Last Friday I went down to the outskirts of Manchester for the funeral of an old friend – in your mid 70s it happens with increasing frequency; at this rate I’ll need to update my old black suit, as it’s had a deal of usage over the last five years. When Mrs S asked whether the expense could be justified, I pointed out they could always bury me in it, and I know she’d not want me to look scruffy at the undertakers; this, she agreed was a very good point. Mind you, the trouble of going to the shops for one may yet defeat that objective.
I first met Frederick (he hated being called Fred) at school, and we stayed in touch across many years. He was brought up a Congregationalist, and I was a Baptist. I daresay that the theologians, had any been interested, could have told you the difference, but to me the similarities were marked, and as I looked around the Masonic Hall where we had the wake (tea and coffee only, Frederick could not abide the demon drink and left firm instructions there was to be none at his funeral), it occurred to me that it was more than Frederick we would soon be burying – a whole culture would soon be lost. It’s not one the anthropologists seem to have studied, but someone ought to at least outline its features.
The first thing that would have struck an observer would have been the age of the congregation. Leaving out Frederick’s grandsons and great grandsons, the majority were over 65, and all from within a fifty mile radius of where Frederick had lived his entire 76 years; in fact, it’d be more accurate to say that most of them lived within walking distance of the chapel, of which they’d been members since before it became the United Reformed Church. It was a whole culture; what the clever folk would call an ‘ecosystem’. Let me explain.
As lads, Frederick and I would go to Sunday school (different ones at different chapels), and we’d join the same cub troop and scout troop, which met at the Congregationalist Hall (because that was bigger and posher than our hall). We’d go to Bible study classes, and in the school holidays the Scout troop would go away to North Wales or the Wirral, and we’d spend a week under canvas doing our ‘badges’ and generally having fun fording streams, building camp fires, climbing trees and trying not to kill each other by food poisoning. For both of us, as for our contemporaries, chapel was more than a part of our life, it was the weft and warp of it, it was built in to all we did. He met his future wife at a chapel outing, and we both married in chapel – him my best man at my wedding in my chapel, me his best man at his in his, as it were. Our moral and ethical code came from Chapel, and woe betide anyone who flouted it – a clip round the ear was the minimum tariff exacted from us for minor infringements. Frederick left school at 14 and went into the mill to learn how to become an engineer, I stayed on with a county scholarship and ended up at what folk then called ‘The University’. But as I ended up teaching just across the Pennines, we stayed in touch. He was godfather to my eldest, and I reciprocated.
Congregationalism was like Frederick, and he like it: understated, seemingly unemotional – repressed folk would call it now, and modest to a fault. ‘well done lad!’ was about the highest praise anyone could be given, and ‘not a bad effort at all’ was very high praise indeed. The outsider would have observed little talk of God, save at chapel, but that was simply because he was in our minds constantly – he was our father and we prayed to him, and we talked to him in prayer always; we’d no more think of singling him out for special mention than we would our own dads – it wasn’t the done thing.
One of the grandchildren, to whom I got talking, asked how his granddad could reconcile there being a God with the hard life he and his grandma had led – by his standards there was not much in the way of material possessions, and after the mill closed Frederick had struggled for a while, though the family never wanted; they never wanted because the chapel made sure there was always food on the table. When Frederick’s fortunes changed and his little engineering business made some money, he was, on the quiet, a big donor to the chapel’s foodbank; as he put it when a new Minister asked him why, ‘those who have received should give – that’s plain Christianity in my view’ – and so it was. Frederick had no explanation for how God could be love and the world be what it was – that was the way it was, and folk could puzzle their heads until they ached, and it would still be that way. But there wasn’t a widow in that congregation, or an orphan in it who went uncomforted or unfed. As in my chapel, if someone was known to be in need, the Minister or an elder, would go round to the folk ‘with a bob or two’ [for our American readers, a ‘bob’ was a shilling, now 5 pence] and collect money and goods, which would be quietly taken to the needy by a friend. It wasn’t charity, it was ‘helping out’. The Apostles had done it, and if it were good enough for them, then we’d jolly well better think it were good enough for us. Those who couldn’t provide cash would cook something, or provide clothing. It was what St James called ‘true religion’.
Most folk didn’t trouble their heads about theology. They, and we, would read the Bible, listen to the Pastor or Minister, and we’d ‘get on with it’. That was a good Lancashire/Yorkshire phrase; there was always a great deal of ‘getting on with it’ – life was tough, sometimes very tough, but you got on with it, you prayed, you went to chapel, you helped others and they helped you. Agnes, Frederick’s widow, had already had seven offers of meals – she can’t cook because she’s got bad arthritis in her hands – as well as a lift to chapel, and one to the shops. The grandchildren wondered whether Nana would have to move south with them, but their dad explained that she had a full support system in place – which had little, if anything, to do with the Social Services.
I think that system will see me out – provided I don’t linger and wear out the new suit (should I get it). Some will think the lives led were narrow and confined, but for me, they were good lives well-lived in the fear of the Lord. If anyone asks me to believe these folk won’t go to heaven because they were in the wrong church, I’m having none of it; my God’s greater than that. Frederick died, as he had lived, in the love of Christ – and I’m looking forward to singing the old scout songs when we meet again on the other side of Jordan’s banks.