The closure of a Methodist chapel on Tyneside

Illustration by George Wylesol

The last nine members sat excessive within the choir stalls, where we may witness them. Now of their seventies, some had been members since they had been childhood. They all looked happy, or at any rate, relieved.

The church itself, constructed in red brick by the United Methodists in South Shields in 1905, looked implacably the same. Squat and undistinguished on the launch air, gentle and brilliant on the within – only this time, the last time, the brass and the daffodils gleamed within the Easter solar. The church was pudgy. We had to squash our way in, waving and nodding to of us we weak to understand, and peaceful know, because friendships such as these are now now not easily surrendered. 

I buried my father right here and now it was the church’s flip to bury itself. Between six meaty hymns, two ministers roamed the congregation declaring 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 (note of God). Communion rail (Wonderloaf and Ribena). Sacristy (bit of a mystery?). Upstairs gallery (teenagers). Downstairs pews (grown-ups). Organist looking out up, choir peering down, preacher rubbing his hands and looking out pleased with himself. Out the back, two large halls hosted every little thing from Sunday faculty and childhood teams to coffee mornings and jumble sales.

On Saturday evenings, my parents danced in a club to faded-time and fashionable-sequence data within the downstairs hall. In the break you bought a house-made supper that proved the parable of the loaves and the fishes. At 10pm, Mam would walk house 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 fulfill the Queen, they invited HRH to the club. She didn’t make it, though they believed her when she said she’d attempt. To his credit, David Miliband, the MP, did make it, to an ordinary dance evening, where he spoke about Tony Blair to a generation who had beat fascism and constructed social democracy. What to make of that? My father spoke back saying (to Miliband’s clear relief) that his generation had by no means had it so honest. For reasons thankfully lost in time, I sang “The Lonely Goatherd” within the upstairs hall to an audience who knew where I lived.

Westoe Methodist Church was now now not appropriate a gothic pudgy cease at the discontinue of a long and winding road. It was a world within a world.

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I’d been brought right here, aspect door, by my father one Friday evening in 1960. A workmate had told him they had a honest 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 now now not be allowed to wear the uniform till he was 12. I spent a year feeling savor Gary Cooper in Beau Geste, the hero of the International Legion, stripped of his epaulettes.

But the Brigade had been founded in Glasgow for families too sad to afford uniforms, so when the time came all I purchased, on loan, was the standard-challenge leather belt, white imitation haversack and pillbox hat. About 30-outlandish of us spent Friday nights and Sunday mornings looking out savor a tough sketch of a British infantry platoon circa 1883. But between 19th-century chapel-boy existence and a twentieth-century tough industrial subculture of dance halls and underage ingesting – that is, between the death of Karl Marx and the Beatles’ first LP – there was extra in common than you may imagine. We had been all the same childhood. The hardest lad in our faculty was a member of the gallant Ninth.

The Brigade didn’t rock ’n’ roll, but it certainly did teach me how you can create fours, recent arms and pipe my hat. Each year we went camping in bell tents to the sound of bugles, with a flagpole, a cookhouse and a Merchant Navy man to accomplish the grub. I assert these days they’d call the Boys’ Brigade “colonial”, but a week Captain Taylor led the singing of “We’re a mighty band of brothers, spreading out across the arena”, and there have been slides of smiling African boys to indicate it. 

In fact, the Brigade was a Scottish cult and Glasgow, where it was founded, was hallowed floor. Officers wore Glengarries, dark suits and lapel badges. One evening, three of us chanced on two Glaswegian companies camping by Collingwood’s statue at the river mouth and had been welcomed savor the band of brothers we had been. Friday evening was drums and bugles, inspection, drill, utter-song and gym. Wednesday evening was Bible class. Our image was the anchor: “Certain and Steadfast” (Hebrews, chapter six, verse 19). Our song was “Will your anchor maintain within the storms of existence?” (Priscilla Owens, 1882). Silver pips, stripes and badges came and went for all these gadgets, but the caden-ces of the Bible stayed. They near easy to me now. Handiest of all, there was tons of football and cricket, although the package was one thing else.

Then a very strange factor happened. The older boys told us younger boys about the Young Folks’s Fellowship. “Whey man they’ve bought some canny gorls there, ye knaa,” they said. And so that they had. The only challenge was that in case you wanted to fulfill the ladies, you had to gallop to church. 

The YPF was important in ways I’m peaceful attempting to resolve out. No longer that my ideas are fully retrospective; I had an inkling at the time. After the provider, about 20 of us “teenagers” – nurses, shop and clerical staff, shipyard apprentices and colliery trainees, a few college students – would sit down 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 ahead of I came across myself fighting a long checklist of firsts: first critical read (Androcles and the Lion); first appropriate debate (nuclear weapons); first feminist (Dorothy); first socialist pacifist teetotaller (Dick); first chase abroad (Guernsey – correctly, they spoke French); first cigarette (Players); first abstraction (“society”); first politics (you can guess); and so on – a working location of conversations that have by no means really stopped. 

There was extra advanced stuff going on too. Philip Larkin was moral to say there was no sex in these days (even among parents) but you by no means know. Even so, no one is extra woke than a Puritan; we had been Puritans, and every little thing was up for judgement. But every little thing up for judgement, such as sin and forgiveness, wasn’t up for explanation, so we fell back on the easy stuff instead. Tories bad. Labour honest. War wrong. Peace moral. Jesus was a carpenter. Admire my buddy’s dad? No longer 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 had been smart, must have figured that out. Above all, fancy is all you want. But fancy is now not any manual to morals because it assumes its personal truth. Perhaps nudging us towards one thing harder, one of the diversified ministers suggested Dostoevsky. But compared with what I was doing at faculty – ahead of sixth create, at any rate – the YPF was a free college, on the doorstep. Sundays offered the venue. Bible and hymnbook offered the wonder. Local preaching offered the “oracy” (now a Labour mission, apparently). The minister offered leadership, and the books. I peaceful 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 proof! RF Wearmouth’s Methodism and the Working-Class Actions 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 guide The Making of the English Working Class (1963) launched a abominable and unprovoked attack on Methodism. Pillorying this great circulate of English dissent, Thompson poured scorn on its sickly talk of fancy, 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 attempting to understand the failure of the Revolution – a mystical act of human redemption proved by historical past and led by of us savor him. All the same, chapter 11, “The Transforming Vitality of the Despicable”, where he explains how Methodism broke the of us by transforming their interior lives into one thing extra befitting the factory machine, remains one of the great essays on the Industrial Revolution. He starts the guide in praise of 17th-century dissent, seed-mattress of liberty. He ends it characterising Methodist chapels as black and box-savor, waiting within the industrial districts “savor great traps for the human psyche”. His telling phrase “psychic masturbation” raised an eyebrow or two, but I was peaceful too young to understand “psychic”.

Thompson was writing about a convulsive length in our historical past, and he may or he may now now not have been aiming at contemporary Methodism. But you already know (and he helped teach us this) all historical past is contemporary historical past, and an attack is an attack. Thompson’s mix of Marxian and Freudian resentments struck me as grand, peculiar 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 extra sensory than anti-intellectual. The YPF was socially minded to a fault, with tons of laughing and kidding. The nearest Methodist church was a ten-minute walk away, and the following one a ten-minute walk from that. Far from being traps, Methodist church buildings had been linked in “circuits” (John Wesley was attracted to electricity) forming a “connexion” of of us that now now not only looked savor a spiritual trade union but acted savor one. Ladies probably dominated on the floor, despite the fact that that preponderance was now now not mirrored within the official circulate. By the 1960s female ministers had been rising. No longer all church buildings had been alike, either. If I learned how you can consider on Sundays at Westoe, I learned how you can 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. But, as within the trade unions, or the co-ops, mutuals and friendly societies, or the clubs, pubs and welfares, this was a society where men and ladies folk may feel extra confident in themselves – in ways they’d now now not have felt when dealing with “excessive-ups”, or bosses, or professional of us (all of whose time was money). “Golf equipment” and “squashes’’, “fellowships” and “sisterhoods”, “packs” and “leagues”, choirs and Sunday faculties, communion and “contact” teams – the names said it all in a common spherical that brought of us into regular and informal union. 

In diversified phrases, the Methodist church was a place where what was excessive 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 college (long hair, at Oxford, probably). Of path, as it was an intensely social organisation, the church may amplify all the usual human obsessions. Which is to say that, although we had been no mammoth deal, unimportant by most standards and unwelcome by some, it was the nearest any of us would near to working a bit of that advanced factor we went around airily calling “society”.

Intellectuals talk about “civil society” – but right here it was for real, accelerate by of us that weren’t intellectuals – far from it – and who belonged to noteworthy extra than a church. In the context of these diversified kinds of associational existence, Methodism and the cooperative circulate – as William Waldegrave argued on this journal (4 November 2022) – can be placed alongside non-ideological conservatism as one of Britain’s two great contributions to political theory. (He unnoticed liberalism.)

In 1906 there have been about 800,000 British Methodists. In 1960 there have been peaceful about 700,000, plus a lot of “adherents”. So, moral into the postwar length that academics had been starting to call “secular”, the circulate was maintaining its personal. Now the number is all the way 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 within the day, everyone knew who the Methodists had been or where to search out them. At the very least, they may demonstrate a chapel, and no one was bowled over to learn that Nelson Mandela was a Methodist (among diversified things). Or Rosa Parks. Or Nina Simone. Or Ella Fitzgerald. Or Hillary Clinton. Or Scout Finch, within the unconventional. Or Clark Kent, within the comics. At house, Keir Hardie was a Methodist, as had been four of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The labour circulate enjoyed a long and enduring relationship with Methodism, Stale Methodism in particular. Margaret Thatcher’s Wesleyan Methodism is another fable, but appropriate as strong-minded.

In the 1960s, Donald Soper (1903-98), minister at Kingsway Hall, was the face of British Methodism, a form of spiritual confessor to the Labour Party whose leaders had been all Christians as a lot as 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 no one knows who Methodists are and, apart from Beyoncé, I can be bowled over if anyone at the Guardian may name a single one. 

Between 2021 and 2022, 178 diversified Methodist church buildings shut up shop. Very soon, only one or two out of about a dozen will be left in Shields. Want to talk to chums? Facebook. Read a newspaper? Online. Contact your bank? Phone. Watch a movie? Netflix. Catch some browsing in? DPD. Pay a invoice? Bank transfer. Meet faded chums? Zoom. Get a partner? Tinder. Chat with the Dilapidated Bill or meet team clergy on their rounds? You. Must. Be. Joking.

I am now now not calling for original chapels in every road. I am saying that their absence leaves a gap in who we are. If all historical past is contemporary historical past, all neighborhood is face-to-face. There are peaceful coffee retailers and cafés, and, of path, mosques and temples – and the pubs are clinging on. But, for probably the most part, a great deal of our society has been “demutualised” (abominable note), and so-called social media is anything but social. Scanning a display is now now not the same as belonging to anything as advanced as a church. After we lose real contact (or must peaceful 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 runt over a generation is the dismembering of one another. Our public institutions are owned by of us we accomplish now now not know and cannot trace. Our jobs are increasingly provisional and done apart. Our companies are contracted out. Our connectivity is made that you can consider of by a technology that has no edge or centre. Global finance is a making a guess machine. Our state has been privatised. A senior civil servant once told me that in case you wanted to fix our railway machine, it can be very now now not going to bring all these responsible into one room.

Westoe met for the last time on Easter Sunday 2022. Two years later, it remains empty, having been offered at auction. The manual was location at £220,000 – which works out at appropriate below £2,000 per year of its existence for services the local newspaper was clearly at a loss to understand.

Tomiwa Owolade riffed on this journal (26 August 2022) on the faded line that it was now now not appropriate the Labour Party that owed extra to Methodism than to Marxism. For the young, Methodism offered safe space and the chance of each diversified. For the faded, it offered exactly the same. For all its of us, it offered a hasten of hope. A create of religiosity without a priesthood, politics without politicians, anarchism without anarchists, when this form of skills has finally gone, the of us will have forgotten some of the arts of democracy while the politicians will have forgotten some of the arts of the of us.

Robert Colls’ “Very Brief 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 within the 20 Mar 2024 challenge of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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