Ranters of Mow Cop
Monday, 4 October 2021
Tuesday, 28 September 2021
RETURN TO TOYNTON FEN
This week Jane and I are spending a week in Lincolnshire and are delighted to be staying in an AirBnB property described as the Wesleyan Chapel, Toynton Fen. The building has been beautifully converted into a holiday let, equipped with all mod cons and highly suitable for a couple wanting to explore the back of beyond.
The place is of great significance for me as for about 20 years from 1956 it was the place where I attended Sunday school and chapel services, and on a couple of occasions after reaching adulthood I was invited to preach. My mother, a lifelong Methodist, worshipped here, taught Sunday school, and was chapel steward, until the place closed for good in about 1980. Opened in 1882 it just failed to reach its centenary, and for over thirty years was left empty and derelict.
The building as I remember it was a simple one room structure, entered as now by the side door. On the right were about six rows of wooden pews with a central aisle, rising slightly towards the back row (the prize seats as far as youngsters were concerned). On the left was a low dias, fenced off by a communion rail, and behind this the pulpit, reached by a couple of steps from the left. In the front right corner as viewed from the pews, was a harmonium (organ) with a double keyboard and pedal operated bellows. The only other feature was a round cast iron coke burning stove, with a vertical chimney pipe up to the roof, which on a cold winter Sunday would be stoked up with a roaring draft so that the iron itself glowed red.
From 1956 to 1969 (between ages 5 and 18) I lived about a mile from the chapel at Poplars Farm, Hobhole Bank. I went to Toynton All Saints Primary School, then from 1962 to King Edward VI Grammar School, Spilsby. We caught the school bus each morning at the Anchor, or Drain End (the corner just a few hundred yards West of the chapel.). The Anchor had once been a public house and, so we were told, the terminus of a weekly market boat service to Boston. But in my childhood days it was a small dairy farm belonging to the Alliss family, and Granny Alliss, who lived at the Anchor, still separated off the cream and hand churned her own butter. The fen was a remote and undeveloped corner of England, many local farmhouses had no bathrooms and WC toilets, just an outside privy. It was 1962 before electricity reached Hobhole Bank. But we still had trains, two miles down the road was Midville station with regular services to Lincoln and Skegness, with connections at Firsby for Grimsby and London.
In the early 1960s the chapel had services at 6pm each Sunday with Sunday school in the afternoon. There would be about 25 children on the Sunday school roll, one family, the Mountains, contributed about 7 of them. Each week we would sing a few hymns or choruses taken from the Sunday School Hymn Book, listen to a Bible story and maybe do some colouring or some worksheets. The three highlights of the year were the annual prize giving where those who had attended regularly were given an improving book, the annual coach outing to Cleethorpes, and the Sunday School Anniversary in June. For about six weeks before this there would be practices each Sunday, and in the final week on a weekday evening, for choral items, and individual recitations. One or two children, but never tone deaf me, might offer a solo song. On the Sunday itself the chapel would be packed with parents and other locals who came to see and hear the children perform. A special guest preacher, usually chosen as someone who related particularly well to children, presided. They would also lead the evening service which the children were also expected to attend, and in the interval were often invited back to our house for Sunday tea. On the Monday night after the anniversary there would be a tea party for all the children in the hut which stood at the side of the church. Some years this even included slices from blocks of ice cream purchased from the village shop and rushed to the chapel before it melted. The evening would conclude with some sports on Mr Bradshaw's grass field behind the chapel.
The other big event of the year was in September, the Harvest Festival, with two services on the Sunday, and a sale of produce on the Monday night, which raised significant funds for the work of the chapel. The front of the chapel was covered with gifts of locally grown fruit and vegetables, plus lots of tins and packets of food, and with luck some confectionery. The auctioneer was almost always Mr Slater from Candlesby, a popular local preacher and school teacher by day. With a bit of luck and canny bidding I usually managed to turn my pocket money into chocolate and candy for the week. There were also occasional specials on midweek evenings in the winter, for example an overseas mission evening with a "magic lantern" (slideshow presentation) or after electricity reached the chapel, a film night using a rickety 16mm cine projector. I also remember visits from a choir from another chapel in the area. The chapels in the Spilsby district were organised in a Circuit who shared a superintendent minister, and for a time a deaconess (Sister Betty from about 1965-70) who were the only paid clergy. Most services were led by local (lay) preachers, men and women who traveled to different chapels each Sunday according to the quarterly plan. There were also circuit wide events such as an annual rally, and a garden fete, and for several years a visit from a male voice choir from South Wales. All of these had a strong emphasis on raising funds. .
One year (probably 1961) we had a Circuit children's mission with two young Methodist deaconesses spending a few weeks in the area visiting families, and putting on special early evening events for children. They were quite fun and I remember being taught the chorus, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong. Yes Jesus loves me (3x) - the Bible tells me so".
By the mid 1960s the numbers coming to Sunday school declined, for in my generation teenagers had been invented and younger families seemed less interested in religious activities. Sunday school came to an end and for the last 10 or so years the evening service at the chapel was replaced by an afternoon one. As a teenager, often reluctantly I continued to be dragged along to these services, though by the time I was 15 this came to an end. However, I was still well involved in Methodism, mainly through the Circuit Youth Fellowship which met on Saturday nights in Spilsby Chapel, with table tennis, snooker and an annual variety concert. I used to ride my bike on dark winter nights the four miles through the country lanes up and over Toynton Hill to Spilsby.
The normal format of the Methodist service in those days was a "hymn sandwich", usually five selected from the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book. The familiar tunes were played, not very expertly, on the harmonium. Up to the mid 1960s the organist was Mrs Gravell, and after she died the role was inherited by Miss Gladys Seymour who ran a little sweetshop, next door to Spilsby Grammar School, which sold excellent homemade ice cream. Her loud singing voice could best be described as screeching soprano. After the first hymn the preacher would lead in an extempore prayer followed by everyone saying the Lord's prayer. After the second hymn would come one or two Bible readings, usually from the King James Version, although by the 1960s modern English translations such as JB Philips and the New English Bible were being used even in rural Lincolnshire. After the third hymn there would be another prayer from the preacher, then a fourth hymn and the sermon, usually at least 20 minutes long. The service would conclude with a hymn, and a benediction, which would normally happen exactly 60 minutes from the beginning of the service.
The Circuit ministers usually only stayed in one area for three years when they would be stationed to another circuit by the Methodist Conference. As a result it is hard to remember their names and personalities. The exception for me would be Rev Sowden-Enderby, partly because he had a heart attack after a year in post and took medical retirement in Spilsby, but more significantly because he had two attractive daughters of a similar age to myself. The local preachers as well known figures in the local community were more memorable. A favourite for local children was Mr Bert Odlin, "the toffee man". We liked him not for anything he said but because he always came with a packet of butterscotch which he distributed after the service. Mr Slater was also popular as he often added a brief children's talk to his services, and told some good stories. John Short was an earnest evangelical preacher and is I understand still alive. I remember his stepfather Mr Sergeant tended to preach apocalyptically and linked Ezekiel's Gog and Magog with the plans of the Soviet Union to sweep down through the Middle East to conquer Israel. Finally I remember Mrs, Tuxworth, whose substantial figure often filled the pulpit.
There were local preachers in my own family too, though they were outside the Spilsby Circuit so very rarely came to Toynton Fen. My grandfather H.O Smith completed 40 years service in 1970, his eldest son Harry became a full time ordained minister, and my uncles Charlie and George were local preachers for many years.
I can't remember that much about the final years of the chapel because by 1970 I had moved out of the area, and in 1972 my parents moved to Toynton St Peter where my mother took the role of caretaker of that chapel. During my university days I made a personal commitment to Christ and by 1975 I was training as a Methodist local preacher myself. I was invited at least once to lead a service at Toynton Fen and preached to a congregation of about ten people. Mother continued to attend services at the Fen but in her last years (she died in 1985) the three chapels in the Toynton's worked closely together with services alternating between the different buildings on different Sundays each month. The ageing congregations for various reasons did not see new or younger people coming into membership so eventually the cause became unsustainable and the buildings at St Peters and Toynton Fen were closed for worship.The Chapels at Spilsby and Toynton All Saints continue to operate within the Mid lincs Methodist Circuit http://midlincs.org.uk/
These have been nostalgic reminiscences of an ageing man, triggered by the joy of staying in a building which was central to my childhood. It was here I first learned about God and Jesus and that early formation has proved a bedrock for my life and faith. There is of course also a sadness that building is no longer used for its original purpose of worshipping God, But at least the building is in use and its story continues to be worth telling.
Monday, 12 July 2021
This first instalment of the William Temple Founation Urban Tracts series offers an overview of urban ministry since the early 1980s and draws out some important lessons from the last 40 years. Are there distinctive characteristics and key principles that are transferable to new places, new times, and a new generation of practitioners? As we head, post-pandemic, towards a 'new normal' for urban society and the church there are exciting opportunities to be grasped.
Monday, 10 May 2021
On building multicultural churches and the realm of God
Blog published on Psephizo
also available to download here
Is Britain Flagging?
In light of the prominence of the Union Jack in the news over recent months, Greg Smith considers the complex relationships between flag, state, and church.
also available to download here
Friday, 5 March 2021
Monday, 14 December 2020
Friday, 4 December 2020
- my paper just published today as a Temple Tract.
In the wake of the 2020 US presidential election, Greg Smith investigates the rapidly changing, and often fraught, nature of evangelical identity in both the US and the UK. Drawing on survey data from the Evangelical Alliance, Smith offers a nuanced picture of evangelical self-understanding in relation to British values, moral questions, contemporary politics and our current culture wars. What, asks Smith, is the future for evangelical identity on both sides of the Atlantic?
also out today a review of Chris Wright's new book