A church, perhaps of wood, may have stood on this site before the Norman Conquest but nothing of it remains. The site of the church at around 178 metres above sea level is the third highest of the ancient churches of Surrey.
The nave was built in the early 12th century (and possibly even earlier in Saxon times) and the small round-headed windows in the North and South walls reproduce the early Norman shape. A new chancel was built c.1220 with an arcade opening into a North Chapel. The chancel was again rebuilt in 1857 and the two large tie beams in the chancel are original 13th century timbers. The timber for the modern tie beams in the nave came from Rosiers Wood on Leith Hill.
In the North Chapel, the North doorway has been heavily restored but incorporates stonework probably reset in the late 12th century.
In the 13th century the Church was dedicated to St. James, the popular patron saint of pilgrims who at that time were going to the shrines of either St. James Compostella in Spain or St. Thomas á Becket at Canterbury. Abinger Church is near the old Pilgrims’ Way.
On the 3rd August 1944 at 8 a.m. a flying bomb exploded near the Church. The blast brought down the belfry, the roof of the nave and parts of the wall. The organ and almost all the furnishings were destroyed. Only the 13th century chapel remained more or less intact. Luckily, no one was injured in the blast. It is the only church in the Diocese of Guildford that suffered serious bomb damage.
The restoration of the Church was entrusted to F. Etchells, Esq., F.R.I.B.A. who, from old etchings and photographs, was able to reconstruct it. However, wartime shortages meant that the restoration project was not completed until 1951. During reconstruction, the Church was lengthened by about ten feet to house the present organ. Unfortunately, a Crusader’s old stone tomb was broken up during reconstruction. It lay beneath the surface beyond the outer wall of the main Church. The walls were rebuilt with the same material and in the same way – rubble between sandstone and plaster.
In June 1964, the church suffered a second disaster. During an exceptionally heavy thunderstorm, the tower was struck by lightning and fire caused extensive damage to the tower, the roof and some of the furnishings. The church was once again restored as it was and the opportunity taken to install concealed lighting.
Since 1959 the parish has been linked with the Benefice of Christ Church, Coldharbour. The incumbent is therefore Rector of Abinger and Vicar of Coldharbour. The patrons of the living and Lords of the Manor for the last 350 years have been members of the family of John Evelyn, the diarist.
The east window structure in the chancel was built in the last century. The other windows are new but follow the patterns of the originals, except for the west window. The three-eight window near the pulpit is a copy of a 15th century window previously there. The glass in the present east window, which was given in memory of John Coe, was designed in 1967 by Mr. Laurence Lee, A.R.C.A. His description of his design is:
“The Cross is depicted as a ‘living tree’, riven by lightning and distorted by age, but still having life within itself and bursting out with new life. The concept is St. Paul’s, life through death and decay and suffering transformed into resurrection and joy. This is the doctrinal aspect. Artistically, there is a basic complexity in the Cross theme contrasted with simple open shapes which might be thought of as landscape & earth, cornfields, lakes (all rather happy); or again as a butterfly’s wing. The flickers of white falling from the extremities of the Cross pass down back into the earth and rise again in the centre mass of light”.
Under the altar are two memorial stone slabs, one to the memory of Thomas Crawley, M.A., Rector of Abinger and chaplain to Charles II, who died in 1685, and his wife, a daughter of Dr. Gabriel Offley, a former Rector; the other to Robert Offley, M.A., Prebendary of Durham and Rector of Abinger, who died in 1743. The wall memorial to Mrs. Elizabeth Ronzier, who died on 17th June, 1785, was taken from a coffin under the floor. In the South porch, near the altar and by the font are three fine 15th century English alabaster reliefs, given by Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens. That by the font depicts the beheading of John the Baptist (a favourite “scene” of the medieval Mystery Plays which inspired the Nottingham alabaster trade). The fine bronze relief of the Crucifixion in the chapel, signed by Justin (probably the French artist. Justin Matthieu, died 1864) was given in memory of Edwin Waterhouse.
During extensive repair, in 1857, the singers’ gallery at the west end was removed and a barrel organ was installed (with two barrels, each having ten tunes), to replace the band. In the 1946 restoration, the choir was restored to the west end on a platform, with an electronic organ to replace the pipe organ. Lord Campion’s Order of the Bath banner hangs in the chapel. All the furnishings are new except for three 17th century chairs, a prayer desk of the same date and the brass ornaments in the chapel. Amongst the silver belonging to the church are a chalice, paten and flagon made in 1736 and given by the Countess of Donegal who owned Abinger Hall. The cross and candlesticks on the main altar were given in memory of John A. Gibbs and his son, and those in the chapel in memory of Walter Selwyn Orpen.
In 1857, a Jacobean “three-decker” pulpit was removed and its replacement which had beautiful Renaissance carved panels was destroyed in 1944. The present pulpit is a war memorial to the scholars of Abinger School who died in the 1939-45 war. The beautifully carved chest in the chapel was originally in a church in Normandy and dates from about 1525. It was given by Celia Shepperd, daughter of Alan and Irene Carr and granddaughter of Robert & Eva Boxall who brought it from France in 1900.
The font belongs to the last century and contains a marble bowl taken from an earlier font. The lych-gate was built in 1880. There are three bells in the tower, two of which are inscribed “William Eldridge made me, 1674”.
The Church registers go back to 1559, the first entry being the record of a baptism: “Lawrence Dayre, Son of Matthew Dayre was baptized the xxiii day of April, 1559”.
The organ, a magnificent 2-manual pipe organ was dedicated in 1991 by the Bishop of Guildford. It is contained in an oak case by Nicholson of Worcester. It is a worthy addition to the heritage of Abinger and a completion of the restoration work begun after the second world war.
St James’ church is a Grade II* listed building.
As the pilgrims called at churches such as St. James’, Abinger, on or near their route, the villagers held churchyard fairs to give them food, drink and entertainment, in return for which the pilgrims often put on a play. The present Old Fair of Abinger, which was begun in 1956 by the then rector, Dr. C.T. Chapman, commemorates these churchyard fairs and is held annually, usually on the second Saturday in June on the village green by the church. The fair raises money for local and national charities. The villagers are in medieval costume.