For this third history minute I would like to tell you an anecdote about the Rev. Matthias Plant who served as rector of Queen Anne’s Chapel for thirty-one years from 1722 until his death in 1753. The story fits well with the themes of St. Paul’s origins we have been exploring: namely, a particular calling to this place, periods of conflict among various church factions and a pattern of reconciliation that led to renewal and allowed our parish to remain spiritually alive for three hundred years.
Rev. Plant was a highly educated man for his time. Prior to becoming a missionary and traveling across the ocean to this then primitive place, he graduated from Jesus College at Cambridge University in England. He preached for a full ten years before delivering his first sermon here in 1722. He was described by the Governor General as a “sober and ingenious man”, sober meaning serious of purpose and ingenious meaning a clever, quick witted man as he indeed was.
After diligently building up his congregation and dealing with many conflicts over the years between the puritan or dissenting members of the congregation and the British born Anglicans, a group of merchants headed by Joseph Atkins and Michael Dalton secured land and erected a building on “the waterside” of Newbury to form a new church. Rev. Plant supported the project and even donated £50 to a building fund, a considerable sum. The vestrymen graciously asked him to officiate as priest at this new St. Paul’s and he graciously accepted, alternating every other Sunday between the new church and Queen Anne’s Chapel on “the plains.”
All was well …but you may be able to guess what is coming next. The vestrymen of St. Paul’s began to have second thoughts. Rev. Plant was formally disinvited to serve and two anonymous letters of complaint about him were sent to the secretary of the Society, the Rev. Bearcroft. We do not have the original letters but we do have Rev. Plant’s rebuttals. In them he tells us the chief complaint was “his habit was not canonical” and he wore a “coloured handkerchief” around his neck instead of a band, a claim he adamantly denied. In fact, he goes on to tell us, “I never once in my whole time of preaching here, went to church to officiate without a band, nor do I remember the time when I ever wore a speckled handkerchief, nor any other about my neck in time of Divine Service…” The matter of the speckled handkerchief was born, and it went on to produce ten years of conflict.
During those years Rev. Plant wrote in his diary about the many instances of rude and unchurch-like behavior he endured. Senior warden Michael Dalton even traveled to London to ask for his removal. Of course the more compelling story behind the speckled handkerchief, aside from personal conflict, was about establishing a new and legally separate parish, capturing the money to support it and splitting the rector’s salary then paid by the Society between the two; all earthly issues of power and money we might say.
In 1751 the free fight seemed to be over and all parties appeared to rest. An accord was reached. In June Rev. Plant was formally inducted into the rectorship of St. Paul’s Church according to the full rites and forms of the Church of England, and the parish remained one.
The matter of the “speckled handkerchief” ended quietly – as these conflicts so often do – so the work of the spirit could continue.
Bronson de Stadler