Jessica’s hymn of praise to her homeland resonated. I spent many a late summer in parts of North Wales, going from chapel to chapel. There was a quiet, ordered dignity which chimed with my Yorkshire experiences. In both places, what we used to call Nonconformity was the dominant religious style; small stone chapels, quite plain, where men in suits and women in suits and hats met to hear the word of the Lord preached, and where there was considerable, but silent, disapproval if the sermon came in under the hour. We were thirsty, and that thirst could never be wholly slaked, but a good meaty sermon with the word explicated well would keep us going during the week – and we’d have the evening one to digest too.
I recognised in that Welsh experience, my own at home. Here were men and women whose tradition went back centuries. They were outside the confines of the Established Church, and even the less established purlieus of Wesleyanism, which was mainly for the better sort of shop-keeper; even in our religious affiliations, the class system played a role: the manual workers would be Primitive Methodists or a certain type of Baptist; small shop keepers, engineers (such as my father) would be a different type of Baptist, or a Methodist without the prefix. These things you knew from the inwardness of things – we never went to the Bethel at the bottom of the valley because it wasn’t where the likes of my mother went. That implied a class judgment which you felt rather than explained. I’d suppose any outsider would have found it very odd – but then outsiders did not come to these places – if you were there you knew why; if you didn’t know we were there, you just didn’t go. The very respectable went to the Anglican Church, and it was a sign of respectability and entry into the security of the middle classes to change from chapel to Church. Catholics? except in Liverpool and Belfast, I never heard of any, nor saw a church of that designation. There was something very Welsh or very Yorkshire about chapel.
Words, learning, listening, these were the active components of our Christian faith. We didn’t go in for symbolism – unless it was Biblical typology – and we didn’t go in for fancy clothing (couldn’t have afforded it)- we went in for moral seriousness which regarded money as something to be spent on those who needed it; we didn’t think God would mind us worshipping him plainly if the widow and the orphan were looked after. I recall as instance where an elder wanted to leave us money in his will to buy new hymn books, but we persuaded him the existing ones would do, and he left the money to the foreign missionary society we support instead.
In all of this there was, and remains, an ethos of independence. Jesus died to save us, we go direct to him, and we work to him; we need elders to be the servants of the servants of God, and we need a pastor to help explicate the word of God and all of us work with the body of the congregation to do what we can to spread the good news. We’re not big on aesthetics, we’re very much not given to clericalism – and we really don’t hold that there is some magical connection going back to old St Pete which makes a fellow special – enough of those who have claimed that have shown it to be nonsense. Faith is a living thing, the Spirit moves among us and we go with Him. Our tradition is one that rejected patronage, whether by clericalism or the gentry or the employers – we are responsible before God for what we do, and we can; blame no one but ourselves if our mission falters. In His grace it has survived in these dales for many centuries, and prospers still. But when I go for my walks, I too, see those disused chapels and churches, and those signs of the ebbing of the presence of the faith in these lands. But by grace we persevere – and when He comes again, He will find us – in all our unaesthetic piety – doing what we can.