Celebrating 200 years of worship in Ashton-under-Lyne

It is a great honour to be invited here today on this very special occasion at the Albion United Reform Church.

Special not only because it is celebrating the annual Christmas Tree Festival but also because next year marks the 200th anniversary of worship and influence in Ashton-under-Lyne.

Although the history of the Albion goes back to the 16th century when the Nonconformists met illegally here in Ashton, Albion had its first chapel in 1816 at the top of Penny Meadow, extending the building in 1827 and adding a new building in 1835.

The congregations and the influence of the Albion grew and grew, with the leadership of its first two ministers the Rev Jonathan Sutcliffe and Rev Guinness-Rogers.

During the early days, the Albion chapel also had its own Sunday school, and two others were commenced at Charlstown and Hurst noon. Today the Albion can proudly celebrate the two Sunday schools still worshipping and working here in the local community.

Many in the founding congregation were cotton manufacturers. They, like me, became actively drawn into local and national politics to try improve the lives of the people of Ashton-under-Lyne.

A good number of the financial benefactors of the Albion had humble beginnings.

I think it is quite pertinent today that The Albion Fellowship was the embodiment of the spirit of Christmas and Christian social action. People like Cotton Mill owner Nathaniel Buckley, and the Mason family, were determined to give those less fortunate than themselves a helping hand.

Encouraging others through education, teaching, writing, providing decent healthcare and better housing.

Others such as Arthur Reyner (no relation, as far as I am aware), the Gladstonian Liberal took the fight for justice through from the town hall to Westminster.

Many others in the Albion congregation took up public positions on the local council.

Some of the Albion fellowship were also involved in major historical events, such as the tragic Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where workers gathered to extend the franchise.

And I am particularly proud of the work of Bertha Mason, suffragette and social reformer, helping families and children in poverty, while fighting for women to get the vote.

Today I feel humbled to be standing on the shoulders of this giant of a woman, as the first women MP for Ashton-under-Lyne and Tameside.

Other notable women members of the Albion congregation included Elizabeth Ripley. The Florence nightingale of Ashton, a talented dressmaker and member of the Dorcuss Society, raising funds for the poor, providing clothing to local families in need.

This vital work continues in our community today from buildings such as this church that hosts this wonderful Christmas tree festival.

Work which also includes bringing to life the history of this Church and its involvement within the local community, thanks to the pioneering work of Mary Whitehead, whose diligent research I have been able to draw on today.

I am sure this community-led event will continue to go from strength to strength and I give my personal thanks to your efforts this year.

For many in Ashton and beyond Christmas is about the gifts under the tree, the lights in the windows, the Christmas cards, turkey dinners with family and friends, stockings hanging in the living room, and shouts of "Merry Christmas".

But for too many people, Christmas is a time of sorrow. In these tough economic times, with local government services and welfare support being cut, many families don't have the extra money to put food on the table let alone buy presents for their children, family, and friends.

Many are saddened at Christmas time when they think of their loved ones who will not be able to come home for various reasons.

From those seeking refuge from war-torn countries such as Syria to those that are bereaved, family Christmas dinners may be only a dream and not a reality for some.

Yet, Christmas can be a season of great joy. It is a time of showing love and compassion for all. A time for generosity and human warmth. A time of healing and renewed strength.

As we celebrate the Nativity I am reminded of my duty as your Member of Parliament to continue to take forward the legacy of the Albion.

I shall fight for justice where there is none, provide a strong voice for those that have been silenced, help those that are destitute and in need and work constantly to create a fairer society.


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