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COMMENTARY: British monikers—and Methodists who love them Kathleen LaCamera, May 14, 2009
By Kathleen LaCamera Special Contributor
Britain is full of riches for those of us who love interesting place names. On my way to interview a church-growth guru last week, I passed through the village of Pot Shrigley near my home in the northwest of England. It’s just down the road from Wincle. Driving along, I couldn’t help but wonder what it’s like to grow up in a town with a name that sounds like it belongs in a nursery rhyme.
As an American living in Britain, I have real affection for a country where people actually live and worship in villages with names Bishops Ichington, Spital-in-the-Street, Lickey End and Burpham (sure to make any group of 8-year-old boys shriek with delight).
Ham, Rye, Cheddar, Salt and Sandwich? These are the names of properly lived-in places as well as items found on a lunch menu. Coming across Droop on England’s south coast, Splott in Wales and Splatt in the county of Cornwall recently, I felt the time had come to search out more about some of these intriguing spots. So I turned to the British Methodist Church.
British Methodists make up only 267,000 out of the United Kingdom’s 60 million people. However, having observed first hand how well Methodists get around on a number of different continents, I felt sure there were local Methodists who could help me. Armed with a national Methodist directory, the Internet and my phone, I began my search.
Several calls later, I had found my way to Cornish farmer, lifelong Methodist and local preacher Peter Parsons. Mr. Parsons knew all about Splatt. He explained that the word “splatt” actually refers to “a cultivated piece of land”; in other words, a place where people did farming.
A lifelong member of the Rehoboth Methodist Chapel near Splatt, Mr. Parsons also told me about local Methodist traditions from the days of his childhood, including the chapel’s regular “Sing Along at Seven Sankey” evenings which were always followed by a shared church supper. Mr. Parsons also shared the memory of getting a good “telling off” from his parents after he fell over a cow pat wearing his “good clothes” while playing in a field next to the church.
Looking back over nearly two centuries of rich Methodist life here, Mr. Parsons said even though the congregation is now small and aging, the chapel’s walls are still “soaked with prayer, preaching and praise.”
In another part of Cornwall, I found the Rev. Julyan Andrews, pastor of Mousehold Methodist Chapel. During a phone chat with me, he described how the chapel has been a part of life in the harbor village of Mousehole (pronounced “Mouzel”) since the 1700s. John Wesley himself preached here in 1766.
He also explained how each spring Mousehole Methodists take part in the ancient liturgical tradition of Rogation Sunday, by transforming their sanctuary into a boat.
“Our pulpit becomes the bow of a ship and all around the gallery there are flags and pennants from different boats,” said Mr. Andrews.
Rogation Sunday marks the time when Christians traditionally offer prayers for the protection of “crops, beasts and people.” Being a community whose livelihood depends on the sea, Mousehole Methodists naturally pray for all things seafaring.
Of course, I eventually had to ask why a fishing village, often dubbed ‘the prettiest village in Cornwall, is called Mousehole.
“No one seems to know,” said Mr. Andrews. “But I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with mice.”
Unfortunately, I was unable to contact any Methodists in the villages of Chew Magna or Yatton Keynell or Pontefract as I’d hoped. But I did manage to chat to one in the Yorkshire village of Wetwang in the north of England. He is Chris Whitfield, 67 years a member of St. Paul’s Methodist Chapel in Wetwang.
Mr. Whitfield told me that Wetwang is a Scandinavian word meaning “witness field” that also dates back to Viking times. Wetwang was the place where people went to court to settle disputes.
Methodists have been a part of the life of Wetwang since the early 1800s. Over the years farm families, like Mr. Whitfield’s, have made up the majority of church members until very recently. He also told me that former German prisoners of war also attended the Methodist chapel after the end of World War II. The captured soldiers had been put to work in the fields around Wetwang during the war. One of those German soldiers became a lifelong friend to Mr. Whitfield and continued to visit Wetwang until his death five years ago.
Bucking the national trend, this Methodist congregation has grown over 25 percent in the last few years. It’s increased its membership from 11 to 15.
I concluded my search (for the moment) in Gravesend located almost due east of London, along the River Thames. The American Indian princess, Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhatan, was buried in Gravesend after her death during a sea voyage with her colonist husband, James Rolfe. Methodists have been worshiping in Gravesend from at least as far back as 1771, when records show that John Wesley preached here.
The Rev. Andrew Lindley told me that modern-day Gravesend is the place from which all traffic on the Thames River is controlled. Aware that people from many different cultures and backgrounds pass through their town, Mr. Lindley said that the congregation of Gravesend Methodist Church is “keen” to meet the diverse needs of their community. The church provides support to refugees, community counseling services and most recently, a street pastor ministry set up in partnership with local Baptists. The 200-member church also has hosted two American United Methodist ministers in pulpit exchanges over the years.
Once again it seems the exact origins of the town’s name aren’t easy to pin down. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names says Gravesend or Gravesham, as it was first called, could mean a place “at the end of the grove.”
But it’s probably not a surprise to learn that no one, not even local Methodists, actually knows for sure.
The Rev. LaCamera is an ordained United Methodist minister working as a journalist and hospital chaplain in Manchester, England. www.kathleenlacamera.com.