Chapel keeps few friends in the north

Methodism is in severe decline, even in its former Yorkshire stronghold s, reports John Sheard
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The Independent Online
THEY dot the moorland fringes of West Yorkshire in their hundreds, clinging to the dour hillsides between the old weavers' cottages and the dark mills which replaced them. They have the unmistakable architecture of chapels - but these days they are just as likely to be carpet salesrooms, estate agents' offices or converted homes for yuppies.

These are the heartlands of the Methodist Church and, as a major report said last week, that is an organisation that could be facing meltdown.

Time was when one-seventh of all British Methodists lived in Yorkshire. It is a statistic only partially due to the fact that many mill owners were Methodists who used their textile millions to buy salvation by building chapels, and having built them, expected their workers to make use of them.

There were other forces at work, too. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, John Wesley, a renegade Anglican priest, targeted the emerging working classes as recruits for his stern religion of piety, frugality and total abstinence from liquor. In Yorkshire he won converts by the thousand from the arms of the then bloated Church of England, and they were to go on to pioneer many other movements: the trade unions, the building societies and the penny banks, the Co-op (founded in Rochdale and other Northern textile towns) and, finally, the Labour Party.

But times change and Sundays have changed perhaps most of all in recent years. As the Church's membership secretary, the Rev Peter Barber, reported last week, church attendances are dropping so quickly that within a few years it could cease to exist.

The reasons: Sunday shopping, Sunday sporting fixtures, all-day pub opening and, of course, a general decline of interest in organised Christianity, which is also slashing numbers at Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.

For the Rev Hamer Savage, a Methodist minister for almost 40 years, and his deaconess wife, Rita, all these problems apply at their two churches in Keighley, near Bradford.

"Yes, the ordinary pressures of a changing Sunday have affected us quite badly," Mr Savage said.

"For instance, we have two regular worshippers who are managers of Co- op stores and they now have to work on Sundays and cannot attend.

"We also have two other couples whose sons play soccer on a Sunday morning and the parents - like nearly all parents these days - have to act as chauffeurs. One cannot be driving one's children around the countryside and attending chapel at the same time."

But there are extra pressuresfor the Savages. "We have problems which are perhaps peculiar to this area,'' Mr Savage said. Like all Northern textile and engineering towns, Keighley has been savaged by the decline of traditional industry. To get work, the young have to move away - and many of them come from Methodist homes.

They have been replaced by a very large immigrant population, mostly Asian, and when its members worship they go to the mosque - "although we are very pleased that the Asian religious leaders did attend a special ecumenical ceremony recently," said Mr Savage, who is 66 and due to retire next year.

When he started preaching at Crewe, Cheshire, in 1967, he would have congregations of some 150 or so in his bigger churches. Now at the local Keighley parish church - which the Methodists share with the C of E - there will be only 50 or 60.

At his second church, in Wesley Place, Ingrow, things are worse: the former church itself has been demolished to make way for a block of council flats, and the congregation, averaging 20 to 25, holds its services in the old Sunday school.

Many attending are elderly and few youngsters are coming along to replace them. It would seem to be a pretty bleak prospect, but both Mr and Mrs Savage see signs of hope.

"There was a similar report in the 1950s saying we were about to go under and here we still are," he says good-naturedly. "But I do think we should go out and spread the word more. There is almost a feeling of being ashamed of being a Christian because it has been so unfashionable for so long.

"However, I detect a growing need among people for faith, if they can be approached in a different way, invited to come and talk about their problems in a church hall or perhaps - better still - in a private house. And we should place more emphasis on spirituality, rather than social activities, for I believe many people are crying out for spiritual comfort."

His wife, whose duties as a deaconess involve organising regular family services for parents and children, agrees. "It may well be because there are so many terrible events in modern life," Mrs Savage said, "but I am finding more and more young parents who want their children to be taught about Christianity. They need that sense of direction and purpose."

The same words may well have been used by John Wes- ley himself when he arrived in Keighley exactly 250 years ago to recruit new members to the faith. The Savages will hold a special service to commemorate that anniversary.

Ian Jack, page 19