I may have mentioned, somewhere along the line, that I am a church bellringer, yes a campanologist and have been so since an early age. At that time I was also a chorister in a choir of around twenty boys and a dozen or so men, most of whom has been boys in the same choir. Now there is no choir and we find it hard to get enough ringers for a Sunday service. Indeed when I lived in Devon there were five or six churches with bells, within half an hour of my home and only one of them could get a regular Sunday band to ring. As is my wont, it got me thinking how things have changed.
My paternal grandfather and his antecedents were bellringers, both on Tyneside and in Derbyshire, so their church-going credentials go without question. My maternal grandfather had been raised a Primitive Methodist, but never attended church in my memory although his bible knowledge was so good that my grandmother feared the ‘knock’ of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who he used to tie in knots until they almost begged to leave. As he could not read or write, this was some feat.
The generation before them was altogether different, particularly if the family were non-conformists. Sunday, The Sabbath’, was strictly observed; meals were prepared on Saturday, cooked on Sunday, and the washing-up waited until Monday. Activities in the strictest homes would be confined to walking or reading, but only The Bible!
Before the time of Cromwell, you could be fined for non-attendance at church, but this was mainly to keep a check on Catholics. When non-conformists came to power, then that Elizabethan law was repealed. However most people, even in my time, would attend church on Easter Day and everyone would have knowledge of the important festivals, Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Whitsun. Most of these were bank/school holidays and even Ascension Day was a half-holiday. Most children of my generation and before were expected to attend Sunday-school either during the morning service or separate from it.
Good Friday, until fairly recently, was celebrated in my home town, by the many non-conformist churches with a March of Witness. Hundreds of people in their best clothes would parade through the town, each chapel with its own ‘supporters’ accompanied by bands of The Salvation Army and The Boy’s Brigade. The streets would be lined with people watching, and a service would be held in the town square. There were several Methodist Churches in the town, Presbyterians, Baptists, the Salvation Army and probably others. Such have the numbers dwindled that last year it rained heavily and for those who turned out to march, a service was held in what has become the United Reform Church in that same square.
The Church of England did not get involved in’ the march’, but the main church had two or three ‘satellite churches’ around the town to cater for those in different areas, as there were so many regular church attendants. Then, of course there were The Roman Catholics who always did their own thing.
Apart from the traditional weddings, although they are now more likely to take place on the beach, and christenings, which appear still to be an occasion to wear the full ‘Ascot’ outfit, there were the civil functions. Mayor’s Sunday was a day with processions, soldiers and bands to fill the church and singing to raise the roof. Harvest Festival, not only filled the chancel with gifts of produce, but the gallery was adorned with nets for the ‘harvest of the deep’. That reminds me that the same church had galleries on three sides; such was the size of the Victorian congregations. These were removed as long ago as 1951.
Churches of whatever denomination have always had more to offer than ‘religion’. They are social communities and always have been. The Church Hall kept the secular side separate and whist drives, pie and pea suppers, and later discos kept the church at the centre of the community.
As a once-convinced Christian I still find it hard to see the dwindling congregations of mainly middle-class elderly people who keep the services going with rising costs and dwindling collections. More and more of these once vibrant and elegant buildings have been demolished or converted to another use. Where will it end? I cannot guess, but fear the end is not too far away.