I am a Wesleyan kind of Baptist. Ever since as a never been in church before teenager I heard a congregation singing O for a Thousand Tongues to sing my great redeemer's praise, descant and all, I have loved and inhabited Wesleyan spirituality. "And Can it Be" is a hymn of distilled evangelicalism, theologically daring (emptied Himself of all but love..."), ringing with awe struck gratitude (my chains fell off, my heart was free..), confessionally alert to sin (Died he fore me, who caused his pain...) and scintillating with mystery and adoring wonder (in vain the first-born seraph tries, to sound the depths of love divine.).
I've studied Wesleyan hymnology for over 30 years, and I still sing some of those hymns as if for the first time their poetry and theology and exuberance and heartfelt authenticity was one urgent invitation to enter the holy place where God in Christ meets the wondering soul. Likewise I've read and reflected long on the work and lives of John and Charles Wesley, tried to get inside not only their theology but the experiences out of which it was forged, and the traditions that supply the energy sources and raw materials for such masterpieces of Christian theology in which words and worship deal with hearts both broken and healed at that place the Wesleys preached and prayed and sang about - the throne of grace. That word grace, was for both the Wesley's nearly but not quite synonymous with love. Yes grace is love, but a particular kind of love, acted and enacted in creation as the self-articulation of that eternal exchange of love within the life of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I am therefore deeply and repeatedly saddened that the originating sources of Methodism seem to have been silted up and no longer flow so freely in the channels of chapels and worshipping communities, and no longer overflow in the same ways into the communities of villages, towns and cities. Of course not only Mathodism; Baptist, Congregationalist, and other free church traditions are having to reflect with serious intent on their past, and on their uncertain future. So when I come across a small Wesleyan Chapel, it becomes a place of pilgrimage, when standing inside touching the pews, or touching the stone outside, I try to imagine the people whose special place this is, and whose worship and weekly faithfulness gave soul and life to the furniture, the stones, and the people, those living stones being built into a temple fit for God.
The chapel pictured above is in Littlebeck, a few miles out of Whitby. Most of the services are now taken by the small continuing congregation. The back hall is now the home of a Men's Shed, where several men work away at the stuff that is important - conversation, friendship, making and repairing, trying through the gifts of time, words, energy and care, to create a safe place for the lonely, a welcoming place for the stranger, and a local place where friendship can be presupposed.
In one sense this isn't what Wesley had in mind when he organised local Methodists into societies. But in an age of church decline, of ageing demographics across the denominations, and changing habits of social life, it may be that such small gatherings will be leaven, salt, light. And if they don't ignite the spiritual exuberance of a previous age, perhaps they will nevertheless provide a place where that same love of God is embodied, shared and lived, in the quiet faithfulness that is friendship, and in the enduring disciplines of a faith which began in the life of a carpenter.