9 December 2018

Methodist Chapels ... and 'Bible Sunday'

I find Methodist chapels disappointing. This is because so many of them have endured 'Reordering'.

The traditional English pattern for Methodist ... and other Protestant Non-Conforming ... chapels was that they were dominated, at the"ritual East end" by a broad pulpit, stretching most of the width of the chapel except for a stair up to it at left and right. A reading Desk marked the middle. Beneath the Reading Desk, there was a small table for communion services.

In chapel after chapel, all this has been removed. They now have an adaptable space, probably with some posters, children's toys, guitars  ...

So what? Why should I bother?

Well, I don't, a lot. But it seems to me that the ritually-expressed purpose of Worship, in the Methodist tradition, has been profoundly altered.

Because, surely, the meaning of the old set-up was: the proclamation of the Word of God is important; the Minister is to be regarded as an authoritative exponent of the Scripture and as one commissioned to summon the community to repentance and faith. His physical position even assimilated him to the Tabernacle in a Catholic Church or the Torah Shrine in a Synagogue.

Yes; it's dodgy expounding the religion of other people ... if you are knowledgeable, do feel free to engage critically with my assumptions.

The removal of the pulpit seems to me, until I am better advised, to suggest the unhorsing of that old tradition, and its replacement by something deemed to be less rigid and more flexible, with less authority to be discerned in the words of the preacher. Something more affective. If this is so, then I would regard the change as a divergence from the Catholic Tradition in as far as we do still consider Scripture as authoritative. And if I were to get rhetorical, as I so often do, I might make sarcastic remarks about a religion which began by claiming to be Bible-centred in a way that other Christians were alleged not to be [many West Country Methodist chapels still claim in stone above their porticoes to be "Bible Christian", one of the sects into which Wesleyanism split up] had ended up by dethroning the Word of God (as their penultimate stage before being sold for redevelopment into bijou residences named "Ye Olde Chapel").

As a mere observer and outsider (but still a fellow Christian), my complaint is that these once evocative and impressive buildings are now just dead boring little (or big) spaces.

They have no message. Rather like the empty red Art Deco telephone boxes just across the road.


Tom said...

One of the features of many such Methodist re-orderings is the introduction of a prominent communion table. Yes, the re-ordering is positively theological - the rediscovery of the importance of (to use Wesley's words) the 'converting ordinance' in the life of the Church. The pulpit is made less significant as the Methodists (as with other fruits of the Ecumenical Movement) rediscovering the importance of the Eucharist in their worship.

Banshee said...

As an American, I find it weird and disconcerting to have people copy us, but for reasons totally different than the reasons we do stuff.

I mean, our evangelical groups went with empty space because they had bought empty buildings and could not afford to build big pulpits. Your groups already had big pulpits and historical buildings (many of an age to be receive historical protections in the US), and they got rid of them!

I guess it alleviates the need for dusting and furniture polish, but the heating bills would probably go up.

Ben of the Bayou said...

Father H:

I myself am a convert to the Faith from Methodism. The congregation in which I grew up had a table altar front and center, raised up on (I believe) three levels above the nave and surrounded by a communion rail. Every First Sunday those who were old enough went to the rail to kneel and receive the bread and a small plastic cup of grape juice, over which the minister had previously said the words of Institution while standing at the altar.

As the liturgical seasons changed, so did the pendent cloth on the pulpit which was off to the right (Epistle side). From this structure were read the Scriptures (one OT or Epislte + Gospel) and the Sermon was preached by a minister in academic robes with a stole (of the color of the season) added over them.

We said the (Apostles') Creed and other than that we sang songs. (Well, of course we had a collection.)

The point of these reminiscences if that, despite the rather traditional order of our worship, the half-hour sermon was almost always taken up in the main by a long, emotionalsih story. It seems to me that the depredations of the liberal, scientific reading of Scripture devastated the preaching (in both form and content) of days gone by in Methodism. My family have been Methodist ministers for generations upon generations. My impression is that something very fundamental changed around the '60s, an not just the congregants' style of clothing.

Prayerful said...

Near my hotel in Youghal, when I stayed there, there was a 19th century Methodist chapel (as of five months ago) but like Fr I saw nothing of note inside. Primarily it seems to be creche. While the space wouldn't allow for some great pulpit, it was a bit disappointing, a sort of community hall purposed mainly as a creche for working parents. John Wesley popularised a frequent Communion, as well as seeking to minister to day labourers and others forgotten by the Established Church. Now the usefulness can be seen as somewhat in Wesley's spirit, but it seems to be this modern thing of tending towards social activity and activism, which is important, but cannot efface liturgical action. I cannot offer insider knowledge, just an impresssion.

Adam 12 said...

The classic Methodist and particularly the Presbyterian churches might be thought of as taking a longstanding Jewish approach to discerning God through an intense familiarization and contemplation of the scriptures. Having the Bible on the altar places the idea of exalting God dwelling in his Word in that context to me, as your own analysis would suggest.