Methodism doesn’t have cathedrals, but if we did, Wesley’s Chapel in City Road would surely deserve the title. It was built by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, in 1778 as the base for his work in London. A miraculous survivor of wartime bombing (the adjacent properties were destroyed), the chapel is approached via a cobbled courtyard, with John Wesley’s house (now a museum) to one side, and administrative buildings and manse to the other. Along with the small burial ground at the rear containing Wesley’s grave, the Wesley’s Chapel ‘campus’ is an oasis of quietness in a very busy part of the city.
Over the years I have visited Wesley’s Chapel on countless occasions. I have attended district synod there, conducted wakekeeping services, taken confirmation classes and brought overseas visitors to see the chapel, house and museum. And, from time to time, when I have had a Sunday off, I have attended worship there. Wesley’s Chapel is part of our heritage. But it is a living heritage, with an active congregation and strongs links with other churches in the area and civic organisations.
Worship today was led by Jennifer Potter, with Leslie Griffiths preaching. Worship at Wesley’s Chapel is traditional – no modern worship songs here, though this may change when the new hymnal is published later this year. But the language of prayers and sermon was direct, down to earth and very much related to the events of the past week. It was good to sing some traditional hymns which are perhaps a bit too difficult for some of the smaller congregations in my own circuit. I always enjoy hearing Leslie preach and this was no exception. Based on the lectionary epistle, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Leslie spoke of how the cross contradicts human notions of achievement and success.
So, a traditional Methodist service, but done very well and it was good to be there.
After the post-service refreshments (sandwiches as well as coffee and tea – what a good idea) Mary Ann and I went for a short walk around the local area. We cut through the old Dissenters’ burial ground of Bunhill Fields, directly opposite the church, where we encountered a very friendly – and very fat – squirrel. During the week Bunhill Fields is a place where city workers eat their lunch, and I’m guessing that this squirrel has discovered that being friendly brings its own reward in the form of biscuits and nuts. It followed us down the path, until Mary Ann fished a honey and lemon Locket out of her handbag. This was gratefully received by our four legged friend, who promptly ran up a tree to enjoy this unexpected bounty.
A walk round the block took us past St Luke’s Old Street, which had been roofless and derelict for forty years before it was taken over by the London Symphony Orchestra and repaired and refurbished at a cost of £18 million.
St Luke’s also has its place in Methodist history; in the early days of Methodism, long before Wesley’s Chapel was built, John Wesley’s work was based in a nearby building called the Foundery, a former cannon factory. St Luke’s was the local parish church where Methodists attended Holy Communion.
The area around Old Street has seen much redevelopment in recent years. On the corner of City Road and Old Street stand the twin blocks of the Bezier Apartments. (Actually ‘block’ doesn’t seem to be quite the right word: they’re shaped more like barrels.) A two bedroomed apartment here will set you back a minimum of £700,000.
While I was admiring these state of the art buildings from afar, I was standing at a bus stop outside the old Leysian Mission, a former Wesleyan central hall built in 1903. The Leysian Mission’s highly ornate terracotta brick frontage couldn’t be much more different than Bezier’s futuristic steel and glass facade. Closed in 1989 when its congregation united with Wesley’s Chapel, the mission was built to serve a very different age, when this was one of the most crowded parts of the city. Now in commercial use, the facade of the former mission is looking very dirty – presumably when it was built nobody foresaw that all the fancy brickwork would be a magnet for dust and pollution. And nobody in 1903 could guess that what had become one of the poorer quarters of London would, a century later, see apartments in the area selling for three quarters of a million pounds. This is the modern reality that Methodism, in the form of Wesley’s Chapel and Leysian Mission, has to address today.