The church stands just above the village and is of Elizabethan red brick. It is believed to be the first purpose-built Church of England church.
The most remarkable thing about this mellow red-brick church with its characteristic crow-stepped gables and straight-headed windows is its date of 1563, five years after the accession of Elizabeth I.
The church is open during day-light hours, and is regularly visited. Our provision of refreshments is much appreciated, and people from as far afield as the United States, Australia and New Zealand, have recorded their visits in recent years. Local rambling societies and individual walkers appreciate a peaceful stop-over on their walks round this typical Essex village.
The churchyard is maintained to allow a small wild area for insects and butterflies. There is also a memorial wall and garden for ashes. The view at the top of the page is of the village looking north from the church yard.
The Church of St Michael’s plays an active part in village life, either directly - the annual Flower Festival in July, taking an active part in the Bell Meadow Day celebrations - or via church member contact or membership of the Parish Council, the School Governing body, Silver Threads Club, Bell Meadow Village Association and in many other areas.
Woodham Walter still has a sense of “community” and church communications with the village are strong, particularly through the Parish News and the village notice boards
We have now completed the re-grading of the church path which allows easy access for wheelchairs and buggies, and a superb "Kitchen in a cupboard" has been fitted under the Belfry steps. This gives hot and cold water for preparing refreshments, which we have each Sunday after the morning service.
The old south door, which had been sealed up since 1795, has been replaced by a new door and it is hoped to start building the new south porch to contain toilets within the next few months.
Church members take regular assemblies in our Primary school and the children and the staff are frequently in church. By building on this contact then hopefully not only will the children be attracted to the church, but the young parents will also come along.
It is important that the Church of St Michael's fulfils its commitment to all age groups who live in our parish. At present our focus is towards the village school children who are the seed corn of the future church. We are welcomed into the school but it is the face to face contact with staff, parents and children which is so important. The expectation of the parents is that this should be by our ordained priest. If we get this right, then hopefully not only will the children be attracted to the church but the young parents will also come along. When this happens we must provide a welcome and meaningful service for them.
We are proud of our faith and hope the proposed new additions will help strengthen the bonds between the Church and the community.
If you have an interest in history you may be interested to read the following:
In August 2007 our then vicar Rev’d Malcolm Pudney received an e-mail from a colleague in the Chelmsford Diocesan Office attaching some correspondence which had recently appeared in The Times. A reader queried which was the first church built in the UK as a Church of England church.
The reply was: “If we date the Church of England from the Elizabethan settlement of 1559, almost certainly its first new church is St Michael’s at Woodham Walter in Essex, built in 1563-4. It is still essentially Gothic, though it lacks a proper chancel, as the worship of the Reformed Church did not need one. If we include the period from 1534 to 1554, when the English Church was separated from Rome, then a few new churches were built at that time, such as, probably, Willington in Bedfordshire.” This letter was from a John Clare of Abingdon. Another letter from a Geoffrey Ellis of Bury St Edmunds claims that the building of St James in Bury, since 1914 the cathedral church, started in the early days of the 16th century. It was incomplete at the time of the Dissolution in 1538, and then finished in 1552 when it was consecrated within the Church of England. He states “It therefore has claims to be the earliest of the new buildings consecrated as a Church of England church.”
Following this our then PCC Secretary Ann Maxwell sent queries to local historians, none of whom could shed any light, then after she had read a letter in the Sunday Times on a related subject by Dr Richard Rex, Reader in Reformation History at Queens College, Cambridge she e-mailed him on 24th September 2007. He replied on 24th September as follows:
“This is certainly a fascinating little problem, though the field of church building is not one in which I can claim any special expertise - indeed not only Roy Strong but even Simon Jenkins probably have better claim to expertise in this precise area than I do.
The claim that St James in Bury was the first church consecrated by the separated Church of England seems plausible enough. However, to claim that church as the first 'built' for the CofE would be tendentious, as it is plain that most of the motivation, finance, and construction took place at a time when, even though now independent of Rome, the people of England were still mainly Catholic in their liturgical practices. Even less could churches consecrated in Henry VIII's latter years plausibly claim, so to speak, a Protestant genesis.
Your church may well be able to make that claim - although I simply could not say for sure that there was no other parish among the thousands in England that had built or rebuilt its church in the first few years of Elizabeth's reign. In seeking to verify the claim, you might try to ascertain the date of consecration of the church, which ought to be recorded in the episcopal register of the Bishop of London. Are there any parish or churchwarden accounts for your parish for that era?
It would also be possible to consult the Essex County Record Office for wills made by parishioners of Woodham Walter in the mid-Tudor period. Some of those wills might possibly include bequests made towards the costs of building the church.
Was the parish church built, or rebuilt? If the former, where had the parishioners worshipped before? Was Woodham Walter a newly established parish? (Again, this should be apparent from the episcopal registers, or the institution registers, of the diocese of London, within which I imagine Woodham Walter was included.)
1563-64 sounds very quick for the construction of a parish church. (This is one reason why looking at a series of wills might help.) Is the church notably small? Does the lack of a chancel seem like planning? Or might the church have been originally conceived, in Catholic times, along traditional lines, but then cut short, literally, in Elizabeth's reign, to save time and money when a radically different theology of ministry and the Eucharist
made the old plan redundant?
More questions than answers, I am afraid, and, as I say, this is not really my specialism. But I may perhaps have been able to offer you some leads.
Ann then wrote to Simon Jenkins, author of A Thousand English Churches, he replied on 22nd October, saying that he could add nothing but it was a fascinating problem. Then she e-mailed Sir Roy Strong and he replied on 28th October “I can’t really help you but I would have thought that you surely must be right!”
Ann then decided to “go to the top” and on 24th October wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. On 7th November the Lambeth Palace Librarian Anna James wrote and although regretted that she was not able to state with any certainty the location of the “first” Church of England place of worship, and only able to reiterate what the other correspondents had written: the greatest difficulties lie in deciding whether the Church of England dates from Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 1530s or the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559, and whether to count a church’s establishment from the laying of the foundations or the consecration of the finished building. Unfortunately these questions can only receive subjective answers, meaning that there can never be a truly definitive answer to our question.
She concludes: “Nevertheless, I believe that your church would be reasonably justified in making a qualified claim such as: ‘This church is believed to be the first consecrated after the Elizabethan settlement, and as such has a claim towards being the oldest purpose-built Church of England place of worship.’
Do come and visit us and see our unique church and lovely village.