Today at 2:30pm, a faithful congregation of some five souls will gather at Keenley Methodist Chapel, keeping the tradition and the faith alive in the deep countryside. Services are every fortnight — today Rev’d Alex Dunstan leads the service of Holy Communion — and are held in the afternoons during the winter, but at 6:00pm in the summertime.
The only older Methodist church, Orphan House in Newcastle, was built in 1743, but demolished in 1856, and so Keenley, built in 1750, rebuilt in 1875 and still standing, lays its claim to being the longest continually serving Methodist Chapel site in the world.
Quite how, or why, a little collection of farm houses out in Keenleyside should have become a hotbed of Methodism, is not entirely clear. Notes from the explanatory story board on the chapel, and the Tynedale Methodist Circuit, help to explain. Certainly John Wesley (1704-1791), who with his brother Charles were considered the founders of Methodism (and clearly the main proselytisers for the faith) stayed at Hindley Hill Farm for a year or so as his base for his travelling evangelism, and he preached under a large sycamore tree nearby, so it must have made sense to build a chapel there. Indeed, although much of John Wesley’s preaching was done outside under the sky, probably people got fed up with standing around in the rain!
And thereafter the village/town of Allendale and the hamlets throughout all of the Allen Valleys were ripe for Methodism, as the first wave of chapel building was succeeded some 13 years later by a second wave of ‘Primitive’ Methodist chapels (to reach the people lower on the social ladder — language then was apparently less sensitive to sensibilities than it is today). More than 20 such chapels soon dotted these valleys. The Methodists listened carefully to John Wesley’s sermons about the ills of society, and helped to create the circumstances for prison reform, the abolition of slavery, and even temperance. At the time of his death, John Wesley was known as ‘the best loved man in England’.
Many of the Methodist chapels throughout these valleys are subsumed now into private dwellings, as the numbers of practising Methodists have dwindled. I remember when the Ropehaugh chapel was deconsecrated and sold, and the Sparty Lea chapel is used only occasionally for worship these days (and is no longer deemed fit even as a polling station). Some of the smaller Primitive Methodist chapels, though, have fallen by the wayside into disrepair and ruin.
I suspect that even if services were eventually to cease at Keenley, the Methodist Heritage charity would ensure that the building remained for posterity, though Methodists are not known for sentimentality, but rather for practical approaches to changing social perspectives. Still, coming up to three centuries of service, as it would be by 2050, I can’t think the little chapel would be allowed to fall into desuetude. But for now, it’s kind of sweet, isn’t it, that regular services are still held there. “For where two or three are gathered together . . . “