unknown outside the community it serves.
Two churches are particularly interesting however. St. Martin’s, Ashton-on-Mersey, is a building which dates from 1714, replacing a previous church which traced back its foundation to 1304, and incorporating a huge south tower added in 1887.
Ashton is now a suburb of Manchester, but the area just around the quaint old church, in whose graveyard John Wesley preached, preserves some of the atmosphere of the old village community. In Wythenshawe, St. Martin’s, Royal Oak, Baguley, was opened in 1960, as the first post-war Anglican church in Manchester. This is a particularly fine building, modern, yet free from the architectural fads of the period, with a striking mural above the altar, depicting Christ in Majesty.
To our west there are fewer dedications to St. Martin. There was once a chantry at Neston so named, but this was dissolved at the Reformation. In Chester itself there was at one time a St. Martin’s of the Ash, which dated from the 13th century but which was replaced by a rather ugly building in 1721, which in turn fell into disuse in the later 19th century. Strangely this church about which very little seems to be known does not appear in Raymond Richard’s volume, Old Cheshire Churches.
In Liverpool a St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields was erected in Sylvester Street in 1828. This was destroyed in the blitz of 1941 but the dedication was later transferred to the new Anglican church erected in Southdene, Kirby New Town. By a strange coincidence when the new Methodist church in Southdene which was very badly built literally fell to pieces a few years ago St. Martin’s kindly provided a home for the congregation and its deaconess, and there the Methodists still meet for worship. We in Woolston are consequently not the first Methodist society in a new town to worship in a church dedicated to St. Martin.
Post-Reformation Roman Catholic churches dedicated to St. Martin of Tours (there are other St. Martins in the Roman Calendar) are surprisingly few, though two are to be found in Kent.
Martin possessed qualities which obviously appeal to Methodists. We like to think there is a line of descent from the burning evangelism and asceticism of the 4th century Saint through men like St. Cuthbert, the Friars of the Middle Ages, the Lollards and the Puritan revivalists down to the heroic founders of Wesleyan and Primitive Methodism who in so many ways seem cast in a similar mould. (In another way too Martin may be linked with us. The Latin word capella from which our English chapel is derived is a diminutive of cappa (cloak) and may first have been given to the oratory where the Saint’s cloak which he had shared with a beggar was preserved after his death). In consequence Methodists have recently begun to dedicate new churches to St. Martin. Apart from our own the most recent was that at Allestree, Derby, opened in 1973.
Rev Dr Ian Sellers