The Church

The history of the parish

Records can take us a long way back when they tell us the ‘hundred without the North Gate’ belonged to King Ethelred who was Lord of the Manor of Headington. Evidence of a Romano-British settlement, earlier still, was uncovered in the area during building work in the 19th century.

By the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries this parcel of land was in the possession of Osney Abbey and Godstow Nunnery. Thus it passed to King Henry VIII and to his physician George Owen. Then it came into the hands of Sir Thomas White, founder of St John’s College, and the long association began between the college and North Oxford.

In the 19th century, further north than Norham Manor and Walton Manor, a new suburb developed at Summertown. By 1832 there were over one hundred houses there. North Oxford proper, however, could not begin to grow until St John’s College obtained an Act of Parliament in 1855, enabling it to make 99-year leases.

Almost immediately there was a need for another parish church. The ancient church of St Giles was insufficient and, it was believed then, too far away. The foundation stone of the new building was laid on 8th May 1860 by the famous Bishop of Oxford, ‘Soapy’ Sam Wilberforce. Exactly two years later he returned to the parish for the consecration ceremony. The story goes that there was a dispute about which saint should be chosen for the consecration ceremony. The issue could not be resolved even on the day itself, and so, during the ceremony the Bishop used the title ‘St Philip and St James’ because it took place within the octave of their feast-day.

At first the area consisted largely of allotment gardens. The Horse and Jockey public house existed and there were houses as far as Plantation Road and a few dwellings around North Parade. The crescents in park Town had been begun slightly earlier in 1854. After a rather slow start, Norham Manor estate was completed in the 1870s. Then building spread westward towards the canal. Rackham Lane (later St Margaret’s Road) was laid out in 1879. According to the well-known local photographer and historian H. W. Taunt the part which lies between Banbury Road and Woodstock Road was called Gallows-Baulk Road. When the road was made up, the remains of several who suffered death by hanging were found. At the end of the century the development had reached Frenchay Road and Linton Road.

With all this housing, the work of the church grew. By 1882 the need for yet another church was being actively canvassed. An old skin shed had been converted into a mission room and used for worship since St Andrew’s Day 1875 in what was called the ‘Heyfield Hut district’. At the Easter Vestry of 1882 the question of building a more permanent Mission room or Church was seriously discussed. It was a year later, on 8th May 1883, that the foundation stone of St Margaret’s was laid. Dr Gray, the Vicar of Crick in Northamptonshire and the first Vicar of the parish, returned for what he called ‘the christening of little Margaret’ and as the ceremony was taking place on the 21st birthday of the mother church, he said he hoped ‘mother and daughter would do well’.

For the next sixty years the two churches flourished. In August 1896 two separate parishes were created and St Margaret’s became a parish church in its own right. Then the congregations lived through two World Wars, the Britain of austerity and the easier years of ‘never had it so good’. But the climate of opinion changed rapidly in the ‘swinging sixties’. Now the Christian Faith was questioned ruthlessly both by those who believed and those who did not.

Conventional church attendance fell away dramatically leaving ‘a lean and hungry look’ in place of the confidence and grandeur of earlier periods. At the same time, Christians in this country found themselves keeping company with people of other religions and cultures as folk from across the World came to live in Britain.

‘New occasions teach new duties’—in March 1973 the Oxford Deanery Synod took a long and careful look at pastoral reorganisation. In their proposals ‘A Deanery for the 1980s’ they recommended that the two parishes should be joined together again. In some ways that was easy, a natural return to roots. Much harder was the need to choose one of the two churches to be the parish church and declare the other redundant. The parish was reconstructed as a single unit in 1976, but the declaration of the redundancy of St Philip and St James Church did not take place until April 1982. At about the same time, the boundary between the parish and its neighbour, St Andrew’s, was redrawn, taking away all the streets to the east of the Banbury Road.

In the midst of the Centenary celebrations in 1983, the Vicar Paul Iles announced that he was leaving to become Canon Precentor of Hereford Cathedral. Bishop Patrick, under pressure to reduce clergy numbers in the Oxford Deanery, promptly suspended presentation to the benefice of St Philip and St James and St Margaret, and announced the formation of a united benefice with St Giles’. The first Vicar of the united benefice was to be John Gawne-Cain, already part-time Priest-in-charge of St Giles’. John and his family moved out of the St Giles’ Vicarage in Norham Gardens (subsequently sold to Wycliffe Hall) and into the purpose-built St Philip and St James Vicarage in Church Walk, equidistant between St Margaret’s and St Giles’. The St Margaret’s Vicarage, attached to the church, had long ceased to be used as a vicarage, and having served a variety of purposes was in 1992 converted by the Diocese into two flats, let out by them on short leases, with an understanding that one flat is available if needed for clergy of the benefice at low rent.

St Margaret’s and St Giles’ share a clergy team but have chosen to lead friendly but more or less separate lives. Members of the two congregations have from time to time worked together on community projects in the St Margaret’s Institute and the St Giles’ Parish Rooms. Shared services, study groups, and social events have been a regular feature, and each Holy Week begins with a Palm Sunday procession from one church to the other followed by a joint Eucharist and other joint services and meditations during the week. The paid clergy establishment allowed by the Diocese for the united benefice is one incumbent plus a half-time assistant priest. John Gawne-Cain was succeeded by John Morrison-Wells in 1992, and by Andrew Bunch in 1997. Assistant Priests Serge Middleton-Dansky, Kevin Horswell, Alan Green, and Georgie Simpson (the first woman priest to serve as part of the ministerial team) have been supplemented by full-time Deaconess Freda Beveridge (an exceptional and one-off appointment in the early years of the benefice) and non-stipendiary ministers Michael Carmichael, David Holmes, Pete Wilcox, Herbert Clegg, Anthony Aston Smith, Michael Screech, and Stuart Brand. Lay leadership has for long been seen as crucial at St Margaret’s, and as well as Lay Readers Margaret Hollis and Pam Smith, many members of the congregation have over the years taken responsibility for areas of the church’s ministry.

As well as the annual round of festivals and social gatherings, there have been a number of large-scale special projects during these years. A fund-raising appeal in 1987-88 to root out dry rot and renew the church floor featured many events including a parish pantomime. A parish mission in 1993 was led jointly by the parish and by members of the Franciscan Order. A Millennium Drama, written, produced, directed, and acted by members of the parish and united benefice, was staged in 2001.

The choir, restarted by Paul Iles in 1980 with a new injection of children many of whom became long-term members, has subsequently been led by Martin Holmes (1982-1984 and 1986-1997), Bob Judd (1984-86), Oliver Ranner (1998-2003), and Richard Goodall (2003 onwards). Mixed and open to all, the choir encompasses a wide range of age and singing experience, and achieves high standards at the main Sunday Eucharist and various special services. St Margaret’s is in the unusual position of having two working pipe organs in regular use, the original instrument supplemented since 1985 by a smaller organ in the nave. Younger children, very much a feature of the congregation throughout this time, have since 1998 participated in a Friday Parent-and-toddler group, adding to the Sunday school classes and crèche which have always taken place alongside the Sunday morning service.