Monday, January 30, 2017
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.