Monday, January 30, 2017


Wesley’s room

In response to my previous post about the chapel in Devizes, a reader asked me what were the essential requirements of a nonconformist chapel as opposed to, say, an Anglican place of worship? It’s a good question, and made me reflect that in more than nine years of blogging about English buildings I’d not once posted a photograph of a chapel interior. So here’s the interior of John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol, built by Wesley in 1739 and therefore the oldest Methodist chapel in the world. It has been altered and enlarged since then, but retains its essential features.*

The photograph shows some of the key things about this kind of interior. It’s very plain – there are no statues or painted images, because the emphasis is on the Word, as represented by reading the Bible and preaching sermons. So there’s a large and prominent pulpit – here a double-decker design with a built-in reading desk, typical of the 18th century – and this piece of furniture is the focal point of the space. There’s correspondingly less emphasis on the sacraments, so this building does not have a chancel with an altar, or on elaborate ritual, so this not a processional space. The pews are packed in, with balconies as well as seating on the ground floor, so that as many people as possible can attend and hear the preacher. The space is well lit, here by a glazed dome, so that people can read their Bibles and hymn books. And the rectangular space, not too far from the “shoe-box” proportions of the ideal concert hall, probably makes for good, clear acoustics.

The New Room is a particularly fine interior – it was built by the founder of Methodism after all – but the general pattern is typical of Methodist chapels generally, and of the chapels of other nonconformist groups, although they may also have special requirements such as the large fonts for total immersion used by the Baptist church. With simplicity at the heart of the design, nonconformist buildings can be somewhat spartan, but they can also be magnificent in their proportions and are usually highly functional. They deserve the notice of believers and non-believers alike.†

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* There’s more about the history of the New Room here.

† I hope people will take more notice of them when Christopher Wakeling’s long-awaited book Chapels of England is published later this year.


Trevor McClintock said...

Very nice place and very good job

Unknown said...

There is a very fine Unitarian meeting house in Bury St Edmunds.

bazza said...

I wonder what Wesley would have made of Central Hall, Westminster, built to commemorate the anniversary of his death!
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Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Methodist churches do come in all shapes and sizes! If you like austerity and woodwork, the New Room is excellent, but you can also feel that the austerity and plainness have become a bit of a cult in themselves. You can hardly argue a fundamental rift in theology between some of the more Gothic confections and e.g. the Bible Christian houses of worship in Cornwall. The latter just seem to have got into a pattern of trying to appeal to those who like everything as nakedly plain as possible. Some of the more voluptuously literary Bible passages and poetry must have provided a marked contrast to the atmosphere in which they were proclaimed ("Gold is mine, and silver is mine, says the Lord").

The term "Nonconformist", of course, has a limited geographical application: some of the large Presbyterian churches in Northern Ireland start giving out a confusing message, because we expect non-Anglican churches to be respectful and conform to one of the patterns we are used to. A camera in, say, Newtownards Road in Belfast might produce some interesting thoughts and reactions.

David Gouldstone said...

The problem with non-conformist chapels, in my experience, is that they're almost always locked.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all for these comments.

Joseph: One should indeed guard against pigeonholing! I have come across people in Central Europe who think that the Church of England, being not Roman Catholic, must therefore be Protestant and exist in some sort of Calvinist image-starved state. If few other churches are as broad, many embrace differences!

David: Yes, chapels often seem to be locked. I wish more were open.