"You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory." So Steinbeck tells us towards the end of Travels with Charley when he relates the feelings of a late middle-aged man revisiting the haunts of his youth. It's a commonplace observation but no less striking for that. I certainly felt something akin to it when I noticed the other day that the nonconformist church my family attended while I was growing up is to be auctioned off.
The origins of the congregation go back to 1813 but the church building itself only to 1926. For the last 20 years the building has apparently been shared with a, presumably more vigorous, evangelical church and a local playgroup. When I knew it, in the 1970s, Sunday morning service would easily attract 80 or 90 congregants, even more on a good day, and at Christmas it was packed to the gunwales. The congregation has now merged with another a few miles away and, I read, the joint congregation of the new church is 30. That's institutional secularization for you: Bryan Wilson 1, David Martin 0.
We were not a particularly religious family, or at least religion didn't play much of a role in our everyday lives, but church on Sunday morning was a fixed part of the weekly family ritual. I suppose that theologically a watered down Calvinism was what we were supposed to believe in, but I would have been hard pressed at any time to list any elements of church doctrine beyond a vague identification with the brotherhood of man, a do as you would be done by approach to behaviour and a very uncalvinistic belief in the desirability of good works. In a way the church was as much defined by what it did not go in for rather than what it did. 'Enthusiasm' was definitely out as was any form of ritual beyond the bare minimum that was necessary to get through the monthly communion service. Sermons were definitely in and if delivered by the right person looked forward to. What was also in were a large number of essentially social activities.
When I think back on it a very large part of my adolescent week was spent either on the church premises or doing things connected with it. Youth club on Wednesday, Boy's Brigade on Friday, collecting newspapers for recycling on Saturday morning, playing football on Saturday afternoons and then church on Sunday morning where, even if the service was dull, there would be girls! And it didn't stop there. Every Summer my father and I climbed up on the roof and cleaned the gutters and I've lost count of the number of times we repaired and painted various bits of the premises.
Nonconformist churches only exist if the community organizes and finds leadership capacity in itself. In class terms our congregation was upper-working and lower middle-class which pretty much reflected the social demography of the area. Clerks, primary school teachers, shop-keepers, people with a small business run from a shed in the back-garden, these were the mainstay and among them there were more than enough capable people to create and sustain a living, breathing community focused on the church building.
I now realise that what I got from it all was a poor man's version of the extra-curricular experiences that the privately educated got at their expensive public schools: soccer, cricket, badminton, table tennis, hiking, camping, playing music, marching around in a uniform, community service, learning to get on with people and, of course, chapel on Sunday. All organized at one easy to get to place. The costs in terms of having to believe or even do anything in particular were so minimal that the slide into agnosticism and atheism was easy. As Bryan Wilson pointed out, nonconformity itself is one of the staging posts of secularization.
And now the physical focus of all these memories is about to disappear. We've all moved on and can't go back. Again Steinbeck catches the mood: "What I am mourning is perhaps not worth saving, but I regret its loss nevertheless."