Methodist ministers and preachers have always been ‘itinerant’ – they move around from place to place. In the eighteenth century the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, set out to spread the ‘true gospel’ by travelling the length and breadth of the country on horseback, setting up small ‘societies’ within Church of England parishes. These eventually became part of a network – a Connexion – of Methodist chapels. Some of his followers became preachers themselves and were encouraged to be itinerant rather than stay in one place and to encourage local people to form their own ‘societies’ for mutual support.
You may be surprised to hear that Methodism reached Shetland (but not the Orkney Islands) and that there are still seventeen Methodist chapels with regular services in the islands today, including one on the tiny island of Fair Isle. This is largely down to the efforts of one man, John Nicholson, born on the west side of the Mainland in 1792. His gravestone in Gruting tells the story. He joined the Royal Artillery and whilst serving in England met some of the Wesleyan preachers….
He died in 1828, aged just 39 years and is buried in the cemetery at Gruting.
Methodist ministers are still (relatively) itinerant in that they are likely to move from one Methodist circuit (group of churches) to another every five or more years. So Methodist church congregations expect to have a change of minister quite regularly. It certainly ensures that neither minister nor congregation can become too complacent! (And that ‘children of the manse’ have no roots!)
And of course this is why we are here in Shetland this summer – because some seventy years ago my father was sent to serve in the Shetland circuit. He knew that he would only be here for a couple of years or so (common for new ministers then) and that he would be expected to move on. He was responsible for at least three chapels whilst he was in Shetland, North Roe, where we lived, Vidlin and Gonforth. He had a bike and also used the local van/taxi service to get to services.
Most of the chapels in Shetland are small, holding perhaps thirty people, only a few now have weekly Sunday services, some now share their services with local Church of Scotland churches and, with just two ministers on the islands, many of the services are taken by local preachers.
Some of the chapels like this one at East Yell are very isolated and the congregation now gathers by car. In my father’s day people would walk over the hills, often some miles, when they heard the bell ring and saw the lamp lit in the chapel.
During our time here we have attended service at North Roe a number of times. The congregation is small – in fact on occasions when we have taken our visitors with us we have effectively doubled the congregation! The services are lively with singing led by guitar and keyboard, the sermons are interactive and always followed by tea and biscuits or cakes. At the beginning of the summer school holidays a playscheme was held in the chapel for about twelve children from the little, local school and their art work now covers the walls. There have been changes to the inside in the past few years and the more traditional pews and pulpit shown below have been removed and replaced with comfortable chairs and lighter furniture and a toilet and kitchen have been installed (the chapel is always open for visitors to use the facilities, have a cuppa and a rest). (Photos to follow!)
We have also attended Vidlin Chapel, a delightful, tiny chapel on the waterside. When we visited here in 2009 one of the elderly ladies remembered my father – she was a teenager in the late forties!
Whilst the congregations in these remote chapels are small, the welcome and fellowship is great and worship is lively and outward looking. Buildings are in good repair and have been recently improved – there is a sense of the present and future rather than a desire to preserve the past. Throughout Shetland there seems to be an emphasis on helping small communities to flourish, local primary schools have been retained, roads improved and community shops and halls meet local needs. Where there are Methodist chapels they are playing their part. And as Methodist churches and ministers are organised in circuits, these small chapels can support each other, organise activities which bring people from across the islands together and experience a variety of ‘itinerant’ ministers and local preachers. I think my dad would be very happy to see Methodism still in action in Shetland seventy years on.