The Decay of Evangelical Faith
A letter – but not strictly speaking a letter from the manse. I’m writing this from Haverigg – a small village on the Cumbria coast. We’ve come here for our summer holidays, as we have many times before. I’ve been taking the opportunity to find out a little about the history of the churches in this area. For me, it’s been fascinating to glimpse the impact that evangelical witness once had on one small community – and the way that that witness has decayed. It’s a moving and sad story. And it’s one that has its parallels in towns and villages across the UK. I’ve been looking at one small situation; I hope I’ve learned lessons that can be applied to many others.
Haverigg is a grey slate village on the Duddon estuary, a mile outside the town of Millom. For most intents and purposes, the town and village form one community. That community hardly existed a hundred and fifty years ago. It sprang up in the second half of the nineteenth century when the largest deposits of iron ore ever found in Britain were discovered in the area. The first mines were dug in the 1850s, the ironworks opened in 1867. By the end of the century, the mines were producing half a million tons of ore each year. Hundreds of houses were thrown up for the new workers. Shops, schools, public buildings followed quickly. A name had to be found for the new town: after some debate, it was labelled Millom in honour of the nearby Millom Castle.
The Parish of Millom
Religion played a very obvious role in the new communities of Millom and Haverigg. The Anglican parish church of St George was built in the same year as the ironworks opened – making it one of the first prominent buildings to be erected. Its spire makes it one of the most conspicuous church buildings in the Lake District. The church was at the centre of town life. Services were well-attended and several hundred children attended Sunday-school regularly. But the first vicars of St George’s – Low Church men – did not restrict their role to the care of souls. They saw it as their duty too to look after the educational and social needs of their parishioners. They built a Parish Hall and established the St George’s Men’s Institute: among the activities it organised were the chess club, the debating society, roller-skating, sports and gymnastics clubs and classes. Of course, funds had to be found for these things: money was raised by jumble sales, concerts, table-tennis tournaments, carnivals, comic cricket matches, and much more.
But the Anglicans did not have a monopoly on the religious life of Millom and Haverigg. The Roman Catholic church responded swiftly to the situation too. Many of the newly arrived miners were Irish Catholics. The Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle sent Father James McCrory as a missioner to the town. He opened the first RC chapel in 1868 – the building doubled in use as a school for two hundred pupils. The building was replaced twenty years later, funded in part by the giving of the RC miners. It was agreed that one shilling and threepence from their wages would be channelled directly to the priest to finance the project.
And of course the nonconformist – and evangelical – denominations had their stake in the growing community. Thomas Gregg moved with his wife and children from Coniston to Millom in 1866 to work in the mine. He planted a Baptist church in a cottage in Millom, gathered a small congregation, began a Sunday-school. In 1869 a chapel was built in Haverigg, and the following year the first two converts were baptised in Haverigg Pool – the stream which runs through the village.
I have found one of Gregg’s sermons on the web, transcribed from his manuscript. It’s moving to read. Gregg was a miner not a cleric. His sermon is clearly the work of a self-educated man, steeped in Scripture, but with little formal schooling. The sermon is a passionate appeal to believers and unbelievers alike:
“We are repeatedly tould that God will render to every man according to his deeds, & that every man shall be rewarded according to his work, & that every man shall be judged according to his works., now either there seems to be different degrees & different kinds of Glory, yet all are compleatly happy complty sattisfied, they enjoy a exceeding & eternal weight of Glory, being washed in the blood of Xt justified by his righteousness, & sanctified by his spirite, admitted into the same heavin, round about the same throne & sing the same song, & will continue so to do while life or thought or been last or eventallity endures & this reward will be greatly enhanced or enlarged by the hand which doth bestow it.
We may think much of being noticed by, of receiving a present or reward from our superours in this world, but O how much more it should enhance the bliss of the Christian to think that henceforth there is laid up for him a crown of rightiousness, which the Lord, the righous judge, shall give him at that day, & not to him only but to all them also that love his appearing.
This is the prize of God’s high calling – we are not called by an earthely prince & to earthly honours, but we are called by him who is the king of Kings & Lord of Lords, & called to Glory, honour, imortallity & eternal life this prize is of the high calling of God in Xt Jesus, much is said by the Apostle about being in Xt Jesus, he counted all things but lost for the excellance of the knowledge of Xt Jesus his Lord for whom he suffered the loss of all things & counted them but dung that he might win Xt & be found In him, it is a great priveladge, it is a great blessing to be found in Xt ‘for there is no condemnation to them which are in Xt Jesus, then let us endavour to be found in him. As Noah was found in the Ark & as the man slayer was found the City of refuge safe from the avinger of blood.”
I’d love to find out more about Gregg and the life of the little church that met at Caine’s Cottages, five minutes walk from our house.
But of all the nonconformist denominations, it was the Methodists who had the most powerful influence in Millom and Haverigg.
The Methodist Connection
The story of Methodism in West Cumberland goes back a long way. John Wesley visited the area twenty-six times between 1748 and 1790. The base of his operations in the area was at Whitehaven, thirty-five miles further up the coast. But from there his influence was felt throughout the whole region, and continued after his death. By 1840 there were forty Wesleyan Methodist churches established in Cumberland as well as eleven Primitive Methodist and four United Methodist churches. And the second half of the nineteenth century brought vigorous growth, with another sixty-three chapels built.
Methodism flourished particularly in the newly industrialised areas of West Cumberland. And especially that was true of Millom and Haverigg. John Barrett, one of the two founders of the mining enterprise, was a Cornishman. He recruited many of the workers from the tin and copper mines of Devon and Cornwall. Almost to a man the west country miners were Methodists, and they brought with them the fervour and revivalist passion of West Country Methodism. (Read the biography of Billy Bray if you want a reminder of what that meant. Bray, himself a miner, died in 1868 – many of the men who moved to Millom would have known him personally and been touched by his preaching). The incomers brought with them not only the zeal of Methodism; they also brought its divsions. In Millom, the Wesleyan Methodists were the strongest body. In little Haverigg there were at least two chapels: the Bible Christians (the denomination to which Bray belonged) and (I think) the Primitive Methodists.
Well, I hope I’ve given you some impression of the vigour of religious life – and especially evangelical witness – in the new communities of Millom and Haverigg. Let me jump forward now seventy years or so from the first beginnings. And let me introduce Millom’s most celebrated son, Norman Nicholson. He was born in Millom exactly a hundred years ago, spent his whole life in the town and became its most famous resident. When he died in 1987, the Times obituary declared that he was the “most gifted English Christian provincial poet of his century”. Why “provincial”? Because all his poetry is rooted so firmly in Millom and the area around. What R S Thomas is to North Wales, Nicholson is to Cumberland. His autobiographical account of his childhood and teenage years is entitled Wednesday Early Closing. It’s a moving picture of life in a semi-rural but industrial community.
Nicholson gives us an insider’s glance into the place of religion in the Millom of the 1920s. It makes for sobering reading. Nicholson’s father, sceptical of all religion, was brought up an Anglican, and duly attended St George’s.
My grandmother saw to that. She was not, as she said, what you would call a religious woman, but she was going to bring her sons up respectable, if she had to knock respectability into them with a clothes brush.
During his years there the church shifted step by step towards a more High Church ethos.
He…carried his independence into church and would not join in the ‘bobbing and bowing’ introduced by a High Church vicar’s wife. I have seen him many a time straighten himself at the beginning of the Creed, tighten the muscles of his neck and maintain a deliberate level stare at the pulpit, while the rest of the congregation bowed the knee at the name of Jesus… I often noticed a look of satisfaction come over his face, and I thought that once again he had quietly shown the Church of England that he would kowtow to nobody.
Norman’s mother died when he was five. Her mother – Grandma Cornthwaite – moved in to look after young Norman. But Norman’s father married again in 1922. Norman’s new mother was a Methodist, from Cornish stock. His grandmother warned Norman what it would mean.
‘They’ll be making a proper Cousin Jack of you,’ she warned me. ‘It’ll be Cornish pasties for dinner every day’… ‘You’ll have to be getting yourself Saved, lad’ she said, ‘or there’ll be no pasty. And you’ll have to stand up and say Grace before you get even that.’ ” “What’s Saved?” asked young Norman. “It’s going to Prayer Meetings and pulling a long face and thinking you’re better than other people and telling everybody they’re going to Hell – that’s what being Saved is”.
Such was the Anglican view of the local Methodists.
Growing up in a Methodist world
Norman’s stepmother-to-be, Miss Sobey, had spent the first five years of her life in the Bible Christian chapel in Haverigg (it later joined with another branch of the Methodists to form a United Methodist congregation). When her family had moved to Millom, they had joined the more socially acceptable Wesleyan Methodist church there.
When she married Norman’s father, it was understood that the family would attend that church. So it was there that Norman was to spend most of his childhood and teenage years.
His new mother was the assistant organist at the chapel.
From now on, the once-a-month Sundays on which she accompanied the service became the twelve pillars around which the rest of the year was built. My father and I did not attend chapel in the mornings, but on the Sunday evening, we would go down and take our seats in the rented pew…My father explained that when I entered the pew, I was to sit down and lean forward with my elbows on the hymn-book ledge and my head in my hands, and I did this at his side for several weeks, before I realised that we were supposed to be praying! That was typical of my father’s attitude to the chapel. He outwardly conformed to Non-Conformity, but was inwardly detached, even rather embarrassed about it. ‘We’re all going to the same place,’ he would say, with an air of large magnanimity, but he secretly thought that the Methodists had chosen rather a poor route…”
Nicholson describes graphically winter evenings in the chapel.
The chapel, if not packed, was respectably full; there was rarely an empty seat in the choir, and the boys of the congregation nudged and squinted over the gallery rail. As the service went on and the temperature rose, the gaslight turned mistily green, the tremolo of the organ became almost visible, and the moisture oozed down the painted walls and the iron pillars that carried the gallery. The sermon lasted twenty-thirty-forty minutes – too long, often, even for the addicts – and we all settled into a hot, furtive, greenhouse doze, until the last hymn. Then, suddenly, the organ sang out, the best basses and contraltos of the Millom Mixed Voice Choir trombone into four-part-chording, and every member of the congregation opened wide his mouth, until the whole baffle-board of pews and panels boomed and echoed with all the fervour of Charles Wesley’s thousand tongues…
Evangelicalism in decay
Conversion, the changed life, ‘the heart strangely warmed’ were still at the centre of Methodist theology, even if, for many, they were something of a formality. Indeed, few of the congregation were converts in Wesley’s sense… They came from families in which for generations, life after conversion had been the norm. Some of the preachers – more particularly, the lay preachers, or ‘local preachers’, as we called them – made a direct ‘Come to Jesus’ appeal to the congregation, but my mother found this rather embarrassing. That sort of thing, she implied, was better left to the U.Ms (United Methodists).
Every five years or so there was a special Mission with a visiting evangelist or team holding nightly services.
There were Moody and Sankey hymns, with the choir augmented by singers from other chapels, and the thumping, hand-slapping, heart-prodding tunes banged and bounced about the galleries…” And the congregation would wait, intrigued to see who would be first to respond to the appeal. “You could usually bet on who would be the first two or three to come forward – the old stagers who could be relied on to start the pot boiling. ‘It’s the same crowd that gets Saved every blessed time,’ my father would say in an aggrieved voice. ‘You’d wonder how they ever found time to get lost.’
What of Norman himself?
To the children of the ninety and nine who felt no need of repentance, the whole event was exciting, but rather unreal. We all signed a little ticket to say that we accepted Jesus as our Saviour, rather as if we were applying for membership at the public library. Once or twice I would have liked to go forward with the others in answer to the appeal, but I knew that if I did so, my mother would accuse me of showing her up in public. ‘It only makes people start wondering what you’ve been up to,’ she would say, ‘if you go traipsing out there.’
If Nicholson is to be believed, the Methodists of his day still used evangelical language and kept up a tradition of evangelistic preaching. And yes, there were a few who still understood and delighted in the New Testament gospel. But for the majority¸ it was a “social religion”, “one of an extraordinarily reassuring warmth and comfort.” “I suspect that, for many members of the congregation, as for my mother and certainly for me, the dogma, the theology, the sectarian tenets hardly mattered at all. In my argumentative, near atheist early twenties, I once challenged my mother to say what she meant by ‘Christianity’. ‘We believe that God is Love,’ she said, confident that she had summed up all she had been taught.”
Activity or Awakening?
Norman’s Methodist upbringing provided a secure, happy, reassuring framework for his childhood.
What people find so hard to understand today is that most Methodists went to chapel because they enjoyed it. The chapel was not only their Place of Worship – it was their place of entertainment, their ancestral home, their music hall, assembly room, meeting house, club and gossip shop… For at least up to the age of thirteen, the chapel seemed to me one of the happiest places in the town… When I say ‘chapel’, I mean all the activities which took place in the chapel itself, in the two schools, in the Men’s Institute and in the charmingly-named Church Parlour where the Wesley Guild held its weekly meetings. But, of course, it was in the chapel building that the bonding process began, the welding together of the congregation into a group, a tribe, a family, a religious Trade Union or Friendly Society, all in one…
Much of Nicholson’s account of his childhood is devoted to his enthusiastic involvement in all the spin-off chapel activities, social, cultural and educational. He became famous in the town for his skill in recitation, reciting poems, and chairing children’s concerts.
Nicholson’s picture of his childhood and the decay of Methodism into social religion comes as a stark warning to ourselves as evangelical Christians. How easy it is for reality to be lost! We may continue to use familiar gospel phrases, without feeling anything of their truth and power. We may continue to follow evangelical traditions of worship and witness when spiritual life is dying. We may substitute wholesome, enjoyable and even “Christian” activities for a heartfelt seeking after God himself. We may be satisfied when our children sign their little ticket and declare that Jesus is their Saviour, even if they show little sign of repentance, faith and a true walk with God. We may – like the church in Sardis – have a reputation of being alive, but be dead (Revelation 3:1).
Millom folk believed that if you wanted to go to college, you had to be confirmed. So at the age of fifteen, Norman transferred to the St George’s Sunday-School and began confirmation classes there.
He was taught there by High Churchmen who really believed what they taught.
Mr Walton spoke with a kind of intense, yet curiously matter-of-fact, conviction, of much that I had scarcely heard of before – the Catechism, the Sacraments, the Eucharist. A word like ‘altar’ acquired a new glow, both mysterious and taken-for-granted…
Norman was overwhelmed by the fervour and the dogmatic certainty of this Anglo-Catholic version of Christianity. It stood in vivid contrast to the constantly repeated but scarcely understood clichés of his evangelical upbringing.
The weeks before confirmation were weeks of intense emotion for Norman.
…every part of me vibrated with an emotion more intense than anything I had felt before. It is hard at this distance to define it. I cannot call it a conversion, for I did not seem to be converted to anything. There was no sense of guilt, nothing of the repentance which, for years, I had been taught I ought to feel… I prayed every night and when I woke early enough, every morning, spending, sometimes, half an hour on my knees, and staggering about, stiff and numb, like a lame man, when I stood up again. Of the actual Confirmation, I can remember very little except that it was held, that year, in the Old Church. We bounded back after the service, like a herd of young bullocks let out into the fields.
Nicholson’s experience was short-lived. Within a few weeks his emotions and his certainties had subsided.
Like a patient who is recovering from a high temperature, I was returning to normal. ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead,’ said Tom Morton, my friend of that time. It seemed to dispose of a number of problems.
Nicholson discovered radical Socialism a little while after, drifted into a near-atheist agnosticism, but found his way back to a serious and supernatural Christianity in his later twenties. He was at home in Anglicanism and St George’s became his spiritual home. Many of the poems in his first collection Five Rivers (1944) are shot through with his religious convictions. His language is far from evangelical and often betrays his commitment to sacramentalism (“The sacramental prongs reach down and lift earth to the skies again”). Yet Nicholson clearly loved the Bible and took its message seriously. And he believed that man apart from God’s grace was helpless to save himself.
Here is part of his Song for Pelagius:
When the rain rains upward,
And the rivers siphon the sea,
When the becks run backward,
And the sunset swells into day…
When the bright equator
Illuminates the sun,
Man of his will
Shall hoist himself to heaven.
For Nicholson, to imagine that man could by his free will lift himself to heaven, is as absurd as imagining rain falling upwards or the earth illuminating the sun.
Perhaps my favourite poem in this collection is Ride to Jerusalem where Nicholson imagines himself standing watching the Lord Jesus ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The poem is headed with the verse from Luke 19: “And he answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out”. Nicholson says,
The window-sills are empty; no crowds wait;
Here at the pavement’s edge, I wait alone.
Master, like sunlight strike my slaty heart
And ask not acclamations from the stone.
He knows that his heart is hard as stone unless the sunlight of God’s grace strikes on it to awaken love and praise.
I can only judge the reality of Nicholson’s faith by his writings, but I catch there notes of real dependence on the Saviour and devotion to Him. And if I had to choose between the nominal evangelicalism of his childhood and the heartfelt, if confused, religion I find in his poems, I would choose the latter.
Stanley Briscoe and the Tin Chapel
But there were other choices. Even in Nicholson’s day there were faithful believers concerned to keep a gospel light burning in Millom. Many of you will have heard of Stuart Briscoe, a gifted and well-known Bible preacher, born in Millom in 1930. His parents, Stanley and Mary Briscoe, moved to the town in the late 1920s; his father became the leader of a small gospel preaching church – or “assembly” -which met in a “Tin Chapel” –
“made of tin – or rather, corrugated iron painted a faded green – and it smelled of dust and damp and was downright depressing.”
Stuart Briscoe grew up in that church:
“in the minds of the few in town who acknowledged it, the Tin Chapel was a little odd, and the people who went there were regarded as equally odd”. The ‘flock’ who gathered in the Tin Chapel did not believe in professional ministers or pastors, and so they were led by my father, a grocer by trade…”
Stuart Briscoe’s autobiography Flowing Streams is a moving tribute to his parents’s godliness and zeal for the gospel.
“My parents were devoted disciples of Jesus. They believed there was a world to win for Christ, and they never gave up trying, though their influence did not stray much further than the promontory on which Millom stood”. “My father… was a good man of profound convictions that revealed themselves in deep devotion, energetic involvement, and a tendency to be rigid and inflexible. He knew what he believed, and he stuck with it”. Stuart describes his father’s evangelistic endeavours: “…he would load up a small tent on his grocer’s bicycle, ride to a nearby village, and hold evangelistic meetings. Very few people came, but I went along and gave out the hymnbooks… I listened as well as I could to the familiar stories he told in a forceful voice. People sat in stolid silence and left without saying a word”. Then there were the open-air meetings in Millom. “On occasion a visiting preacher would come to the Tin Chapel and suggest that we hold an ‘open-air meeting’. The words sent a chill through my whole being, because I knew that it meant that we – the little flock – would stand in a circle outside a pub and sing a couple of hymns without the benefit of musical instruments, and then the visiting preacher and my father would shout – preach – as loudly as possible at the closed pub door…”
As a child, Stuart found his father’s rigid adherence to his convictions – and his determination to proclaim them publicly – an embarrassment. And he recounts how he was mocked at school by staff and pupils alike. “…a classmate discovered that I attended the Tin Chapel, which they all recognised as a place frequented by people who were not ‘Church of England’ and therefore weird”. When a teacher squeezed the confession from him that he was “a member of the Brethren”, his classmates “held me up for ridicule for weeks to come…”. “I hated the thought of being different. In the minds of my schoolmates, people who didn’t go the cinema, didn’t play sports, didn’t cuss, didn’t drink or smoke, and didn’t go to St George’s with its lovely spire were weird by definition…”
Poor Stuart. Happily for him, the public image of the Tin Chapel was transformed when the Second World War broke out, and young men from across the Empire arrived in Millom to be trained at the RAF station there. Many of these young men – from Canada, South Africa, Rhodesia, New Zealand, India – were gospel believers. Yes, some of them came from Methodist or Anglican backgrounds, but it was not to the respectable Methodist or Anglican churches that they gravitated.
“I discovered normal young men from around the world who thought my parents were wonderful, who loved my home as a safe haven, and who thought the Tin Chapel was a sanctuary.” “Almost overnight the little assembly was not so little or so old or so dispiritingly inward-looking. I walked past St George’s on Sunday mornings with a group of young men in smart uniforms carrying Bibles just like me. The locals began to look at us with incredulity rather than amusement. Kids at school gathered around, not to kid me about the Tin Chapel, but to ask about the airmen. Who were they? How did I know them? Why did they come to my house? And why did they go to the Tin Chapel?”
How long did Stanley Briscoe’s little Brethren assembly continue after the war years? I don’t know. Stuart moved on from Millom at the age of seventeen. His autobiography says little or nothing about the church from that point on. All I know is that it closed. The Tin Chapel became the Pensioners’ Hall. It seemed that a candlestick had been removed and a light had been extinguished.
A candle relit…
We must jump forward again – to the 1970s. It was in the early ’70s that a Manchester-based evangelist and Bible-teacher named Basil Deen first visited the area, in association with Cumbria Gospel Outreach. Basil’s ministry – like Stanley Briscoe’s – had been exercised chiefly among the Brethren assemblies. But the keynote of his preaching was simply warm Christ-centred gospel proclamation. Basil returned for several missions in the area, and discovered in Millom a number of evangelical believers hungry for gospel fellowship. Basil’s wife Phyllis tells the story in her memoir of her husband:
“At Millom they contacted several Christians among whom were Joan and Bert Atkinson who attended the local Baptist Church but had never become members. They had a lovely young people’s outreach in their own house in Churchill Drive. There was also a small group of Christians who had started Bible studies in their own homes. They felt there was a great need in the town for a real evangelical witness.” Basil encouraged these folk to gather together “…and Millom Evangelical Church was born. The witness was faithfully continued, other Christians came along and the work was capably overseen by Bert and the other elders. The believers gathered in the Pensioners’ Hall… and on April 16th 1972 they had an ‘official’ opening meeting which was well attended”.
Basil and Phyllis moved to Millom to join the young church in 1975. He was then just short of fifty-four years old. For more than thirty-five years he was to give himself unsparingly to the work of evangelism in Millom and throughout West Cumbria. He preached the gospel to children in hired community halls; to teenagers in remand homes; to business men at the Rotary Club. He preached at the young people’s camp which he organised near Windermere; in his marquee which he pitched in villages all around the county; in nursing homes; in schools.
“By 2008 (at the age of 87) he was visiting 22 schools per month in Cumbria and North Lancashire… a most interesting feature of this work has been the warm reception he often received from the Roman Catholic schools…” Within Millom itself “there were many avenues of outreach… one of which was the printing of a small magazine for distribution around the doors in the town… This made a good leaflet, attractive and acceptable and the believers in the fellowship all helped in its distribution. Very soon other churches around the country asked would we print some for them, with their own ‘announcements’ added, which we were happy to do…. This became a marathon job… we eventually had two commercial printing machines, Gestetner, producing around 14,000 copies per month.”
Phyllis can look back and remember different folk who came to faith through Basil’s witness and the witness of the church in Millom. (“Over the years, we have heard of one person and another, often young folks, who have trusted the Lord….”). But as far as I know, within Millom or Haverigg there was little fruit. Yes, the church grew under his leadership. In due time, it was able to buy an end terraced house which was refurbished and became a church building. But the folk who were added to the church were usually believers moving into the town. The men and women who had grown up in the town showed little interest in the gospel Basil preached.
We had our first holiday in Haverigg in 2004. We soon discovered that there was only one church in Millom or Haverigg where we could feel at home. Each time we visited the town we worshipped with the little fellowship of believers at Millom Evangelical Church. And we listened with joy to Basil’s preaching. Basil, true to his Brethren convictions, would have been reluctant to call himself the pastor but he was the undoubted leader of the fellowship. And even in his eighties, what a gifted Bible expositor he was!
When we first visited Millom Evangelical Church there were perhaps a dozen folk regularly in the congregation. During the years that followed, we watched the church dwindle. Some folk had moved from the area, some had decided to move to other churches, some had died. By 2012, the number of regular attenders had been reduced to five or six. Basil himself was ninety years old, Phyllis in poor health and unable to leave the house to attend meetings. The decision was made to move the Lord’s Day and midweek meetings to Basil’s home. The building stood empty and was finally put up for sale.
Basil Deen died on the 30th May 2013. Phyllis is now in a nursing-home. I know of only three believers who attended the meetings and who are still living in Millom. One couple, retired and in poor health travel – when they are well enough to do so – along the coast to worship in Bootle. Joan – who along with her husband Bert had begun the work in 1972 – is in her nineties and virtually housebound. Again, it seems that the candle – briefly relit – has burned out.
Millom and Haverigg today
Millom today is a spiritual wasteland. So is Haverigg. An engraved stone marks the spot where the Bible Christian chapel once stood. Where the UM chapel stood, is a carpark. The one-time Tin Chapel is a community centre. Drive past the house where Millom Evangelical Church once met and you would never know it had been a church building.
Every manifestation of religion is met with the same indifference by the local community. I looked around St George’s last week, admired the Norman Nicholson memorial window and chatted with a devoted supporter of that church. He told me that the congregation is often less than twenty elderly folk and they struggle to maintain the building. There are still Roman Catholic, Methodist and Baptist churches in Millom, a Pentecostal “community church”, a Salvation Army hall. None appear to be making any headway against the religious apathy of the town.
I wonder what Wesley would say if he saw how barren West Cumberland is today? I wonder what the churchmen who first preached at St George’s would make of Millom and Haverigg ? I wonder what the Cornish miners who arrived in Haverigg with burning hearts and built the Bible Christian chapel would say if they could see the spiritual apathy of their descendants? We know of maybe half a dozen gospel churches of any description along the coast from Barrow to Maryport, all of them struggling, some of them near to extinction.
Cumbria of course is not unique. There are other areas of the United Kingdom that are equally barren. It’s simply that we as a family have had the opportunity to get to know some of the believers and churches in this area, to grieve and to pray with them.
What does the future hold? Will the few lights that still burn along that coastline finally go out? Or will they flare up again to burn brightly? And will new lights be lit? Who knows? God has not promised that he will turn again to communities that have squandered or despised the preaching of the gospel. But we are still allowed to pray. In wrath, remember mercy. Let me urge you to pray for Cumbria and perhaps especially for Millom and Haverigg.
And whatever the Lord does in those villages, and across our our land in our day, let’s keep our eyes fixed on our final hope. Let’s look forward beyond all the ebb and flow of Kingdom life in this world, to a better world and a better land. Norman Nicholson wrote about it in these words:
The kestrel there, shall eat haws like the throstle,
The owl, like the goldfish shall feed on the thistle,
The stoat shall eat grass like the hare.
In the becks the pike shall play with the trout,
The stickleback shall swim beneath the heron’s feet.
Nothing shall be hurtful there.
In that holy mountain like the sun the Word
Shall shine on rock and beast and tree,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
Nicholson’s vision of the world to come was Cumberland reborn. I can understand why he loved this area so much. But Stockport is my home. I’m looking forward to seeing Stockport again soon. And I trust that looking at the story of God’s dealings with the little towns of Millom and Haverigg will stir me to work and pray more urgently for Stockport – the town where God has placed me.