HISTORIANS say Britain was saved from revolution in the 18th century because of Methodism.
It is probably true – the religious and social influence of John Wesley’s message affected town and country alike as the hearts of thousands were “strangely warmed” by his evangelical preaching.
Although Wesley never preached in Garstang, the Methodist movement, its ministers, lay preachers and congregation members have had a huge impact in this part of Lancashire over two centuries and more.
Mission work at home and abroad, along with a personal piety/holiness and strict rule of life, was the hallmark of Methodists, especially in their early days.
Pioneers such as Roger Crane (Preston), Elswick-born William Bramwell, William Threlfall (Woodplumpton and South Africa), Richard Mason (Pilling), James Roskell (Rawcliffe) and George Fishwick (Hollins Lane and Scorton), as well as Michael Emmett and Moses Holden, were among those who, when their hearts were “strangely warmed,” dedicated their lives to serving God.
The emphasis on evangelism had both spiritual and social consequences for the many who came under the influence of the gospel preachers – ministers and lay folk – and the chapels and communities they served.
Much of the history of those early years has been well chronicled by both Methodist historians as well as secular writers such as Anthony Hewitson in “Our Country Churches and Chapels” (1872), in which the Victorian journalist dropped in on services and wrote pen portraits of what he heard and witnessed.
But while the devout Methodists did battle with the Unholy Trinity of the world, the flesh and the devil, it appears numerous other factors have been to blame locally for the denomination’s decline.
A combination of the rise of Darwinism and secularism, cynicism resulting from two world wars, and what some would see as a shift away from a distinctly fundamentalist/ evangelical approach to Christianity, resulted in a gradual drop in the numbers attending chapels.
And in more recent decades – certainly in the 1960s – official talks about possible union with the Church of England, as well as a perceived downgrading of doctrine, led many Methodists in the Garstang circuit to walk with their feet – into the distinctly evangelical Free Methodist Churches which were being formed in this part of Lancashire about 40 years ago.
One of the biggest casualties of the “split” was Great Eccleston Methodist Church, where the congregation was decimated.
The impact was felt, though less severely, in other Methodist chapels, as the “Frees” grew, gaining adherents from the traditional Methodists, as well as converts from non-church backgrounds, particularly among young familes.
The honesty of a Methodist local preacher in a recent article in The Courier, commenting on the demise of the Bilsborrow Methodist chapel – to the effect that the Free Methodists have succeeded where the Methodists have failed – surprised many with its candour.
Future local historians looking at non-conformity in greater Garstang in the late 20th century will rightly describe the Methodist/Free Methodist affair as a significant issue in the ecclesiastical development of the district.
A non-apocryphal tale is told of how, about 20 years ago, one enthusiastic Methodist local preacher in his sermon told the congregation at Garstang Methodist Church: “God does not want jumble sales in His house.” The message stirred a debate on jumble sales which lasted for months.
The past decade or so has seen more Methodist churches closing – Catterall, Woodplumpton, Catforth and Bilsborrow – with the numerical discouragement leading to serious soul searching among the remnant about the future of their denomination’s local witness.
A former minister of Garstang Methodist Church did not like it when, on the closure of the chapels at Bilsborrow, Catforth and Woodplumpton, Courier columnist Thomas Weind mentioned the word “Ichabod” in a piece in his comment column.
Those who went to Sunday school will recall the Hebrew word meaning “The glory of the Lord has departed” – an undeniable fact in the case of the closed chapels in the villages near Garstang.
Some of the cash from the sale of those shut down church buildings are understood to have helped pay for building improvements at Garstang Methodist Church (the splendid glass extension and Wesley’s cafe) and has provided funding for lay workers, including the energetic Will Nightingale, whose three- year stint as mission enabler in Garstang came to an end last year.
Will’s witnessing style (he wears a T-shirt saying “I found Jesus – he was behind the sofa”) and hand-in-the-air style worship has shocked some traditionalists and members of the older generation at Garstang Methodist Church, who were brought up in the days of teetotalism and wearing Sunday best.
The issues of how to stop the decline, and more chapel closures and, more positively, new ways of pastoral care and mission, have been under debate for the past two years, with the radical solutions being reached – including circuit mergers and changes to ministerial responsibilities – coming into place as from tomorrow, the formal start of the Methodist calendar.
All bar one of the seven current churches in Garstang Methodist Circuit (Garstang, Hollins Lane, Scorton, Calder Vale, Pilling, Goosnargh and Dolphinholme) are to merge with the Lancaster and Morecambe/Heysham circuits. Pilling Methodist chapel will move into the North Fylde circuit.
The new North Lancashire circuit will have a total of 24 churches in an area stretching from Tewitfield, near Carnforth, to Goosnargh.
The new circuit will have seven ordained ministers (five presbyters and two deacons).
Each minister will have pastoral responsibility for a grouping of churches as well as circuit-wide responsibilities.
From tomorrow Garstang Methodist Church will be linked within the new circuit with Calder Vale, Dolphinholme, Emmets (Over Wyresdale), Quernmore, Roeburndale, Scorton and Wray.
Pastorally the grouping will be cared for by both a presbyter minister and a deacon minister.
The two ministers occupying those roles arrived in the area earlier this month and will start their mission tomorrow.
The presbyter is Rev Keith Borwick, who has moved from a pastorate near Hull. He will live at the manse on Lancaster Road with his wife, Joanne, and children Rebekah, 16, Liam, 10 and Joshua, six. Mr Borwick has been a minister for eight years and was previously an office manager.
The deacon is Jane Gibson, who has just moved to Dolphinholme from Middlesborough. She has been in the ministry for five years and was previously a university administrator.
Other new arrangements include the appointment of Rev David Tidswell, currently Lancaster circuit superintendent, as superintendent of the new circuit and with responsibility for Trinity Methodist Church at Goosnargh as well as Silverdale and Warton Churches.
The churches at Galgate, Hollins Lane (Forton) and Lancaster will be led by the Rev Juliet Wriglesworth, who will be involved in developing discipleship groups within the circuit.
The scrapping of long-established Garstang circuit and the other changes means Garstang’s Methodist minister will no longer, as has traditionally the case, also be circuit superintendent.
The last full time Methodist minister at Garstang was the Rev Derrick Bannister, who retired last year. Since then the church has been led by a retired minister, Rev Derek North of Morecambe.
The circuit spokesman said there had been a unanimous vote last autumn to join the three circuits and for Pilling to move into the North Fylde circuit.
“We all felt that these moves were the most positive and exciting ways to go forward.”