When I have a few days off after Christmas, I have often visited St Gregory's Church, Kirknewton, near Wooler in North Northumberland. I have always been challenged on these visits by two things outside the church building. First, as you travel along the Yetholm road, just before the Kirknewton, you pass a plaque by the roadside attached to a stone wall that says:
"At this place was
Royal Township of
the Seventh Century Anglo-Saxon
Kings of Northumbria.
Here the missionary Paulinus in AD 627
instructed the people in Christianity for
thirty six days and baptized them in the
River Glen close by."
Paulinus had been sent from Rome by Pope Gregory I in 601 to help Augustine and his mission in Kent. Sometime later in 625, Paulinus went north. This was when the (now Christian) daughter of the King of Kent, Ethelburga, married Edwin, king of Northumbria. She asked Paulinus to accompany her on her move to York. And it was in York, in 627, that her husband was converted and baptised. This was a significant moment in the evangelization of the North. According to Bede (of Jarrow) something of a revival occurred when Paulinus evangelized further north still in the area where the King and Queen had a residence near Kirknewton at Ad-Gefrin. Bede, recording this in his Ecclesiastical History, says:
"so great was the fervour of faith and desire for baptism among the Northumbrian people that Paulinus is said to have accompanied the king and queen to the royal residence at Ad-Gefrin and remained there thirty-six days constantly occupied in instructing and baptising."
"A great cloud of witnesses"
It is good to remember that we are "surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses" - as Hebrews 12 verse 1 tells us. These were the witnesses of chapter 11 and included not only the great Old Testament heroes of the faith, but others who "were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection." Others "were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated - the world was not worthy of them." We, surely, should believe that some of those early Northumbrian converts are also among that latter group of a great cloud of witnesses but, sadly according to Bede, not all. They did not all remain faithful. Six years after his conversion, Edwin was killed in battle by, says Bede, "Cadwalla of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia." He then says:
"A reign of terror was unleashed on the north country as Edwin's kingdom was mercilessly ravaged by his vengeful conquerors. His queen fled home to Kent and with her went the priest Paulinus, leaving many of those he had converted to revert to their pagan practices."
However, before long King Oswald, from his fortress at Bamburgh restored control of the area and asked the Irish missionary from Iona, Aidan, to continue the Christian mission. Aidan came and established a monastery on Holy Island, from which countless missionaries went out preaching and teaching (the ruins of the monastery, of course, are still there). The "Golden Age," as it is called, of Christianity in the North was dawning.
The site of Gefrin is less than a mile from Kirknewton Parish Church. This tiny church relates to JPC as the Tyne Bridge does to Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Tyne Bridge is a miniature of Sydney Harbour Bridge. Kirknewton is a miniature of JPC. John Dobson, who designed JPC (and many of the well known Victorian buildings in the city of Newcastle) was responsible for the last restoration of this ancient village church in 1856 - a restoration that was completed in 1860. And JPC was completed in 1861. Some of the building work must have been going on at the same time in both places, with JPC being influenced by Dobson's plans for Kirknewton rather than the other way round. But, more importantly - and this is the second reason why I find the visit to Kirknewton challenging - not far from the door of the church is the grave of Josephine Butler.
Josephine Butler died, in Wooler, on 30 December 1906. On 31 December last year the newspapers reported that the Home Office was conducting a review of prostitution. The Times reported that "Brothels could be legalised as part of an overhaul of the law on prostitution that aims to undermine the grip that organised crime has on the sex industry." An article then appeared by Joan Smith that was headed: "Forget about 'vice', legalise brothels to protect women." Josephine Butler would have been turning in her grave. Her great life's work - "the cause" as she called it - was to fight against the legalization of prostitution that came with the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864.
Born in Milfield (near Kirknewton) on 13 April 1828, her father, John Grey, was a man of strong Christian conviction and a supporter of Wilberforce in his opposition to the slave trade; her mother, Hannah, was from a godly Huguenot family who lived in Alnwick and had entertained John Wesley. From an early age Josephine was made aware of social wrongs. At seventeen, she wrote that "so great was the burden on my soul about the inequalities, injustice and cruelties in the world, that I used to run away into these woods [around Corbridge - to where her family had moved] where no one followed me" and she would literally cry out to God. In 1852 she married George Butler, an Oxford Don, with whom she had a wonderfully happy marriage. Then in 1857 George moved to Cheltenham College where the couple had the terrible experience of their young daughter, Eva, falling to her death over some banisters in their home. In 1866 George became principal of Liverpool College and there was a move back north. For a period Josephine had been working for women's education. But then in 1869 some doctors asked her to lead a protest by women against the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866 and 1869). She agreed and formed the Ladies National Association for Repeal.
Her work was costly. She tells us that like Jonah, she didn't want to do it. "I worked hard at other things - good works as I thought - with a kind of half conscious hope that God would accept that work and not require me to go further and run my heart against the naked sword which seemed to be held out. But the hand of the Lord was upon me ... " She knew that she would be abused and mocked and her husband would come under fire as well. But seventeen years, hundreds of letters, hundreds of meetings and interviews, many books and pamphlets, much public speaking, many days of prayer, much vitriol, and even physical attacks later, in 1886 she saw the repeal of these Acts.
The Acts had legalized prostitution. There was a concern, particularly in the Port towns, for the amount of venereal disease. The army and navy, so the argument went, ought to have "clean women". So the Police were given draconian powers to ensure this happened with the legalizing of prostitution. The result was a demeaning of women but no reversal of venereal disease. Josephine's campaign majored on two fronts - justice and immorality. First, it was unjust that women (and not men) were the entire focus of the Government's legislation because women were thought to be the main cause of vice. It was assumed that men needed prostitutes! Secondly, prostitution is immoral and wrong. In 1872, in the Pontefract Parliamentary Election, where she and others were trying to unseat the sitting MP for his views and voting, the argument was: "If you vote for Mr Childers, you endorse the sentiment that a holy life is impossible for unmarried men, and that women must be provided for them by the State, and sacrificed, both body and soul, to their lust - a sentiment which blasphemes God, insults manhood, and destroys both men and women."
Josephine Butler was a remarkable woman of prayer; and she kept a biblical balance between working for equality for women and recognizing the differences between men and women. Also she opposed what today is called the policy of "harm reduction". In 1871 John Stuart Mill who supported Josephine summarized their opposition to "harm reduction" for the Royal Commission on the Acts as follows. It was not the business of the government to provide securities beforehand against the consequences of immorality. That, he said, was not the same as remedying the consequences after they occur. To this he saw no objection. Such "harm reduction" policies lie behind "safer sex" education programmes today. As in Josephine's day, they seem not to be working but to be leading to an increase of disease by legitimizing behaviours.
Josephine had a simple faith in Christ. Just before her death, finding life hard, she wrote this: "I have been reflecting that Jesus trod the bitterest part of the way of the cross at the close of his earthly life. If some of us have to do the same ... and find the way of the cross rather hard at the end, we cannot complain. For, as with our Lord, we see Victory so near; and the joy of his presence is so great, flowing side by side with pain." We can all learn from Josephine Butler.