‘I am with you always’: 150 years of Putney Methodist Church

This is the sermon I preached today (15th November, 2020) at Putney Methodist Church on the occasion of their 150th anniversary.

Introduction

Under normal circumstances, today would have been the Sunday on which we celebrated Putney Methodist Church’s 150th anniversary. We were hoping to hold a special Circuit celebration service, with an invited preacher and lots of musical contributions. This would have completed a year of celebratory events, including concerts and an exhibition. Sadly, however, the Coronavirus had other ideas! Instead, this is the sermon I preached at our much-reduced Zoom service today, although I hope it still caught the joy of our celebrations. You can read more about the church’s history on the website here and the special ‘Putney 1870’ exhibition that we still have planned. The texts were Psalm 84 and Matthew 28:16-20:

Matthew 28:16-20 (The Commissioning of the Disciples)

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Sermon

Church anniversaries are times to observe traditions and a 150th anniversary even more so. So, faithful church members will be deeply unsurprised that I wish to make three brief points in my sermon today, as we rejoice at this historic milestone!

1. Built with faith

First, we give thanks for those who worked so hard to open the first building on site back in 1870 with such great faith. Now to say our chapel was built with faith is to say something that is true of all churches. All churches were ultimately inspired by those compelling words from the end of Matthew’s gospel, the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations”. I believe it is especially true in the case of the Putney pioneers, though, for several reasons.

This church building (more precisely the chapel that first stood on this site) began its life in 1870: a dual-purpose school room and chapel. The manse in which I live is situated a few hundred yards from where I am now standing but that was not built until 1905. That is because when the chapel was first built, Putney was a very different place to the thriving community it is today and most of the area surrounding the church was still covered by market gardens, supplying London with fruit and vegetables. Yet, George Tidmarsh, a class leader who lived nearby, and others had the vision that a church would be needed here and so instigated the purchase of this land and the building of the school rooms and chapel, with help from other local Methodist chapels.

More shockingly than the lack of a large community to serve when the doors opened, was the apparent lack of a congregation. George led a class of TEN members when he had the vision for the church! Yet not only did they secure land to build a church but they secured a plot big enough to build the biggest church that has ever been built in all Putney’s very long history! And they did build it: just 12 years later in 1882, the one we know today. One reason for this boldness was because of a very generous grant that was on offer at the time. In the 1860s, Sir William Lycett (whose name appears on a memorial stone outside) offered ten churches in London a gift of £1,000 each, if they built chapels capable of seating a 1,000 people. By the 1870s, the congregation had nearly soared to a heady FIFTY members (talk about your Victorian mega-church!) and was still without a minister. But still they built a chapel for a 1,000 (allegedly 352 upstairs and 600 downstairs) and they got their grant.

The way we have used these buildings has changed dramatically over the century and half since they were built, reflecting our changing needs and those of our community. But we all continue to benefit enormously from that incredible act of faith by our predecessors in this place, who stepped out boldly not really knowing what the future would held for them, their church or their world. Even then, our church history records that two of the stewards who worked tirelessly on this scheme had to move away before the project started – an early indication of the transitory nature of Putney’s population, which we still see today – and George Tidmarsh, sadly died just before this grand church was finally opened in 1882.

Yet even though they never benefitted from, or experienced, the fruits of their hard work, they built and laboured in faith to continue the mission of God in this place. As we pray and plan for the future, we need to recall that example now, even when we cannot imagine where our work may eventually lead us. We need their “spirit of boldness” (2 Timothy 1:7), to take risks for the good of others and, most importantly, we too must always step forward boldly in faith.

2. Endured challenge

The Thames frozen at Putney, 1870

Second, we remember the challenges that this church and its members have experienced over the last 150 years, and how the work of God somehow continued. Sadly, our history records the usual number of church scandals, fights and bust-ups! Most infamous was the case of one of our first ministers here, who became involved with a celebrated murder trial, when a married woman with whom he was having an affair was put on trial for poisoning her husband. (The so-called Pimlico Poisoning Mystery.)

More seriously, last week we recalled those who went forth from this church to fight in war and never returned, especially from the First World War. I often note with personal poignancy how the first name on our memorial, Thomas Austin, was the son of the minister at the time of the war, Rev’d Beesly Austin.

Perhaps the most serious incident in the history of our church, though, came on the morning of Sunday, 18th June, 1944, at about this time of day. It was then that a V1 flying bomb landed directly opposite the church, by the railway bridge. It destroyed all the surrounding housing and left many dead and injured. The church itself was immediately used as a clearing station, but was itself rendered unusable for another eight years. Our building still bears the scars of that attack, with shrapnel damage to the north wall, and a dodgy roof. (The blast apparently lifted the whole roof up and down and it now sits a few inches lower than originally planned, causing ongoing problems with the gutters!) Yet, the church was rebuilt and its mission and life somehow continued.

As we today endure another time when the vast majority of us are unable to meet in this building, we remember the endurance and courage of those who have gone before us. We recall how they suffered setbacks and calamities, both personal and corporate. We give thanks for their faithful witness in times of trouble, and their perseverance. As we struggle today, so they struggled too. Yet somehow, they clung to their faith and the ultimate example of Jesus, who accompanies us in every season and in all times. I pray that we may draw comfort from their example to journey on with God, especially at this time of stress and challenge for us all. As the psalmist writes: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield”. (Ps. 84:11)

A photo from a production of ‘Noyes Fludde’ earlier this year, showing the roof.

3. Accepted change

Finally, we rejoice that those who have served this church so faithfully, have not only witnessed to the great traditions of the Christian faith but also embraced change. One of pleasures being minister of this building, is to enjoy the intake of breath that people invariably make when they first visit it. Be it the plumber, gas man or a casual visitor, they will almost always look up and around and say what a beautiful building we have, not least the stunning wooden beams and ceiling over our heads. In large part, this was the result of the huge re-ordering of the church that took place in 1993: a bold and visionary change that resulted in the light, flexible space we enjoy today. That change was not without its cost or difficulties. Our Church Council Secretary always threatens to show me the thick binders of the minutes from those days! Pages of records that reflect the lengthy and often difficult discussions that preceded the work, not least over the removal of the pipe organ. Yet eventually the change was accepted and it brought tremendous results.

That is, of course, not the only change that these walls have seen. Above our doors, as we enter the sanctuary, you can see a host of flags. These represent the enormous geographical diversity of our congregation, both permanent and visiting, which in turn reflects the wider changes our capital city has seen over the last 150 years. These changes have not always been easy, as the Black Lives Matter protest has recently so vividly reminded us. There is much to regret about how people were welcomed, or more importantly not welcomed, at this and other churches over the years, and much for which to seek forgiveness. Now, though, we can rejoice that our congregation represents something of the enormous breadth and diversity of God’s creation, and is so much better as a result of that change.

In all of this, I take great comfort from a predecessor of mine as minister of this church, Rev’d George Farmer. In his history of the church, written for its centenary in 1970, he wrote: “The study of history cures us of a morbid dread of change … [and illustrates that] if there were no change there would be no history, and that all change is wrought by our unchanging God.” To that I say a resounding ‘Amen’.

The new lectern frontal that one of our members designed and made for our Church Anniversary

The community and world we serve now seems light years away from that of 1870, when our doors first opened. There has been so much change, so much tragedy, and so much joy. Our nation today is crippled by a pandemic that will undoubtedly change us forever – for better or worse – and whose grip seems to know no end. Yet, if this anniversary teaches us anything, let it be this. That those words of Jesus, delivered to his disciples 2,000 years ago on a hillside in Palestine ring as true today as they did then: “remember, I am with you always”. As we look back with thankfulness, let us look forward with hope and faith, knowing that whatever the future holds, Christ will always walk beside us, every step of the way.

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