Farewell to Gammaton - A sermon for closing of Gammaton Methodist Church based on Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 and Matthew 17: 1-9
Today we come together to share in the end of the Methodist work in this chapel. We do so with some real sorrow for here is a place with a long Methodist history.
Methodism in these parts goes back some 200 years - first with services taking place at the home of a Mr Beailey at Brownscombe before being based in a cottage just below where we gather this afternoon. When the numbers became to large for that location they moved to a nearby barn before taking the decision in 1835 to build a chapel on this site. We do not know when the foundation stone was laid or indeed when the chapel was opened. But we need not trouble ourselves for the Church Council in a moment of great insight chose to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary in 1989. So rightly or wrongly we date this chapel back to 1839.
That is indeed a long history. But more importantly it is a history in which we can take great pride. Back in 1900 The Bideford Wesleyan Circuit magazine told of Gammaton's "loyal and generous support of connexional and circuit funds giving it a place among the first of our village centres" whilst also observing that "its public teas and accompanying meetings have for long made it a centre of attraction to many outside the membership of the Methodist Church." Well in a few minutes we will enjoy the last of those teas and I guess more than a few of you faced with that propspect will be murmuring under your breath, "Get on with it!" and that such murmuring might be a little louder if the hint is not taken.
Indeed Gammaton has also hosted a society with a strong musical tradition to which its hymns have been sung. The records tell us of flutes and clarionettes and great musical events. And then of the arrival of the harmonium an instrument first played by a Miss Chamings.
But more than that Gammaton has been a gathering of people of faith. A number of remarkable characters have contrinuted to the spiritual life of this place. Sometimes such people have been a bit on the vocal side such a Grace Scott who if she approved of the direction of the service would start clapping her hands and exclaiming, "Praise the Lord!" Or a Mrs Sanders from Woodville who clearly with a touch of the Billy Brays, when prior to a class meeting remembering that she had left her best shoes near the fiure to warm them up. discovered that one of them was badly burnt, rather than blaming herself for carelessness, cried out, " Never mind, Mr Devil, you shall not keep me fromclass; I shall wear my old ones!"
Yet it is steafast faith that has been a hallmark of the people called Methodists who have met here. Children have been educated in the faith and adults have been built up in a faith that has enabled them to live victoriously. Indeed when I faced the District Probationer's Committee for examination as to whether I should be recommended for ordination, my interrogation was led by a former meber of this church, Rev Linda Barriball - and believe you me the experience cost me a good few pounds in weight!
That was then and now is now! But I would like to say at this point that the small faithful band whom I have got to know here are very much the equal of their ancestors from the past. This has remained a place of real faith, fine hospitality and a proud musical tradition - the number may have been few especially after the deaths in the past 18 months of Bob and Jean Bellew and indeed Elsie Bellew not so long before but I can tell you that there has never been any question about wholehearted singing of hymns in this place.
And yet today we prepare to move out from this place. The preacher in Ecclesiates talks about there being a time for seemingly contradictory activities. And in those words are great wisdom. In 1835 it was a time to build on this site. Today it is a time to move on. Why? Because the needs have changed. The demographics of this area are not what they once were. Patterns of transportation are also not what they once were. And so as a a society we have been faced with a quest to find out what is most in the interests of God's church and ultimately God's kingdom for us to do. Oh yes, as Bob Dylan put it so prohetically, "The times, they are a changin." And we know that in changing times the church can never stand still.
This afternoon our gospel reading took us back to that strange story of the transfiguration of Jesus. Matthew tells us of how the disciples were astounded at what they saw. Peter was tempted to hold onto the moment. That is why he suggested that he along with James and John should build shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He was as we so often are, tempted to hold on to the wondrous experience. But that is not how the story ends. For a voice from heaven tells them to listen to Jesus. And of course listening to Jesus means that soon they will be going back to a world of disbelief and conflict.
We can so easily fall into the trap of equating the calling of God to a place that is precious to us. You know the sort of thing where place and God become intertwined. I don't mean to suggest that we should not have deep feelings for the places where we have experienced the holy. I feel a sense of sorrow whenever I drive pass the church where I was confirmed and find it is a church no more. But we need to grasp the urgency of God's kingdom, the kingdom that is at the heart of the teachings of Jesus, and this means recognising that the shape of the church which points to this kingdom is forever changing according to the needs of the time.
As we prepare to move on from this church, we go knowing that we will continue to meet with God in other places. And to those other places, members of Gammaton you have much to contribute. for in the past four years I have seen in this place great faithfulness to the gospel. I have seen great sensitivity to the needs of society. I have seen great gifts of hospitality. I have seen a great desire to engage in meaningful worship. And I have seen what it is to live as a closely knit community. In a way what is happening today is not so much the end of Gammaton but an invitation to take Gammaton to other places of faith.
Here in this sanctuary for over 170 years there has been a great story of faith. Today we thank God for it. And we bring it to a conclusion that is certainly not one of despair or defeat. Gammaton has journeyed in faith. It mission has been completed. Now let all that is good about Gammaton be shared with other church in this area to God's praise and glory.