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20 March 2024

The death of a church

The closure of a Methodist chapel on Tyneside tells a story of England’s dwindling congregations – and highlights the loss of a vibrant community life that cannot be replaced.

By Robert Colls

The last nine members sat high in the choir stalls, where we could see them. Now in their seventies, some had been members since they were children. They all looked happy, or at any rate, relieved.

The church itself, built in red brick by the United Methodists in South Shields in 1905, looked implacably the same. Squat and undistinguished on the outside, light and bright on the inside – only this time, the last time, the brass and the daffodils gleamed in the Easter sun. The church was full. We had to squash our way in, waving and nodding to people we used to know, and still know, because friendships such as these are not easily surrendered. 

I buried my father here and now it was the church’s turn to bury itself. Between six meaty hymns, two ministers roamed the congregation pointing out the micro-geography of a place that acknowledged no sacred spaces but, in its heyday at least, had them all the same. Pulpit and lectern (word of God). Communion rail (Wonderloaf and Ribena). Vestry (bit of a mystery?). Upstairs gallery (teenagers). Downstairs pews (grown-ups). Organist looking up, choir peering down, preacher rubbing his hands and looking pleased with himself. Out the back, two large halls hosted everything from Sunday school and youth groups to coffee mornings and jumble sales.

On Saturday evenings, my parents danced in a club to old-time and modern-sequence records in the downstairs hall. In the break you got a home-made supper that proved the parable of the loaves and the fishes. At 10pm, Mam would walk home with her mates while Dad would whip off for a very non-Methodist pint. When dance leaders Clive and Lesley went to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen, they invited HRH to the club. She didn’t make it, though they believed her when she said she’d try. To his credit, David Miliband, the MP, did make it, to an ordinary dance night, where he spoke about Tony Blair to a generation who had beat fascism and built social democracy. What to make of that? My father replied saying (to Miliband’s clear relief) that his generation had never had it so good. For reasons thankfully lost in time, I sang “The Lonely Goatherd” in the upstairs hall to an audience who knew where I lived.

Westoe Methodist Church was not just a gothic full stop at the top of a long and winding road. It was a world within a world.

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I’d been brought here, side door, by my father one Friday night in 1960. A workmate had told him they had a good company of the Boys’ Brigade and, having seen them swagger and heard them rattle, it had to be them. After a bit of humming and hawing at the door, the Ninth let me join their ranks on the understanding that Acting Junior (Pte) Colls would not be allowed to wear the uniform until he was 12. I spent a year feeling like Gary Cooper in Beau Geste, the hero of the Foreign Legion, stripped of his epaulettes.

But the Brigade had been founded in Glasgow for families too poor to afford uniforms, so when the time came all I got, on loan, was the standard-issue leather belt, white imitation haversack and pillbox hat. About 30-odd of us spent Friday nights and Sunday mornings looking like a rough sketch of a British infantry platoon circa 1883. But between 19th-century chapel-boy life and a 20th-century rough industrial subculture of dance halls and underage drinking – that is, between the death of Karl Marx and the Beatles’ first LP – there was more in common than you might imagine. We were all the same kids. The hardest lad in our school was a member of the gallant Ninth.

The Brigade didn’t rock ’n’ roll, but it did teach me how to form fours, present arms and pipe my hat. Every year we went camping in bell tents to the sound of bugles, with a flagpole, a cookhouse and a Merchant Navy man to do the grub. I suppose these days they’d call the Boys’ Brigade “colonial”, but every week Captain Taylor led the singing of “We’re a mighty band of brothers, spreading out across the world”, and there were slides of smiling African boys to prove it. 

In fact, the Brigade was a Scottish cult and Glasgow, where it was founded, was hallowed ground. Officers wore Glengarries, dark suits and lapel badges. One night, three of us chanced on two Glaswegian companies camping by Collingwood’s statue at the river mouth and were welcomed like the band of brothers we were. Friday night was drums and bugles, inspection, drill, sing-song and gym. Wednesday night was Bible class. Our symbol was the anchor: “Sure and Steadfast” (Hebrews, chapter six, verse 19). Our song was “Will your anchor hold in the storms of life?” (Priscilla Owens, 1882). Silver pips, stripes and badges came and went for all these things, but the caden-ces of the Bible stayed. They come easy to me now. Best of all, there was lots of football and cricket, although the kit was something else.

Then a very strange thing happened. The older boys told us younger boys about the Young People’s Fellowship. “Whey man they’ve got some canny gorls there, ye knaa,” they said. And so they had. The only problem was that if you wanted to meet the girls, you had to go to church. 

The YPF was important in ways I’m still trying to figure out. Not that my thoughts are entirely retrospective; I had an inkling at the time. After the service, about 20 of us “young people” – nurses, shop and clerical workers, shipyard apprentices and colliery trainees, a few students – would sit in a circle and, led by Reverend Richard (Dick) Ellis BD, the minister, and Dorothy Blenkinsop SRN, hospital matron, we would discuss moral questions of the day. It wasn’t long before I found myself struggling with a long list of firsts: first serious read (Androcles and the Lion); first proper debate (nuclear weapons); first feminist (Dorothy); first socialist pacifist teetotaller (Dick); first trip abroad (Guernsey – well, they spoke French); first cigarette (Players); first abstraction (“society”); first politics (you can guess); and so on – a running set of conversations that have never really stopped. 

There was more complex stuff going on too. Philip Larkin was right to say there was no sex in those days (even among parents) but you never know. Even so, nobody is more woke than a Puritan; we were Puritans, and everything was up for judgement. But everything up for judgement, such as sin and forgiveness, wasn’t up for explanation, so we fell back on the simple stuff instead. Tories bad. Labour good. War wrong. Peace right. Jesus was a carpenter. Like my friend’s dad? Not really.

I must say none of this was the church’s fault. We teenagers didn’t want sin, and death was way down the queue. We wanted humanity in all its obvious goodness, and Dick and Dorothy, who were smart, must have figured that out. Above all, love is all you need. But love is no guide to morals because it assumes its own truth. Perhaps nudging us towards something harder, one of the other ministers recommended Dostoevsky. Yet compared with what I was doing at school – before sixth form, at any rate – the YPF was a free university, on the doorstep. Sundays provided the venue. Bible and hymnbook provided the wonder. Local preaching provided the “oracy” (now a Labour mission, apparently). The minister provided leadership, and the books. I still have a couple now. Alan Richardson’s Christian Apologetics showed me that when it came to God, Bertrand Russell was obviously a simpleton. He wanted evidence! RF Wearmouth’s Methodism and the Working-Class Movements of England 1800-1850 shored me up for later, when I came across Mr EP Thompson.

Thompson, who was unheard of in South Shields, was probably our greatest postwar historian, and, from out of a clear blue sky, his book The Making of the English Working Class (1963) launched a terrible and unprovoked attack on Methodism. Pillorying this great movement of English dissent, Thompson poured scorn on its sickly talk of love, its political conformism, its brittle anti-intellectualism and the emotional “atrocities” it waged on the human heart. A disconsolate son of the manse, Thompson was also a disconsolate Marxist trying to understand the failure of the Revolution – a mystical act of human redemption proved by history and led by people like him. All the same, chapter 11, “The Transforming Power of the Cross”, where he explains how Methodism broke the people by transforming their interior lives into something more befitting the factory system, remains one of the great essays on the Industrial Revolution. He starts the book in praise of 17th-century dissent, seed-bed of liberty. He ends it characterising Methodist chapels as black and box-like, waiting in the industrial districts “like great traps for the human psyche”. His telling phrase “psychic masturbation” raised an eyebrow or two, but I was still too young to understand “psychic”.

Thompson was writing about a convulsive period in our history, and he may or he may not have been aiming at contemporary Methodism. But you know (and he helped teach us this) all history is contemporary history, and an attack is an attack. Thompson’s mix of Marxian and Freudian resentments struck me as powerful, weird and condescending.

Young Methodists, including some from South Shields, gather in Guernsey, 1966. Photo courtesy of Robert Colls

I saw no emotional atrocities at Westoe, where the tone was kindly, the acts charitable and the encounters more sensory than anti-intellectual. The YPF was socially minded to a fault, with lots of laughing and kidding. The nearest Methodist church was a ten-minute walk away, and the next one a ten-minute walk from that. Far from being traps, Methodist churches were linked in “circuits” (John Wesley was interested in electricity) forming a “connexion” of people who not only looked like a spiritual trade union but acted like one. Women probably dominated on the ground, even if that preponderance was not reflected in the official movement. By the 1960s female ministers were emerging. Not all churches were alike, either. If I learned how to think on Sundays at Westoe, I learned how to jive late on Fridays at Talbot Road.

Everyday Methodism was unknown to the establishment, including the left, who saw it as a tin-roof organisation prone to pottiness and vulgarity. Yet, as in the trade unions, or the co-ops, mutuals and friendly societies, or the clubs, pubs and welfares, this was a society where men and women could feel more confident in themselves – in ways they would not have felt when dealing with “high-ups”, or bosses, or professional people (all of whose time was money). “Clubs” and “squashes’’, “fellowships” and “sisterhoods”, “packs” and “leagues”, choirs and Sunday schools, communion and “contact” groups – the names said it all in a common round that brought people into regular and informal union. 

In other words, the Methodist church was a place where what was high and mighty mixed with the ordinary and the day-to-day. We talked about Jesus Christ almost as if he was a member away at university (long hair, at Oxford, probably). Of course, as it was an intensely social organisation, the church could amplify all the usual human obsessions. Which is to say that, although we were no big deal, unimportant by most standards and unwelcome by some, it was the nearest any of us would come to running a bit of that complex thing we went around airily calling “society”.

Intellectuals talk about “civil society” – but here it was for real, run by people who weren’t intellectuals – far from it – and who belonged to much more than a church. In the context of those other forms of associational life, Methodism and the cooperative movement – as William Waldegrave argued in this journal (4 November 2022) – can be placed alongside non-ideological conservatism as one of Britain’s two great contributions to political theory. (He omitted liberalism.)

In 1906 there were about 800,000 British Methodists. In 1960 there were still about 700,000, plus a lot of “adherents”. So, right into the postwar period that academics were beginning to call “secular”, the movement was holding its own. Now the number is down to about 148,000 (less than in Fiji) and the Brigade is down from 100,000 to 40,000. 

The 2021 census reported that Christians are now a minority in England and Wales. Back in the day, everyone knew who the Methodists were or where to find them. At the very least, they could point to a chapel, and nobody was surprised to learn that Nelson Mandela was a Methodist (among other things). Or Rosa Parks. Or Nina Simone. Or Ella Fitzgerald. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Scout Finch, in the novel. Or Clark Kent, in the comics. At home, Keir Hardie was a Methodist, as were four of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The labour movement enjoyed a long and enduring relationship with Methodism, Primitive Methodism in particular. Margaret Thatcher’s Wesleyan Methodism is another story, but just as strong-minded.

In the 1960s, Donald Soper (1903-98), minister at Kingsway Hall, was the face of British Methodism, a sort of spiritual confessor to the Labour Party whose leaders were all Christians up to and including Gordon Brown in 2007. When the young marched against nuclear weapons, there was Soper at the front, pushing along with Canon Collins. Now nobody knows who Methodists are and, apart from Beyoncé, I would be surprised if anyone at the Guardian could name a single one. 

Between 2021 and 2022, 178 other Methodist churches shut up shop. Very soon, only one or two out of about a dozen will be left in Shields. Want to talk to friends? Facebook. Read a newspaper? Online. Contact your bank? Phone. Watch a movie? Netflix. Get some shopping in? DPD. Pay a bill? Bank transfer. Meet old friends? Zoom. Find a partner? Tinder. Chat with the Old Bill or meet team clergy on their rounds? You. Must. Be. Joking.

I am not calling for new chapels in every street. I am saying that their absence leaves a gap in who we are. If all history is contemporary history, all community is face-to-face. There are still coffee shops and cafés, and, of course, mosques and temples – and the pubs are clinging on. But, for the most part, a great deal of our society has been “demutualised” (terrible word), and so-called social media is anything but social. Scanning a screen is not the same as belonging to anything as complex as a church. When we lose real contact (or should I say contact with the real?) we lose some part of what makes us human. 

St Paul told the Ephesians that we are all members of one another. What we have seen in little over a generation is the dismembering of one another. Our public institutions are owned by people we do not know and cannot trace. Our jobs are increasingly provisional and done apart. Our businesses are contracted out. Our connectivity is made possible by a technology that has no edge or centre. Global finance is a betting machine. Our state has been privatised. A senior civil servant once told me that if you wanted to fix our railway system, it would be impossible to bring all those responsible into one room.

Westoe met for the last time on Easter Sunday 2022. Two years later, it remains empty, having been sold at auction. The guide was set at £220,000 – which works out at just under £2,000 per year of its life for services the local newspaper was clearly at a loss to understand.

Tomiwa Owolade riffed in this journal (26 August 2022) on the old line that it was not just the Labour Party that owed more to Methodism than to Marxism. For the young, Methodism offered safe space and the prospect of each other. For the old, it offered exactly the same. For all its people, it offered a journey of hope. A form of religiosity without a priesthood, politics without politicians, anarchism without anarchists, when this sort of experience has finally gone, the people will have forgotten some of the arts of democracy while the politicians will have forgotten some of the arts of the people.

Robert Colls’ “Very Short Introduction to George Orwell” (OUP) will be out later this year

[See also: The economic consequences of the miners’ strike]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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