The story in brief

Our History:

Click HERE to listen to a talk on our history given in 2011 by Jonathan Hunt ….

then see below for an extract from that talk …

then see below that for a very similar but updated report given at the Induction of Pastor David Pfeiffer on 2nd August

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Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church* was founded as a mission in 1877 by Mr James Walker. Unhappy with the Church of England, he was ordained within the Church of Scotland, and he led the fellowship as Pastor until his death. During his life the church was generally known as ‘The Scots (or Scotch) Church, Whaddon Lane’. He rented a plot of land and paid for the erection of a metal, portable structure which served as the church building for many years. This building was more impressive internally than the outside suggested.

Following Mr Walker’s death, a Committee and Board of Trustees were formed, which bought the land from the freeholder and the buildings and fixtures from the late Minister’s estate. The church was named at this time, and is still known to some locally, as the Walker Memorial Church.

The church was (and is) based doctrinally on portions of the Westminster Confession of Faith and this gives the church a  distinctive calvinistic / reformed basis. It is historically the case that under the founding minister, the church was considered to be one that accepted the whole of the 1643 Westminster Confession of Faith, and further, the church members were considered to be ‘communicants of the Church of Scotland’. However, this seems to have lapsed with the death of the first Pastor, and it was within only a few years that the church moved away from exclusive psalmody under its next pastor. The church has for many years been Baptist, rather than Presbyterian, in terms of practice on the subject of baptism, the first baptistery being installed in 1959. In terms of church government, it was only in the 1980s that the church moved from government by committee to the scriptural standard of elder rule. Interestingly, the second Pastor of the church, F.W. Davis, had left the Church of England because he felt unable to take his vows of ordination. He did not believe in water baptism at all, which is hard to reconcile with the Westminster Confession. Nevertheless he knew a blessed ministry under which the church expanded to a size never seen under its beloved founder. The 1920s were very much the ‘heyday’ of the Church’s history so far, and 300-400 were to be found at services and in the Sunday School.

Several men have served as Pastor since those times, and a full list of pastors with a few biographical notes is available here. One notable if short Pastorate in 1929-30 was that of E.J. Poole-Connor, the founder of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. More recently, the church has been served by Dr John Carrick, now Professor at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, USA, and until 2002 by Mr Mark Gladwell, who is currently the pastor of Sidcup Free Grace Baptist Church.

By 1985 the church building was no longer fit for purpose, and in 1987 a new building was erected on the same site, financed by a block of retirement apartments which unfortunately front the road, obscuring the church building from public view.

The church membership issued a call to Jonathan Hunt to serve as Preaching Elder in July 2008, and he provided regular evangelistic and expository ministry until 2nd October 2011 when he was called to serve as the Pastor of Morton Baptist Church, Thornbury. David Price was called to serve as an Elder in July 2009, and ministers as he is able to, assisted by faithful visiting preachers. We continue as an Independent, Evangelical and Reformed Church with a small but loyal congregation, looking to the Lord to help us to witness to our age and generation.

* The current full legal name of the church is ‘Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church (Walker Memorial)’

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How did we get to where we are today?

(with acknowledgement to a pamphlet from 1977, and Jonathan Hunt’s recent history)

 

Let’s begin in 1857, when Dr Edward Walker, an Anglican minister, was appointed to the perpetual curacy of Cheltenham. Dr Walker was a staunch Calvinist, standing firmly within the evangelical party of the Church of England, who became well known in the local area for his fearless defence of the truths of the gospel.

Of his three sons, sadly the youngest died in 1871, and the oldest (himself an Anglican curate) just a few months before his father in 1872.

The second son, James Edward Walker, was 21 when his father died, and a student of Divinity at Corpus Christi College in Oxford. Although he graduated with first-class honours in 1872, he continued to study in Oxford, winning various prizes and scholarships over the next four years. It is interesting to note that one of his obituaries records that “he was popularly believed to know more of the contents of the Bible than any other minister of the gospel for very many miles around”.

By 1877 he was back in Cheltenham and, aged just 27, Mr Walker began the ministry for which his father had destined him – but not in the Church of England. He appears to have been ordained in the Church of Scotland during his time at Oxford, and it was as a minister of this denomination that he leased a plot of land and then opened a new church building at his own expense on the junction of Prestbury Road and Whaddon Lane (as it was then) – the site where we stand today. Author of various books (one of which was commended by CH Spurgeon as a volume from which he had “derived great solace”), a constant and faithful visitor of his flock and others, a renowned and gifted preacher, he served the Lord faithfully on this site for 34 years until he was called home in May 1911.

His death, however, left the church fellowship on Whaddon Lane in a somewhat difficult situation. Mr Walker had been described in another obituary as a “devoted minister and kindly autocrat”, and therefore on his death there were no “rules” written down anywhere and no constitution. It will be of interest to those gathered here today that the doctrinal statement which Mr Walker had drawn up (and under which the church still operates) had been based on the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith, although it deliberately left open such matters as church government, and the subjects and mode of baptism.

Without Mr Walker’s personal denominational affiliation, the church could not readily or easily be defined. It was not Anglican, or Baptist, or Brethren, or Presbyterian! It could easily have come to nothing, but at a church meeting in January 1912 it was decided that four men should be elected as a committee of management (later becoming the first trustees of the church). They therefore proceeded to buy back the church building and contents from those to whom it had been transferred on Mr Walker’s death, and then to buy the land upon which the property stood (as Mr Walker had never owned it but only leased it). A trust deed was drawn up based on Mr Walker’s doctrinal summary, and the church was named “the Walker Memorial Church” – which title was retained until 1977, the church centenary, when the name was changed to “Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church”.

Ten years later, in 1987, the original church buildings were not in a good state, so an agreement was reached with a local builder who built the church we enjoy today – but in exchange he was allowed to build the flats on the frontage of the plot, thereby hiding the church from public view! But we digress …

Following Mr Walker’s death, the search for a new minister was begun, and in November 1913 FW Davis was called to serve as the Pastor of the church. Although an ardent dispensationalist, and despite personally rejecting water baptism entirely, Mr Davis’ ministry at the church was a source of much blessing to many people for the next 13 years. It is interesting to note that, during his time, the church had to be enlarged in 1922, and again between 1924 and 1925.

But then in November 1926, with hundreds of adults in the services, and hundreds of children in the Sunday School, the Lord ordained a strange providence. Mr Davis went to assist at the funeral of his former vicar in Hull, and was killed in a railway accident on his return journey.

Sadly that led to a period of decline. The well-known AW Pink ministered for just a week in the autumn of 1928 before being told by the Committee that “his services were no longer required”. The following year (1929) another well-known man, EJ Poole-Connor, was called to the pastorate, but only stayed about 18 months before returning to London. Jonathan Hunt’s excellent little book gives more details, but suffice to say that after Mr Poole-Connor’s departure a number of short pastorates followed; 8 men were called to the pastorate between 1932 and 1965. The last three pastorates were slightly longer; John Roberts served for 10 years 1969-1979, John Carrick served for about 13 years 1979-1992, and finally Mark Gladwell served for about 8 years 1994-2002.

For the next few years the church was reliant on a supply of local lay preachers, faithfully co-ordinated by elder Don Ingles. That continued until Jonathan Hunt was asked to serve as “preaching elder”, a task he faithfully fulfilled until called to the pastorate of Morton Baptist Church near Bristol in the autumn of 2011. Once more the church had to rely on local brethren – and numbers attending the services dropped. In 2012 it was a rare thing to get more than 20 people at the services, and by early 2013 (for various reasons) we were down to just 5 church members with an approximate average age of 77!

But then a significant development took place in the autumn of 2013. The fellowship at Whaddon Road had enjoyed a good relationship for a number of years with the friends at Naunton Lane Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and brethren from there had been to preach at CEFC. Courtenay Harris had been many times over the years, but one day in July Stephen Johnson came for the morning and David Pfeiffer in the evening, then David came again one Sunday evening in August.

Meanwhile at CEFC we had been praying for various things which, for convenience, all begin with letter “P”:

  • Pastor
  • Pianist (to provide backup and relief for Mrs Hazel Bradshaw, who has served the Lord faithfully for many years in that capacity)
  • People – new friends to come in to join us
  • Presence – a sense of God’s presence in our meetings
  • Passion – in our worship of the Lord
  • Privilege – of having new life in Christ entrusted to us, as people come to personal faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour

Some of those prayers have been answered, but for answers to others – including the need for a pianist! – we still wait upon the Lord.

Even after his first visit – and given that we were seeking the Lord as regards the provision of a pastor – David’s personality and preaching naturally led to several people asking “might he be available?” We knew that David was ending his term of study and preparation at Naunton Lane – and we had greatly appreciated his ministry. An enquiring email was therefore sent to the church elders at Naunton Lane, to ask if they would consider allowing him to do some pastoral work and visitation as well as some of the preaching at CEFC for a season before moving on from Cheltenham. The thought was that such an arrangement might perhaps be useful in terms of David gaining experience while still under the care of Naunton Lane.

The elders decided that the suggested possibility was not ideal, for various reasons. They did however very kindly decide to offer practical support. In essence, their thoughts were:

  • We believe you are seeking to maintain a faithful and strategic gospel witness in the north-east corner of Cheltenham
  • We want to assist you in that work
  • We will therefore undertake to provide preachers for both services one Sunday and one Wednesday a month for three months from September to December 2013 (later renewed for January to March 2014).

So David Pfeiffer, Andy Young, and Chris Kavanagh came to minister the word of God for us on many occasions over the next few months. And when the Cheltenham Half Marathon required the main road opposite the church to be closed one Sunday morning in September, the fact that – in the providence of God – David & Bethan live just a few hundred yards from the church meant that they and the children could just walk down the road to join us, which was lovely!

Meanwhile conversations between the leadership of the two churches continued, and developed into discussions about the possibility and desirability of David becoming the pastor at CEFC – which (by the start of February 2014) the members of CEFC had agreed they wanted to explore.

Of course we accepted that IF David agreed to “come over and help us”, it would inevitably have major implications, in terms of CEFC in due course becoming a Presbyterian church. But if we had been praying for a pastor, and the Lord sends a Presbyterian, who were we to argue?

And so a letter dated 23rd February 2014, signed by all 5 church members and 12 attenders, was sent to David Pfeiffer formally inviting him to come and pastor the flock here at CEFC – and his acceptance of the invitation is why we have gathered here today.

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