David Grant explores the past, present and future of the Church in Stoke-on-Trent and introduces hymns from Longton Methodist Central Hall.
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What is a church?
A historic building with a tale of its own to tell?
A state-of-the-art worship space?
Or the hub of a community in these difficult times?
I've come to explore the past, present and possible future
of the church in one city, Stoke-on-Trent.
Today, bringing the Cathedral of the potteries back to life
with the BBC's help. The ordinary house that's become a place
of 24-hour prayer, plus music from Kristyna Myles, Stuart Pendred
and contemporary and traditional hymns.
As you travel in and around Stoke-on-Trent
you get glimpses of the area's rich Christian heritage,
but churches aren't just stuck in the past,
look around and it's fascinating what you'll find.
Forget your high street coffee shops with their baristas
and skinny cappuccinos,
I'm actually in one of the city's forward-thinking churches.
Another exterior that belies what's inside
is Longton Methodist Central Hall.
It's one of the hidden architectural gems, not just of the Potteries,
but the whole of the Midlands, and it's here that over 800 people
have gathered to sing their songs of praise.
Just north of Stoke-on-Trent is the village of Mow Cop.
Its most famous building is this castle, actually it's a folly
and it was on the slopes that what became known
as Primitive Methodism was born.
Methodism was founded by John Wesley
who was famous for his outdoor preaching.
But by the beginning of the 19th century,
some of his followers felt that the movement was losing its way.
Methodism actually became a bit respectable
and it was a bit worried about appeasing the government
because it wanted to maintain its religious freedom.
The Primitive Methodists were a group
that really felt called by the spirit
to go back to the early form of Methodism as John Wesley practised it
and what they were really concerned about was things like open-air preaching,
engaging with the poor and the marginalised.
The first Primitive Methodists were really concerned with saving souls.
It was the fire of the holy spirit, it was about saving people.
They felt very much that the power of God was calling them
to change lives for ordinary working people.
How did that show itself?
In what way did they get involved in changing lives?
So then they got involved in politics
and, for them, they wrestled with this and they read their Bibles
because they wanted it to be absolutely right with Scripture,
but they absolutely felt that politics
was the outworking of their Christian faith.
Through preaching, they learnt skills in public speaking
and those were just the skills they needed
that would equip them to empower working people
to get better conditions and, as they developed then, they were also able
to become some of the very first Labour MPs
and actually go into Parliament.
The influence of those early Methodists was long lasting,
affecting the worlds of both church and politics
well into the 20th century.
Tristram Hunt is not only the MP for Stoke Central,
but also a historian and he's well aware of the legacy of nonconformism.
Religion and politics in Stoke-on-Trent
went together very closely. This wasn't a part
of the world with a particularly strong trade union movement.
This wasn't like Manchester or Liverpool.
The vehicles for organisation came out much more clearly from religious practices
and when we look at Methodism, when we look at congregationalism,
these were often the vehicles for people to begin to think about
a broader conception of social justice
and how they could play their part in that.
The nonconformist inheritance within the Labour movement and the Labour Party
was enormously powerful right through to the 20th century.
It's not there today in any way the same degree.
I think it's, probably, its last two great apostles, if I can use that phrase,
where Michael Foot and Tony Benn.
Michael Foot inherited from his father, Isaac Foot,
that great West Country nonconformist, liberal passion,
a belief in the word, a belief in the puritan good old cause.
We are not prepared to accept the decision
of this Parliament as to whether...
'I think the Labour Party's more distant relationship with nonconformity today is really
'a reflection of broader social and cultural trends.'
Yes, we have lost something.
We've lost that sense of mission and purpose
which goes right back to the English Civil War.
We've lost that notion of the good old cause.
I think we've lost some of the language, some of the rhetoric,
some of the sense of struggle, and our politics is the poorer for it.
This may look like an ordinary terraced house,
but inside there's a labyrinth of rooms all devoted to prayer.
The Beacon house of prayer was set up by Karen and William Porter
and they too were inspired by the example of those early Methodists.
It began, I guess, because we moved to the city of Stoke-on-Trent
and we connected strongly into the city prayer movement
that was happening and very early on,
as we moved to the city, we were reminded of the well of revival
within Methodism that was here and as we came we were to connect into that
and be some of those people who would re-dig wells of revival.
It began in our lounge with about 15 friends,
not with an agenda or a plan, we just said we were going to meet
together once a week and we'd worship.
How did you go from your lounge to a dedicated house of prayer?
About five years ago we found a building
and we had this nice facility with a basement room,
a ground-floor prayer room and next door was a massage parlour.
So it was an interesting contrast.
You started in 2007, how has it developed from there?
Gradually different churches connected with us, prayer groups started to come,
and last year we felt God was challenging us.
Now you've built enough strength,
will you have a year of unbroken prayer in 2012?
Father, we thank you for the journey that we've been on...
So, Karen and William responded to this call
by organising a year of 24/7 prayer.
Every single day during 2012, at any time of the day or night,
there was always at least one person praying at the Beacon.
Practically, there's a rota so 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We've got a website - whynotprayforachange -
people literally sign up for the hours that they'll be there.
We give you thanks, Father...
My slot is 6-7, so I get up at 5:30am.
Excuse me, did somebody, like, volunteer you for that
or did you volunteer yourself?
The rota went up and everybody had to fill in what was best for them.
-Was that the only one left?
I've been getting up quite early in the morning and praying anyway.
So, Kev, is it like a prayer relay race
where the person after you comes in and you hand over the baton?
Yeah, it's very much like that.
The person who I'm taking off will actually pray for me.
He who is so faithful...
I always read my Bible first and then around the particular room
that I actually pray in, there's a city map, there's a map of the whole of the country
and there is a map of the world and I find myself drawn towards praying,
at some point in that hour, towards what's going on in our city and our country.
I'm quite creative, so I find myself doing a painting or even drawing.
For me, coming from a traditional church,
I just thought praying was praying, really.
Yet what I've discovered is that there's so many
creative ways of praying which, again, made me want to stay.
# In this world
# I walk alone
# With no place
# No place to call my home
# But there is one
# Who holds my hand
# Through rugged roads
# Through barren lands
# In your love
# I find relief
# A haven from
# My unbelief
# So take my life
# And let me be
# A living prayer
# My God, to thee
# So take my life, take my life
# And let me be
# A living prayer
# My God, to thee. #
Bethesda Methodist Chapel is known locally
as the Cathedral of the Potteries and holds up to 2,000 people.
But in 1985, the last regular service was held here.
It was a sad occasion and there were tears that night to think that
there wouldn't be a service here again.
Bethesda fell into decay, but in 2003, this wonderful building
was a finalist in the BBC Two series Restoration.
This galvanised attempts to save the chapel and in the past ten years,
it has been lovingly renovated
and now holds open days and occasional services.
It feels wonderful to see people walking in the church again
and to have a service in here,
like we did a few weeks ago for the memorial,
and to hear the organ being played.
The first time the organ was played, I'm sorry, but I cried.
And some people who are probably even older than I am
will tell us about their memories and how they were married here.
It is really wonderful to see people come in.
Another impressive building in the Potteries is where our
congregation has gathered - Longton Methodist Central Hall.
This has recently undergone a restoration programme of its own,
not as far-reaching, perhaps, as Bethesda, but quite remarkable
because it was the handiwork of just one man.
Property steward Alan Nickisson single-handedly painted
the interior of the church.
Speaking as someone who needs a week to do two coats of emulsion in a room,
how long did you give yourself to do this?
I was asked how much time did I need and I said I would need seven weeks.
So, when you started it, what drove you to it?
I think it was the past,
it was my memories of this place many years ago.
When I first started with the Boys' Brigade
I used to come to the classes that used to be here in the church
itself in the mornings. I used to thoroughly enjoy the services.
How high is the ceiling here?
Approximately 45 feet from the floor.
Did you lie on your back to do it,
sort of like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel?
No, no, no, not at all. We had what's known as a birdcage scaffold.
When you see the roof being raised off this place and people singing
their praises in such a beautiful building, what does that feel like?
It's an unbelievable feeling. It's absolutely unbelievable
to realise that, when people are looking around them as they're
singing, the worship that takes place in here at that particular time,
it does absolutely raise the roof.
It's just wonderful.
Two of Stoke's churches are among the ten largest
Methodist congregations in the country - and no wonder.
One of them, Swan Bank, not only offers Sunday worship,
but sports facilities, a coffee shop and even a library.
Swan Bank's been here in the centre of Burslem since the early 1800s.
And so we've been working since then and we've had to change and adapt.
We've seen churches around us close, but we're still a growing church
and that's because we've tried to take seriously
the needs of the present age.
We have opened a coffee shop that's open every day of the week.
It's the only place in the town to get a really good cup of coffee
in terms of a cappuccino or a latte or Americano.
Also, recently, because in the town the library closed down, we've opened
a small library in the building so we can serve our community.
What is it that you like about this place?
Erm, just that there's lots on offer.
It's lovely and everyone's really friendly.
You get a really warm welcome when you come in the door, so yeah, it's really nice.
-So it's not like libraries where if you breathe loudly you get told to be quiet?
-You've got six weeks.
-OK, thank you.
I think Swan Bank, by having a library here,
we'll have broken down some barriers for people
because it's a community library and people will come in,
the coffee shop's here and there's lots of things for them to do.
They'll just come in here, take a book and they're in church before they know it
and I think that's great.
If you're visiting us, a very warm welcome to you as we worship...
'If the church becomes central to people's lives, day in, day out,
'so they're coming regularly into the building and the building becomes a nonthreatening place,
'it's really easier to invite them to a worship experience with us.'
So we're a growing church because, first of all, they're used to being in our building,
we're building relationships with people and then they're coming to faith.
# Be still for the presence of the Lord
# The holy one is here
# Come bow before him now
# With reverence and fear
# In him no sin is found
# We stand on holy ground
# Be still for the presence of the Lord
# The holy one is here
# Be still, for the power of the Lord
# Is moving in this place
# He comes to cleanse and heal
# To minister his grace
# No work too hard for him
# In faith receive from him
# Be still, for the power of the Lord
# Is moving in this place. #
In 1992, 25 people from Swan Bank started a church in this former secondary school.
It now has a congregation of about 500 people,
many of whom are new to church life.
If somebody had told me five years ago that I'd be a regular church attender
I would have laughed at them, to say the least.
I was drinking, like, every single day after school
and when I left school I was just in the pub all the time.
I started hanging round with the wrong crowd
and we'd go to the football matches, home and away,
and there'd be large groups of us and we'd get into a bit of mither.
And then I started going out with a girl and she kept inviting me along
to this youth group on a Friday night.
I thought, "Friday night? There's more to do on a Friday night than go to a church youth group."
She kept nagging me and nagging me so in the end, just for a bit of peace,
I said, "OK, I'll go along."
Then I went along to the church on a Sunday
and that was...that was good.
I mean, first impressions, there wasn't pews and there's a band.
There was a guest speaker there which comes from an army background
and I could relate to him. He started describing
how he experienced the holy spirit.
He said, "If you want to experience what I encountered then put your hand up."
So I was sitting there with my arms folded and I thought,
"I've got a reputation here, I'm not responding to some preacher bloke,"
and I started feeling, like, a flood into my body...
and I couldn't describe it. It was better than any amount of alcohol.
It was just unbelievable.
And that was basically when I made a commitment to become Christian.
Father God, we thank you for the inspiration of your holy spirit
manifest in new ways of being church,
for the leading of the spirit.
'Giving us a sense of purpose and direction
'as we pray that your kingdom may come
'and your will be done.'
In Jesus' name, amen.
Just as churches of the past have informed the way we worship today,
modern hymn writers are often inspired by those who've gone before.
Michael Saward said he wanted to offer great declarations
of faith and affirmations of commitment
when he wrote the words of our final hymn,
Christ Triumphant Ever Reigning.
Next week, to mark Robert Burns' birthday,
Sally meets Scottish artists,
including a writer who delves into the minds of murderers
and a painter who risked everything by giving up his day job,
and hymns from Dunblane Cathedral.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
David Grant explores the past, present and future of the Church in Stoke-on-Trent and introduces modern and traditional hymns from Longton Methodist Central Hall with performances by Kristyna Myles and Stuart Pendred.