CHAPEL FOLK.

11 Feb

My childhood Sunday in the 1950’s : deserted streets, closed shops, roast dinners and church — or to be more precise: chapel.

  I come from a chapel family. Chapel folk are Christians but they don’t go in for the : fancy ceremonies, colourful robes, chanting or incense wafting of the Catholics or the Anglicans. As they refused to conform to all the High Church stuff, they broke away and were dubbed the Non-Conformists. This all happened in the later 18th Century. Their places of worship were small, simple buildings, mostly devoid of rich decoration or fancy ornemants. The non-conformists consisted of several different groups, the main ones being: the Methodists, the Congregationists and the Baptists. Their chapels sprang up all over the north, the Midlands and Wales, attracting bulging congregations.

  My family, on the maternal side, came from the Methodist tradition. Methodism had been founded in the 18th century by the brothers. John and Charles Wesley. It attracted an enthusiastic following partly because of its rousing, evangelical-style preachers, who travelled round the country delivering open-air sermons to huge crowds. John Wesley was one of the most popular. While at Oxford University, John and Charles formed the “Holy Club” which systematically tried to set out the “rules” for a Holy life. They were branded “methodists” by some fellow Oxford students, who derided the methodological way they ordered their lives. I suspect though that this was a clue to their popularity with many people, including my family. Instead of having to struggle to figure out how to live a decent life, all the church members have to do is follow the rules and regulations set down by others who are claiming to be speaking on behalf of God. This is a feature of most of the main religions. Their followers just have to submit to the rules, supposedly laid down by God, in order to live a good life and go to heaven, or whatever the after-life is called. For example, “Islam”, one of the World’s biggest faiths, literally means “submission” ( to the will of God or Allah.) Methodists are not Muslims, but they still willingly submit to the rules. This is easier and more convenient than trying to figure out everything for oneself.

  I grew up in a coal-mining and steel making area of North-East Derbyshire, near the town of Chesterfield. It was classic non-conformist territory. In the large village where I was born, New Whittington, there were at least 3 Methodist Chapels back in the 1950’s. They were all built from imposing red brick. We attended Wellington Street Methodist Chapel, a few doors up from my grandparents, Tom and Alice. A few years ago, faced with a dwindling congregation and rising costs, it was demolished. I vividly remember the shock waves that shuddered through my family, including myself, when we surveyed the sad pile of dust and rubble. It was as if an important part of our history had been wantonly wiped out!

  My grandad used to dominate much of that chapel’s life in its hey day. He was: the organist, the choir master, a hymn composer and a preacher. One of his sons, my Uncle Victor, was also a long-serving lay preacher as was my dad, Maurice, when he married into the family. Later, my younger brother, Graham, carried the family tradition of lay- preaching into yet another generation.

  Although they rejected much of the ritual and ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, the Methodists were not short of rules and restrictions. These tried to control what chapel members could or could not do, both in and out of the chapel. It wasn’t just a religion but more like a whole life-style choice.

  When my dad joined the Methodists, having got hitched to my mum, one of the first things he had to do was to sign the “Pledge.”  This was a solemn undertaking not to touch a drop of the evil drink and become a life-long tee-totaller. The non-conformists churches had close links with the Temperance Movement which was also very strong in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Alcohol was identified as being at the root of much that was wrong in society. I’m fairly sure that before he signed up, my dad used to enjoy a few pints in the pub with his mates after work. But after he became a Methodist he didn’t touch a drop, except for a small glass of port on Christmas Day, diluted by lemonade. Methodists don’t even have real red wine when taking the Sacrament, their version of Holy Communion. They substitute blackcurrent or grape juice instead, to represent the blood of Christ.

 I recently watched a documentary about the days of the Commonwealth, the 1650’s, when Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, governed Britain and his Puritan Church set the rules for the nation. In order to “purify” the country from unspiritual and sinful pursuits, the Puritans banned many entertainments and amusements. I think they even banned dancing round the maypole and tried to abolish the festivities of Christmas. I think the Methodists partly took up this mantle two or three centuries later, although not pushing it to such extremes. Fun and entertainment were largely not approved of on Sundays. This was the case in my childhood. Sunday was a religious day devoted to worshipping in church ( chapel) and for us youngsters to go to Sunday School. For my sister, Glenys, and I, these special rules for Sunday made for a fairly miserable time. It was as if our much looked forward to weekend had been truncated to just one day. Most of our rest, relaxation and fun had to be crammed into Saturday. Then, on Sunday, it was back to being serious, wearing formal clothes and being forced to do things that we didn’t want to do.

  It must be remembered however that in the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was young, the Sunday Trading Laws were still strictly enforced. The churches and religious pressure groups still had power and influence. So practically all the shops and places of entertainment were closed on Sundays. It wasn’t like the free and easy regime of today where Sunday is almost like a full-blown Saturday and the main thing being worshipped is materialism. Back then, town centres were dead on Sundays and the streets mostly deserted. We didn’t even have a bus service on Sunday morning and a very restricted service after lunch. There were no professional football matches and no “Super Sundays” on Sky Sports. Therefore, even without our Methodist strictures, it would still have been a potentially more boring and empty day with fewer opportunities for entertainment.

  However, my family took all this up a few notches thanks to the puritanical-style rules of the chapel. My sister and I were forbidden to play out out on Sundays. We could not see our friends. We were not allowed to have an ice-cream on a Sunday even when the chiming van drove temptingly down our street. We could not play any sport or even watch it on TV. In the 1960’s, ITV’s football highlights show “The Big Match” was screened on a Sunday afternnon but I wasn’t allowed to watch it. We had to go to morning Sunday School, afternoon Sunday School and then the evening service. When I got older I even got sent to Bible study class after the service finished.

  All day I would have to wear my Sunday best clothes, including shirt and tie. My father would ritually dollop Brylcream on to my hair and then comb a rigid parting into it. To this day I still have an aversion to hair-cream or gel! The rest of the day was spent: singing hymns, praying, listening to Bible readings, having Sunday School lessons and enduring long, boring sermons delivered in artificial, churchified voices. If the preacher had spoken to us in a normal, conversational voice, it wouldn’t have been quite so bad. For a long time I couldn’t understand the sermons and coped by having a day-dream or by wriggling restlessly in my chair until told to sit still by mum or dad. When I got older, I found that many sermons were about us being sinners and that if we didn’t mend our ways, we wouldn’t be allowed into Heaven, know as The Kingdom of God. We in fact risked the eternal fires of Hell if we got tempted by Satan to leave the “straight and narrow.” Surviving the sermon became one big endurance test. Sometimes it went on for half an hour – a whole 30 minutes of being preached at. Even though Methodist services had been stripped of ceremony and ritual, they followed strict guidelines. A typical service consisted of: hymn, prayer, Lord’s Prayer, hymn, Bible reading, hymn, notices, collection, sermon, hymn and benediction ( closing prayer.) Sunday School was more relaxed but still felt like an unwelcome extra day of lessons just before we had to go back to the real school.

  Of course, church was not all gloom and doom. It would be unfair of me to paint too black a picture. I enjoyed some of the rousing hymns, especially when my grandad or my Uncle Ernie were belting them out. At Sunday School we enjoyed singing jolly little ditties with actions to go with the words. My favourites were “Happy, Loved and Saved” and ” Now Zacchias was a very little man.”  I met some of my friends at chapel. We had parties at Christmas and pea and pie suppers. I went to the chapel youth club where I learnt to play table tennis and kiss girls. Yes, my first girlfriend, Santia, was a Methodist! I met her at a chapel Valentine’s Day dance. Every year, we children received the gift of a book to reward our Sunday School attendance. I enjoyed reading these except for one year, when they presented me with my own Bible instead of the book about a Second World War bomber pilot for which I craved. ( “I Flew With Braddock.”) My parents kindly bought it for me later. Then there were the annual Sunday School Anniversaries when we were all kitted out in smart new clothes and proudly sat on a special tiered platform in front of our friends and families. We sang special hymns and recited special poems. The sermons on these occasions were especially child-friendly such that we could actually understand them. I used to perform duets with a boy who was tone-deaf. It was difficult keeping in tune but everyone praised him because they thought he was singing a complicated descant!

  I also enjoyed Christmas at church with its candles, carols and nativity plays. Once it was my turn to be one of the Three Kings and proudly wear my dressing gown and  tea-towel head-dress as I carried my shiny pretend- gift up the aisle. Then there were the Toy Services for kids in Children’s Homes and orphanages. We also sold books of childrens’ photos called “Sunny Smiles”. The proceeds went to the homes. It felt good to be helping others, which, to be fair, is one of the main teachings of Christianity and other religions. Yes, Church wasn’t all bad!

  Despite all this, a typical Sunday increasingly felt like donning a strait-jacket. My freedom was drastically curtailed and I was compelled to follow the church’s rules and routines. It all seemed a frustrating waste of my valuable time. I stopped going to chapel as soon as I left home to go to college at the age of 18. So did my sister. We have never gone back except for occasional weddings, christenings and funerals, plus the odd carol service to please our parents.

  Mum and Dad still go to their local chapel every Sunday. They still believe they are destined to enter The Kingdom of God. Who’s to say that they are not right? The church has given their lives shape and structure. The other members of the congregation are their friends and provide them with a social life and support. To them it’s like a cosy club of which they are long term members. In some ways the church tells them how to live their lives and even what to think, especially in the spiritual sphere. This, I suppose, is the Methodist way.

  I have chosen to try to work out my own spiritual path. I have studied the beliefs of other religions, had many discussions on this subject and have read books about spiritual matters such as M Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled” , “The Anatomy of the Spirit” by Caroline Myss and “The Celestine Prophecy” by James Redfield. I have talked ideas through with Christians, Buddhists, agnostists, athiests and Humanists. I suppose I am a product of the 17th and 18th century’s “Age of Reason” and of “Enlightenment.” At that time, the black and white medieval sureties were challenged by science, philosophy and scepticism. For some reason I feel I ought to question rather than just accept. It’s not an easy process and I’m still not sure what I believe. However it’s an increasingly important task as I grow older and I become aware of questions to do with the Meaning of Life and issues surrounding Death. I don’t believe that I can solve my personal conundrums by adopting an off-the-peg religion which tells me what to believe and how to live my life. I don’t want to be told to exercise blind faith instead of actively seeking out enlightening evidence. Unlike church goers, I do not believe everything I read in the Bible.

  Church and chapel congregations have drastically dwindled over the last 50 years. The UK is still officially a Christian nation, but as well as the growth of other religions, there has been a big drift towards a secular society. I have been part of this movement away from organised religion. Many churches have been knocked down or converted into museums, warehouses, shops or even homes. Despite largely rejecting my religious upbringing, it still makes me feel sad to see an abandoned, derelict or converted church. I still feel sharp pangs of loss when I recall that pile of rubble where my grandad used to preach. I suspect it might be a block of flats by now.

  I left Methodism many moons ago but it has still left its mark on me. I have never been a big drinker or a going-down-the-pubber. I rarely swear ie -using the Lord’s name in vain. I love singing and am a member of a choir. Although it is not a religious one, I enjoy singing Gospel songs and Christmas carols. Finally, I strongly believe in: love, compassion, charity and forgiveness, all of which are major strands of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s just that I don’t feel I have to attend a church or chapel to put these into practice. Neither do I have to smear on Brylcream! Hallelujah and Amen.

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