On Methodism……December 19th, 2017
On the wall of the Market Hall, Market Place, Whitehaven, Cumbria is a blue plaque. It reads:
John Wesley (1701- 1791), founder of Methodism visited Whitehaven on 25 occasions between 1749 and 1788 preaching in numerous outdoor and indoor venues including the marketplace, the Ginns, and later the town’s first Methodist chapel in Michael Street. From Whitehaven Harbour he made several visits to his followers in Ireland and the Isle of Man.
When I lived in Whitehaven, I would often walk past the Market Hall and stop and reflect on the plaque. Why Whitehaven of all places? It’s hardly on the beaten track. It’s an hour west by car from Junction 40 of the M6 on single carriageways. By horseback, many times that. These days a speaker or performer will think they’ve “done” Cumbria if they do one engagement in Carlisle.
But he chose Whitehaven. And specifically, he chose the Ginns. And he could hardly have chosen a less salubrious place to preach in all of Cumbria. In the eighteenth century, Whitehaven was a major port that rivalled Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow. For some years, it was a corner of the slave triangle. The Cumberland coast also had significant coal deposits with a coal seam that went out under the Irish Sea. The area of Whitehaven known as the Ginns was home to several coal mines – along with numerous factories and rows of workers cottages. The Ginns even had its own workhouse. In later centuries, the Ginns would become the subject of “slum clearances” and other social reform movements.
In the Ginns, John Wesley would have preached to coal miners, factory workers, ship builders and sailors. He would also have preached to the poor and destitute. He did what he had done throughout his life – he went to those in greatest need. He took the command to “preach good news to the poor” literally – not metaphorically.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that John Wesley had on West Cumbria. Even to this day, the landscape is littered with former and current Methodist Chapels – including one established by my Great Great Grandfather in Distington. But more importantly, Methodism shaped local culture and social norms. This can be evidenced in the biblical imagery on the miners’ banners, but also in a culture that fostered a strong sense of community solidarity, commitment to the extended family, and an uncompromising commitment to common decency. Even today, I walk round with a phantom Great Aunt on my shoulder ready to rebuke me if I ever dare to be unpleasant to people.
But in 2009, I saw another side. The British National Party had turned up in West Cumbria and were wreaking havoc in communities like the Ginns. I and a friend helped to run a campaign to keep them from winning seats on Cumbria County Council. But it seemed impossible for us to campaign anywhere without walking past a closed Methodist Chapel. And by closed, I don’t mean converted into a nice character cottage: I mean standing in ruins. These buildings seemed to cry out in pain for days gone by when faith had sustained these working class communities through centuries of poverty, economic injustice, war and deadly mining disasters. Had these communities abandoned the Church or had the Church abandoned them? Of course, it’s harder to sustain church ministry in poor communities; a minister costs the same wherever they are employed – and however much is collected on the collection plate. There are also vast disparities in social capital. Churches in wealthy areas won’t struggle to find a qualified accountant to serve as Treasurer. Or even a Company Secretary to take the minutes. The call of lay preaching is more of a challenge to those with no experience of public speaking, or academic study.
But I couldn’t help but be struck by the correlation between the rise of the BNP and the decline of Methodism. Various studies have concluded that the UK never suffered a revolution like France or Russia because of the impact of Methodism on the British working classes. Was it not also possible that with the decline of Methodism came a decline in those old values and virtues – of solidarity and common decency?
Four years after the Welsh Revival, David Collier, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church wrote:
Men who had not taken one penny home in 17 years now took all home. Houses became decently furnished, women and children became decently clad. The public houses became practically empty. Bridges and walls, instead of being covered with obscene remarks, were now covered with lines from Bible and hymn book. The streets echoed with hymns, rather than the drunkard’s songs.
Is it not also possible that the BNP came into a spiritual vacuum left by Methodism?
Our motivation for gospel preaching is, too often, two-dimensional. It’s about bums on pews and tickets to heaven. A bigger congregation might mean more money in the collection plate or more people to volunteer to run the church. It can be about the perception of having a “successful ministry” or the potential of receiving recognition from the Church for our hard labours. Now, admittedly, the Apostle Paul didn’t care about our motivations:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
But if we were properly motivated, we might be more willing to preach the gospel in the first place!
If we could grasp the heights of God’s vision to see his Kingdom established on earth as it is in heaven; see the world around us transformed through the lives of our friends and neighbours. If we were to grasp this vision, would we not be more enthusiastic about sharing our faith? Would we not be more inspired by the possibilities rather than fearful of the possible consequences of being seen as a “bible basher” or “God botherer”? Now, Christ Himself has some harsh words to say about those who are ashamed of the gospel. If we are not careful, we can allow fear of His divine judgment to paralyze us. Instead we should be inspired by the hope we can have in God’s power to transform the world.
Many of us cry out for a world where love, justice and peace reign supreme. We are working very hard in practical ways to achieve this. We are campaigning to make poverty history, to end human trafficking or to end the use of weapons of mass destruction. We must continue in this work. But we must also know that the gospel transforms lives – and communities. It brings God’s Kingdom on earth. It is the God of love, justice and peace that will ensure final victory. As the prophet Isaiah said:
In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it– one from the house of David– one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.
If you were to visit the Ginns in Whitehaven today, you will find the surviving worker’s cottages. You will also find a Lidl, a Home Bargains and an Asda. It’s still not a place that preachers “wanting to make a name for themselves” will want to preach. But it is in places like the Ginns that John Wesley transformed the world. And so must we.