I thought I might continue with my thoughts about the Methodist church today. I have often come across people who are very attached to church buildings and how they find it incredibly difficult to cope with the idea of closing it. I understand this because I’ve experienced it myself. The Methodist church that has had the most impact on my own life was closed down and is now a housing estate.
This church (Wesley Methodist Church in Plymouth – formerly King Street Methodist) was built after WW2 when the huge King Street Methodist church building was bombed flat. This was a major church in the heart of Plymouth and it was rebuilt in a new location (no longer on King Street) with money from the Rank Foundation. The premises were magnificent. The church itself was tall, bright and roomy. There was a great circular window above an impressive altar area. There was a large platform area at the front of the church which proved ideal for choirs, drama, etc to be performed. The church also had a large hall (with stage, green room etc) and there were many other rooms of all different shapes and sizes. It was the kind of building that any church would be delighted to own.
It was also the church my parents attended when I was born. Hence I was baptised there and went to Sunday School there. My parents were very involved at the time and so (together with my brothers) I took part in annual pantomimes, Christmas plays, sang solos, and played in the long corridors. It played an important role in my childhood. I have very happy memories of Christmas services, in particular. Christmas is very big for me and I think some of this stems from my memories of being in church for candle light services and taking part in nativity plays.
When I was about 13 I decided I didn’t want to go to church anymore and my parents agreed. We had some bad experiences as a family and this lead to difficulties with some of the church members. I thought this would probably be the end of my involvement with King Street (as it was still called then).
However, at the tender age of 18 I found myself back at church, although this time it was my local church: Crownhill Methodist Church. At the time there was a youth choir in the Methodist Circuit and I was persuaded to give it a go. This choir was called the Plymouth Praisemakers and was lead by Peter Bolt who was the minister at King Street. The choir meetings were held in the hall of King Street.
So now every week I was in the old church again. This choir was to have a big effect on my spiritual life and took me from being a very new Christian through to candidating for the Methodist ministry. It was also the place that I met my wife Alison.
Every year we would sing concerts in the church at King Street (now renamed Wesley – because it was not actually on King Street). My Christmas memories were revived and made even bigger and better. I loved singing in the choir so much that I started singing in other choirs. I sang in my own church choir (Crownhill Methodist) and at times the church choir at Wesley. I sang Handel’s Messiah in Crownhill Methodist and was so impressed by it that I joined the Wesley Choir so I could sing it again.
Now a preacher I also got the odd chance of preaching in the church.
Even when I left Plymouth to begin my ministry I found that Wesley Methodist church played a part. I came back for a few Praisemaker concerts but the biggest event was returning to the church to take the marriage service for my eldest brother (his wife was later to die of cancer but he is now happily remarried).
The minister of Wesley also helped me out during my time at College with some holiday work on the building. I painted the rooms and polished the floors in this magnificent building.
Then when I resigned from the ministry it was a reunion with the old choir at Wesley Methodist Church that healed some wounds and brought me back to thinking about ministry again. We sang in the church shortly before it was demolished.
These are all big things for me and much of it happened within the walls of this wonderful church building. I can’t put across in words just how important this building had been to me.
However, it was a big building and the congregation was decreasing. It wasn’t long after my brother’s wedding that the church decided they could no longer afford to keep the building open. It was a very difficult time for the church people and caused a great deal of sadness – even more than I felt I’m sure.
So now it is gone and I still miss it. When I visit Plymouth and see where it once stood it makes me feel very sad – the memories go on but the scene has changed.
Yet I am forced to admit that this was God’s will for this place. I can’t say why people would not come – I do know that it was not through lack of effort of the people in the church. Perhaps there were opportunities missed, perhaps the people didn’t always listen to God (isn’t this true for every church?). I dare say the money to repair the building could have been found from somewhere but would it have been money well spent?
Yes, I miss the building but I know that the work of God goes on and whatever sacrifices I have to make to let it happen – so be it. If God wills that everything from my past disappear then I must accept it. The important thing is that God continues to work through his people in Plymouth and perhaps one day there will be a big enough church to allow a building to be built that surpasses the grandeur of Wesley but whatever God’s plans we must follow his lead.
This brings me back to the way the Methodist church is changing at the moment and possible joining with the Church of England. Do I want a strong Methodist church the way that it used to be? Do I want to see crowds of people attending Methodist churches again? Of course I do.
But do I want to serve God? Do I want to follow where Jesus leads me – wherever that may be? Yes I do.
From the older version of the Covenant service (which I also miss) with a few insertions of my own:
“I am no longer my own but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; [this is my bit now] let me have my memories, let me forget; let me be a Methodist, let me be an Anglican; let me have my buildings, let me be homeless; [end of my bit] I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen”