Heritage and Mission

Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved history - history of all sorts - and, being a Christian, an evangelical and a lifelong Methodist, I’ve taken a particular interest in the history of the Church and of that strand of the Evangelical Revival which gave birth to the Wesleys’ Methodism. I know that my enthusiasm may seem strange to some. I’ve met plenty of people who were put off history at school (I had a similar experience with Physics, but that’s another story), and I’ve met plenty of Methodists who have been put off our Methodist history by encounters with an uncritical (and therefore thoroughly unhistorical) adulation of John Wesley. As a minister as well as an historian I know that local Methodist congregations sometimes have to wrestle with our history in its most intractable and obstinate form – the legacy of historic buildings handed down to us by our mothers and fathers in the faith.

One outcome of the rise of Methodism in the eighteenth century, and more particularly of its amazing growth, division and sectarian competition in the nineteenth century is that we have a lot of old buildings. Cornwall is a case in point: waves of revival in the West Country meant that twelve per cent of all British Methodist property is in the county, and 40% of that is either listed or in a conservation area. This places severe limitations on what can be done with the buildings, and local church councils may experience this as a real hindrance to mission. Our congregations no longer warrant chapels seating hundreds or even thousands of people. Flexible worship is difficult in an auditorium full of fixed pews. Altering an old building, even where listed building and planning consent can be obtained, requires imagination and sensitivity, or the result may be very disappointing. It’s easy to understand why Methodists look enviously at new churches meeting in schools or grumble about our forebears and their grandiose building schemes.

So much for the bad news! Is there another side to the story? Can historic buildings be used to promote the gospel today? Yes, they can! Let me offer some suggestions.

First of all, exploring the story of our buildings can inform and develop our own faith, and strengthen our commitment to the cause of Christ. Methodist buildings were constructed partly to house the activities of a local Methodist society, but mainly to be places for the proclamation of the gospel. Understanding what people were trying to do in planning their buildings can encourage us today. Reading local stories, I’ve been moved time and again by the strategic sense of our ancestors, by their generosity in giving for the Lord’s work, by their confidence that people would be won for Christ, and by their willingness to experiment and try new things. Of course there’s a down side too. Experiments don’t always succeed. Local history has its fair share of squabbles and conflicts. But these remind us that God is able to work miracles through very ordinary people – people like us!

Going beyond the inner life of the local church, a building and its story offers opportunities to connect with the wider community. Heritage tourism is a growth industry – witness the success of organisations like the National Trust. People really like to visit historic buildings. In many places the Church of England has seized this opportunity, and parish churches are kept open to welcome visitors. Methodists have been slower to respond, but we are beginning to catch up. It isn’t always necessary for a building to be staffed: a ‘silent welcome’ is fine too. The way a building is cared for says much about the quality of the local worshipping community, and there is scope for displays to tell not only the story of that particular church but also the bigger story of the gospel. Of course if the church is open, it’s important to let the general public know that this is the case. The local tourist information centre can help, as can the Methodist Heritage website (www.methodistheritage.org.uk). There is plenty of expertise available and we have a network of heritage sites, large and small, with experience to share what works, what doesn’t, and what can be done to make the most of what we have.

Although each church is special to its own members, Methodism has only a limited number of heritage sites of national significance. Many of our churches, even very historic ones, will not be drawing coachloads of tourists. But opportunities for mission do not end with heritage tourism. A church building, after all, is the home of a worshipping, witnessing and serving community. The story of that community and its people connect with the village or town in which it is set. Anyone who is interested in the locality and its people is likely to find points of contact with the story of the chapel and its community. It’s worth considering links with local schools, where there may be interest in finding out about life in Victorian or Edwardian times. With the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War due to be commemorated next year, see if the chapel has a war memorial and investigate the stories behind the names listed there. This may engage not only schools, but also local history societies, people exploring their family trees, and the local press. In our highly mobile and often rather rootless society people are often hungry for a sense of belonging, and the story of an historic building can begin to make connections for them.

It may help to finish with a concrete example. Wesley Memorial Church, in the centre of Oxford, was built in 1878 to celebrate the life of the Wesleys and to mark the presence of Methodism at the heart of an ancient university and cathedral city. We’re on the Methodist tourist trail, although most visitors to Oxford are more interested in seeing where Harry Potter was filmed than where the Wesleys preached! We’re able to provide a simple leaflet about the key Methodist sites in the city and information about the wider Methodist heritage network. More significantly, for some twenty years we have kept the church open on weekdays and we welcome a steady stream of visitors. Most are not Methodists; many don’t have much of an idea of what a Methodist is. Some come into the building out of curiosity; some come to sit down for a few minutes; some come for peace and quiet; some come to pray. We provide a place for prayer requests (which are incorporated into a Prayer Service every Wednesday), a selection of leaflets about the building, its history and the Christian faith, a quiet place amidst the bustle of the city and, when we can, an unobtrusive volunteer to be available if needed. We believe that this ‘Open Church’ ministry is a valuable expression of the hospitality of the gospel, and a gentle witness to the welcoming love ofGod.

In heritage as in other aspects of mission, one size doesn’t fit all. I would encourage everyone to think imaginatively about what might be done in each place to use our historic buildings and their stories creatively to commend the gospel today.