THE world's oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use is set to have a new future in the community.

High House Chapel, in Ireshopeburn, Upper Weardale, was at risk of closure following a survey which uncovered significant problems with its structure.

The church council agreed to stop services in the 18th Century building last October, after being faced with thousands of pounds of repairs.

However, the Friends of High House was formed and members have been raising funds to keep the building - which is also home to the popular Weardale Museum - open.

Now the West Durham Methodist Circuit has agreed it "continues to have a mission".

The circuit confirmed it will become the managing trustees and has been asked to explore all viable options of enabling the Weardale Museum to acquire the building.

Reverend Bruce Sawyer said: “Although this decision may not please everyone, I think it has the potential to be a good outcome. It allows the congregation to focus its energies on what it means to be church, whilst also providing the opportunity for the work of the museum to continue and possibly expand.

"Any decision to cease worshipping in a building is never easy. There are challenges to be faced, but I believe that there are also exciting times ahead as we explore how we continue to offer opportunities to worship together elsewhere and consider how we can continue to serve the people of Ireshopeburn and the Upper Dale.”

The superintendent minister of the circuit, Reverend Christopher Humble said he wished to pay tribute to the hard work done by Deacon Sue Peat before she left the area, the circuit stewards and stewards and other officers of High House Chapel together with the Friends of High House who have "wrestled hard these last couple of years to seek a resolution to many of the issues facing us".

He said: "I am confident that we can find a way of continuing a Methodist presence and witness within the community".

It is hoped the building will become a centre to promote both Weardale and Methodist Heritage with a larger museum as well as concerts and other public events.

Friends chairwoman, Rachel Swaffield, said: “I think this is probably the best possible outcome given the inevitable difficulties of maintaining an historic building when it begins to deteriorate. The museum would be worthy custodians for the future as they have an interest in preserving its history in the dale and in Methodism, able to place it in the context of the wider history of the area while celebrating the chapel's unique story. We will be excited to work with both the local circuit and the museum trustees in raising the necessary funds to secure the building for future use as a community asset as well as a place of worship.”

The group is now hosting fundraisers to enable the museum to purchase the chapel. Actor Mark Topping will perform Encounters with John Wesley today, at 2.30pm, in aid of the cause.