Another village chapel closes, another bitter-sweet farewell

INGLETON Methodist church, between Darlington and Staindrop, held its final service on Sunday. Sometimes these much-loved little chapels seem like rabbits in an ecclesiastical cornfield, and for tractor read Grim Reaper.

Within only a few miles, within only a few years, Methodist chapels have closed at Piercebridge and at Gainford, at Woodland and West Auckland, at Ramshaw and at Lands. Others, it’s said, hang on by the cassock tails.

Keith Phipps, superintendent minister in the Bishop Auckland circuit, rejects the cornfield analogy. “I’m much more positive than that,” he says. “We may be witnessing the death of Churchianity but not of Christianity.

“There’s something Darwinian about this, the survival of the fittest.

We can’t sustain in the 21st Century what was built for the 19th. Some of these buildings are no longer fit for purpose.”

It was County Durham’s first seat of Primitive Methodism, the movement founded by William Clowes and Hugh Bourne – men of pedestrian approach, but vigorous endeavour.

Clowes walked from Ripon to Darlington in 1820, preached in Northgate and then headed off to Ingleton at the invitation of John Emerson and William Young, village grocer and joiner respectively.

Bourne arrived 11 years later, by a route yet more circuitous. He’d left Whitehaven on foot on August 4, preached at several places on the road to Penrith, headed across the hills to Alston – “a tract of road more dreary than any I ever saw in this country” – and then wandered through Weardale and Teesdale to Staindrop.

The present Ingleton building celebrated its centenary in 2007, the resultant At Your Service column – headlined “Primitive passions” – still framed in the porch.

It was also about the 100th time that the AYS column had heard preaching’s favourite joke, the one about the difference between a terrorist and an organist. The answer, of course, is that you can negotiate with a terrorist.

These past months they’ve been down to three or four regulars. The ironic inevitability, of course, is that for the closing service there’s not an empty seat in God’s house.

THE first thing that happens is that someone gives me a cucumber, the second, that June Luckhurst hands over a large-print hymn sheet, specially and thoughtfully prepared.

The splendid Mrs Luckhurst then conducts a debate with herself over where I should sit. “Do you always do as you’re told?” someone asks.

“Only when it’s June Luckhurst,”

I reply.

It’s not the first time that seating has been a problem. Neville Kirby’s affectionate chapel history recalls 1930s Sunshine Corner meetings, when a wonky chapel bench would oft tip its young occupants onto the chapel floor.

“If you were generous, you might well say that Sunshine Corner was a fun evening,” writes Neville. “The less than kind would call it a riot.”

For a traditionally austere denomination, Ingleton chapel also became renowned for the sumptuousness of its cream teas.

The Northern Echo: Sunday School teachers Christy Matson and Dorothy Hodgson
Sunday School teachers Christy Matson and Dorothy Hodgson

Folk have gathered from Methodist churches across the area and from St John’s parish church, 100 yards down the village street, with whom the Methodists will now worship. “An occasion of joy and of sadness,” says Mr Phipps.

It’s particularly poignant for Dorothy Hodgson, 80, for whom closure marks the end of 65 years teaching in the Sunday School. “There are people in their 60s I can still remember teaching,” she says.

Still, remarkably, there are a dozen on the roll, perhaps liberated when the church finally took out the original pews and put in free-standing chairs.

“At first we thought ‘mmmm’, but we were persuaded and it’s been brilliant; we can do all sorts now,” says Dorothy. Christy Matson, her fellow teacher, began when her son was three. “He’s now 27 and huge,” she says.

It’s a careful, thoughtful, inspiring service, Mr Phipps recalling in his address the formative days of 1820.

“Tell that to young people today and they’ll think you mean 20 past six,”

he says. He talks, too, of creative challenge and change.

The Northern Echo: A joyously memorable send-off to the last Amen
A joyously memorable send-off to the last Amen

It ends with Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer and with a collection.

“We had some debate about whether to take a collection, but being Methodists we always do,” says the minister.

There’s coffee and refreshments; none rushes home and not simply because it’s pouring. “All these years I’ve kept an umbrella in that porch and then I take it home,” says June.

It may not be God’s law, but quite possibly the other feller’s.

It’s been a joyously memorable send-off in the middle of the cornfield, bitter-sweet to the last Amen.