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Christian service at Lullingstone Roman Villa for first time in 1600 years

By Chris Hunter

One of the earliest sites of Christian worship in Britain has echoed once again to Christian hymns and prayers for what could have been the first time in more than 1600 years.

Established initially as a site of pagan worship for its occupants from the 1st Century, the shrine at Lullingstone Roman Villa is believed to have been converted into Christian chapel in the 4th Century, following the adoption of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

But by the end of the 4th Century, soldiers stationed in Britain were being recalled to Rome as barbarian tribes attacked all corners of the Empire, and by 410AD the last Romans had left.

Worshippers line the gallery at Lullingstone
Worshippers line the gallery at Lullingstone

Lullingstone, destroyed by a fire, was abandoned and forgotten until its excavation in the 20th Century - and while Christianity would become resurgent throughout Britain by the end of the 7th Century, Lullingstone’s old chapel itself was never used again.

Until last month - when a Christian service was held once more amidst the ruins of the villa by the Churches Together in Eynsford, Farningham and Lullingstone.

Revd Gary Owen, Rector of Eynsford with Farningham and Lullingstone said it had been a moving experience for those present and thanked English Heritage, which owns the site, for allowing the service.

He added: “English Heritage have recently been looking to open their properties up for community use, and we thought it would be great to take advantage of an opportunity to hold a service where the church (came together) 1700 years ago.

“It felt really significant. We joined together as churches in the area to go back to our roots, and this is where the church began in the villages.

“It was interesting to go back to our roots and to think there were Christian brothers and sisters worshipping there all that time ago.

"Their lives would have been so different but we share the same fundamental belief in Jesus - it was quite poignant.”

Rev Gary Owen with the English Heritage team
Rev Gary Owen with the English Heritage team

Bishop Simon Burton-Jones, the Bishop of Tonbridge, also preached at the service, which included hymns and music from the past 2000 years, including "Te Deum" - a Roman Christian hymn from the 4th Century.

"It’s possible those same words could have been read or sung at the site more than 1600 years ago, and yet mystery surrounds Christian worship took in those early days.

"Even after the Roman chapel was built, some experts believe pagan worship could have continued in a "cult room" beneath the chapel, as if the Romans were "hedging their bets" over which religion to follow.

And after the departure of the Romans the history of religious worship in Britain gets even more hazy, with invading Saxon tribes bringing their own pagan gods before Christianity returns as the dominant religion in the 7th Century.

Nevertheless, it’s likely Christian worship never disappeared entirely during those turbulent times, even as the Roman Empire collapsed.

“Obviously Christianity came over with the Romans, but how much the locals adopted it, and how much it continued after the Romans left is a different matter,” said Revd Owen.

“We would like to think that Christianity continued here for 1700 years, but quite what happened when the Romans left we don’t know.

Rev Gary Owen gives the blessing at Lullingstone Roman Villa
Rev Gary Owen gives the blessing at Lullingstone Roman Villa

"There was a Saxon church in Eynsford , and there was Christianity in the village from Saxon times.”

And it was certainly evident last month, with more than 100 people attending the event.

“We were really pleased with that,” he added.

“We just want to say thank you to English Heritage.

"I think it was really good to bring an ancient building to life and use it in a way it was designed to be used all those years ago.

"We were really appreciative to be able worship in this building.”

Quite what the pagan gods lurking in the cult room beneath made of it, is anyone’s guess.

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