HISTORY OF THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY FATHERS

Early History

We do not know when Christianity arrived in Shropshire.
Tradition tells us that St Simon the Zealot came to Britain
soon after the arrival of the Roman Legions (43 AD) but
his activities are related to Yorkshire. What we do know
however is that the Romans established a very substantial
city about five miles East of Shrewsbury at what is now
called Wroxeter. It was called Viroconium Cornovii and
was the fourth largest city in Britain. The words 'Wroxeter'
and 'Wrekin' (the hill that dominates East Shropshire) are
directly derived from Viroconium.Probably it was pronounced
'Wrekonium'.

However the earliest evidence we have for certain is contained
in a letter inscribed on a lead tablet that was found in the King's
bath at Bath - Aquae Sulis, dating from about the mid fourth
century. It is from a man called Virusius, a Christian inhabitant
of Viroconium to a woman called Nigra. In the letter he warns
her of the arrival of a certain Bilonicus, who he describes as canem
Arii - an Arian dog. Not only does this give us evidence of
Christians in Viroconium but it also shows us that they
were Orthodox and followers of our own 318 Holy Fathers
of Nicea in 325 AD, who of course were called together by
the Emperor St Constantine the Great to resolve the problem
of the Arian heresy.
 

With the withdrawal of the legions at the beginning of the fifth
century a period of considerable political instability followed.
However Viroconium continued to flourish for some time.
For instance St Germanus of Auxerre came to Britain to counter
the teachings of the heresiarch Pelagius in 429 and again
in 447. He certainly visited Viroconium, indeed it seems to
have been the base for his mission into what is now mid and
north Wales: The last British Archbishop of London, Theonas
(Teon) fled to Viroconium in 586 when London fell to the
pagan Saxons. The range of hills known now as the Stiperstones
are called, in Welsh, Carneddi Teon in memory of him. Some of
Teon's disciples, including his grandson St Llywelyn, started
a monastery at Welshpool, and their mission helped convert
mid Wales particularly through the work of their disciples
Sts Gwyddfarch and Tysilio.

There have been important excavations at Wroxeter where
the Bath House has been revealed. Perhaps more interestingly
it is now known that the city was extensively re-planned in
the 5th century and a building has been discovered which
some suggest was the house of the bishops of Viroconium.
At some point the city was abandoned. Two of the very earliest
churches in Britain exist close to Viroconium, St Andrew,
Wroxeter and St Eata, Atcham both dating to at least the 7th
century. So as the British migrated westward, abandoning
Viroconium, the English moved behind them, being converted
in due course following the missionary drive of St Oswald
and St Aidan and then St Chad. It was following this period
that a monastery for nuns was established at Much Wenlock
by St Milburga around 670. The monastery quickly attracted
substantial endowments and it is suggested by some
authorities that the land which is now the parish of Sutton
was part of that endowment.

From excavations in the 1970's we know that Sutton was
occupied from prehistoric times and right through the
Romano-British period. Amongst a number of interesting
finds was a Neolithic watercourse which ran to a stone lined
basin a few yards South East of Sutton church. It is suggested
that this may have been a pagan site, christianised to become
a baptistery. This might account for the siting of our church.
 

The Middle Ages


What is certain however is that the manor of Sutton remained
in the ownership of the monastery at Much Wenlock until the
end of the middle ages. It is unthinkable that any monastery
would own a manor without erecting some kind of church
for the enlightenment of their tenants and we may assume
this to be the case in Sutton. It was probably a very simple
wooden building and about  all we have to show for this period
is the ancient stone font. However in the view of some
archaeologists there may have been an earlier stone church
than the one we see now. This is because the lancet windows
in the north wall seem to be set into older walls. In 1086,
Sutton was recorded in the Doomsday Book as belonging
to Wenlock Abbey. By this time of course England with much
of the Western half of what had been the Roman empire now
split away from the Orthodox Church and became Roman
Catholic. The present church building was certainly built
before 1278 because it is recorded in an inquisition document
of that year as St Milburga's. Just before the dissolution of
the monasteries Sutton had become a possession of Shrewsbury
Abbey. With the Reformation came another change of Faith
for the worshippers in our church - protestantism. During
this Anglican period it was repaired from time to time particularly
at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth
centuries. However the church was used very seldom. The last
recorded burial was in 1857, the last baptism in 1868 and the
last marriage in 1870. The furnishings were stripped out, services
were held less and less often until by 1948 it became a farmer's
store. It was in this condition when it was bought back
by its original owners the Orthodox Church for £50. It was in a
state of very serious disrepair needing re-roofing, major
support to the walls, and re-flooring. All the major work has
now been completed.
 

The Church Building


As you approach the church from the gate into the field what
you see is the red brick West face with the medieval door and
a wooden lancet window. To the North and South are
medieval sandstone walls with three small lancet windows
in each. These can be dated to the Early English period
(late 12th early 13th century). Notice that above the windows
there are courses of later stonework. We know that by 1538
the church was in poor repair because water was pouring
through the roof and running down the walls. It is probably
that soon after the dissolution it was roofless and undergoing
demolition, this is why five of the six lancet windows have
lost their 'gothic tops'. Soon after the dissolution of the
monasteries considerable repairs were initiated.The height
of the north and south walls were restored and the roof
was renewed.

The west wall is something of a problem. We now know from
archaeological excavations that the church was originally
longer than it now is, probably continuing for a further bay
to the west. Whether this had been plundered of its stone,
or whether it just collapsed we do not know but at some point a
wall was erected including an existing roof truss. It would seem
that this first wall was probably a wooden frame with wattle
and daub in-fill. The rest of the church was demolished and
squared off: You can still see the original door jambs however.
At the beginning of the 18th century this wall was rebuilt in
brick. Much of the woodwork is still in place, including the
restored roof truss.

The East wall of the church is the least disturbed and is of
a similar date to the north and south walls. It has three very
fine Early English lancets.

When entering the church you may first notice the plaster
covered truss that supports the roof at the east end. This cuts
off the top of the central lancet window in a most unpleasing
way. This was a Tudor repair. For some reason rather than
repairing the East wall properly they inserted this truss to
support the roof. Next notice the fine lancet windows with their
reveals and then the central truss. This is Tudor work and
considered to be very fine. Originally it seems to have been
painted a grey green. The roof that you see is almost entirely
new but notice that some of the original purlins remain - they
are significantly smaller than the modern ones. You will also
notice the modern ironwork which runs across the church. This
serves two functions: to hold the walls together and to provide
the framework for a gallery which we soon hope to build.

You may be struck by the extremely dirty and un-repaired
state of the walls. Look closely and you will notice that they
are actually designs and what you are seeing is the remains
of the 14th century wall paintings. Possibly the whole church was
once painted with these but now only the area east of the
central lancets remain. The design is of vine like tendrils with
small five petalled flowers. These were put on with the help
of a stencil. On the north side above the new screen there is
a figurative painting showing the murder of one of the Norman
archbishops of Canterbury - Thomas a Becket. He was
murdered in Canterbury cathedral in 1170 by four courtiers
of King Henry II for political reasons. The Roman Catholic
Pope declared him a saint soon afterwards and a considerable
cultus developed with pilgrimages to his shrine in Canterbury
Cathedral. We do not know why this subject should have been
chosen for our church. One suggestion is that there was local
interest in Thomas because Shrewsbury Abbey had numerous
important relics associated with him. Experts claim to be able to
identify features in this painting. They are not obvious to the
unpractised eye. When new these paintings must have been
quite attractive. It is intended that we shall repair and restore
these paintings in the near future; which will give a much more
pleasing aspect to the church and may allow areas for modern
iconographic wall-paintings.

The other ancient feature of note is the stone Saxon font in
the North East corner of the church. It is made low like this so
that the candidate for baptism could climb into the font and reflects
the ancient method of baptism which of course the Orthodox
Church continues to use to this day.
 

Modern Features of the Church


The most striking modern feature in the church is the new icon-
screen. This was carved and built by a member of the congregation,
using materials found in the church when we bought it, particularly
the oak joists supporting the floor and parts of some of the
dilapidated pews. The screen is thus made of English oak,
and follows the design of many Early English rood screens
but has carvings in a Byzantine style, thus reflecting the ancient
fabric and the traditions of the Orthodox Church. The gaps in
the screen now filled with small reproductions will eventually
contain hand painted icons. These will be based on the middle
period of Byzantine art such as the 11th century churches of
Daphne and Osios Loukas in Greece. This style is serene,
confidant and optimistic, characteristics so badly needed in our
contemporary society but characteristic of the Orthodox
Church today.

The Holy Table is carved in a Byzantine style from three different
types of English stone. The design is based on a Holy Table in
a Byzantine church in Ravenna.

There is still a great deal to do: the medieval plaster repaired
and restored; the gallery built, the old bell cote re-built and
many icons need to be painted. All will be done as funds
become available.
 

The Greek Orthodox Community of the Holy Fathers of Nicea


In 1994, after protracted negotiations lasting some three years
Sutton church was bought by the Orthodox Community of
the Holy Fathers of Nicea. This community was founded in 1986
by The Very Rev'd Protopresbyter Alban Barter, the parish priest
of St Barbara's Community in Chester, with the help of a small
number of Orthodox Christians in the area. Later that year the
community was given its own priest and started worshipping on
a regular basis. First in Frankwell Methodist Church, then in
St Chad's Anglican Church and finally for a short period in
Shrewsbury Cemetery chapel. For much of this period we also
used the Serbian Orthodox Church of St Nicholas, Barclay Court,
Donnington, who provided us with a safe haven through many
very difficult times. It was clear that we needed our own church.

Worship in Sutton church started immediately it was purchased,
despite a leaking roof, a rubble strewn floor and draughty
windows. Services in the winter were a test of endurance. However
work started in January 1996 and the community were able to
return to the church that August.

The community has grown over the years, includes Christians
from a wide variety of backgrounds - Greek-Cypriot, British,
Russian and Romanian. Apart from regular worship in the church
the community publishes a magazine, runs a Greek school, has
its own parish priest and runs a range of other activities:
catechetical, social and educational. The consecration of our
church was the fulfilment of the first part of our life as an Orthodox
Christian Community. Our proper work, the bringing of the
saving Truth of Christ our God to the World is about to begin.

The Orthodox Community of the Holy Fathers feels a great
sense of responsibility towards our church in Sutton. The
church founded by our forefathers at least a millenium ago,
deserves a better fate than being a farm shed. It is hoped that
when the restoration and decoration are completed, in the next
millenium, it will not only be an asset to the district of Sutton
and the town of Shrewsbury, but also a shining reaffirmation of
the Christian Faith of its founders so long ago.
 

Thanks

The restoration of Sutton Church has been achieved through
the generosity of many individuals from around the world.
We also received substantial grants from English Heritage,
The Historic Churches Preservation Trust, The St Nicholas
Educational Trust, The Pilgrim Trust, and The Shropshire Historic
Churches Trust. We have also been loaned money on an interest
free basis by a number of individuals. We are very grateful to
all these organisations and people, not only have they made
it possible to restore the church, and to provide us with a home
but they have saved this remarkable old church from total ruin.

Thank you.

Fr. Stephen Maxfield
Parish Priest