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Calderdale Methodist Circuit : Clifford Lees Reminisces (Part 2)

Heptonstall church

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PULPIT

Part 2

Reminiscences of Clifford Lees from his 60 years as a local preacher

Photo of Clifford

Fresh Expressions

Local Preachers are required to attend the Quarterly Preacher’s Meeting. In the 1950’s it was quite formal. The Ministers and the Secretary sat on a dais in the meeting room at St John’s, the Circuit chapel, (now demolished, behind the old Clare Hall School). All the Circuit Meetings of any kind were held there – autocratic but simple to follow. (Indeed when Methodism had a Halifax and Huddersfield District, all the District Committees met at Elland Wesley – then my home Church.) The elevated ministers and secretary sat facing and looking down on the body of local preachers. The ministers had their proper places too: the Super in the centre and then the other ministers in descending order from one side: second man, third man, fourth man, all arranged like the slips with the Super as wicket keeper. Yes I know, but they were all men then.

Business could be done quickly, especially if the Super was following closely in the steps of Jabez Bunting, and one of our local preachers then had a grandfather of that illustrious name. I will never forget my “oral examination”. I had to give an account of my Christian experience and call to preach, both a bit eccentric. I had done pretty well in my written examinations so the Super said he would not examine me orally on the Bible, Christian Doctrine, and Wesley’s Sermons. Good. Then he said “Have you been baptised?” I thought this was purely formal so I said “Yes” – or perhaps more likely “Yes, Sir”. “What happened to you in your baptism?” Now it so happened my mother had told me exactly what happened in my baptism, I screamed throughout the proceedings. The minister, an old man, so probably the Super, shouted,  “You can make a lot of noise young man but I reckon I can beat you yet”. The purpose of the question “What happened to you, etc” was to sound out my views on baptismal regeneration. The Super must have been a genius; there was no part of the theological spectrum I knew less about than baptism. You will remember I could not hear what the minister who officiated was saying!

I have read what our “Christian Doctrine” text book had to say about the modern protestant views of the significance of baptism, but I am sure I did not attempt to learn any of it by heart. But an analysis – 60 years later – tells me that of the five points;-
1. “A Declaration that the child is already Christ’s” I probably regarded as so self evident I forgot to mention it.
2. & 3. I hit these just about spot on as they were a narrative of what was supposed to happen if only we could have heard what the minister said.
4. “Many hold the Calvinistic view...” I had obviously ignored this because I thought Calvinists were predestinarians and we were Arminians. (For all, for all my Saviour died. H&P 226)
5. What the child could think about his / her baptism in later years. I think I forgot this altogether.

So I said something not very coherent; but it probably sounded more United Methodist than Wesleyan.

The third man (not Harry Lime) was on his feet immediately. He was the minister at Hipperholme, always the “high” point of the Circuit, they even had a preaching gown. “Mr Super, Mr Lees’ answer was quite inadequate; Methodism is a sacramental denomination”. Oh Heck, what am I to say now?! But old Mr Robertshaw was expounding a theology of baptism more “low” than mine. In a trice several other preachers came in with their views – so I sat down and left them to it. A casual observer might have given me the unjustified credit for playing the “Paul before the Sanhedrin” defence. Anyway it left me with no unchallenged threat and that let me into elevation to “fully accredited”. And you thought Local Preachers’ studies would be boring.

At some Local Preachers’ meetings someone would be asked to present a paper for discussion. Guess what? About 1956 or 1957 I was permitted to read a paper, typed on one side of a single sheet, and entitled “An evening service in 1964”. We must bear in mind that evening congregations were still generally larger than morning congregations. The idea was simple: every Methodist Church would have a screen and some kind of connection to a central studio, doubtless situated in the crypt of Westminster Central Hall. Each Sunday evening all Methodist Churches would simultaneously receive the same service with some giant of a preacher. Over half the preachers would be required for the morning services, to maintain some localised input. The discussion was short and direct. Rev Cyril Perry suggested I send it to the Methodist Recorder, which I did but nothing happened, but thought my timetable was too short, so I should amend the title to 1984. Think about that.

The Versatile Preacher

I cannot verify the date of this service; it was sometime in December after Wall Nook had changed from gas lighting to electricity. Wow! I might have had the use of a firm’s car by now. There was no street lighting in Upper Greetland, so on dark Sunday evenings canny members of the congregation would carry torches to avoid ditches and other obstacles.

The Church was in darkness. “The fuse has gone”. Evidently this was not unusual. The options were explained with a confidence which confirmed my impression that they had met this problem before. “We cannot repair the fuse”. The congregation was entirely female, most, but not all, elderly. “We think we can manage with our torches”. One would have to be handed to me and I could share it with the organist since I should not be speaking when the organ was playing. They had probably worked out a system whereby they could arrange themselves so that the beams from two torches shone horizontally could be made to illuminate all ten books for the congregation. Never underestimate the ingenuity of a rural congregation. The alternative was if I could repair the fuse. I opted to try the repair job. Two of them brought out a massive step ladder and rested it somehow in a staircase, the fuse box being high on one side of the staircase. I balanced myself precariously near the top of the ladder. There were no push-in fuses then but thank goodness they had left some fuse wire in the fuse box. Eventually I made an effective fuse – I hadn’t got an Ordinary National in Electrical Engineering for nothing – and all was light.

The second hymn in the service was MHB 139:-
“The race that long in darkness pined,
Has seen a glorious light”

No one smiled – honest.

The versatile singers

I have a vivid recollection of the service, but try as I might, I cannot now find the hymn – it must have been in the MHB. I gave the list of hymns to the organist and pointed out that we did not know the tune to this particular hymn. He looked at the words: “Oh that’s alright; we will sing it to SAGINA”. I never argue with the organist – antagonise him / her and they can wreck your service – so I just said “Well, OK then”.

The hymn was a consummate disaster. I could not describe it in musical terms but the congregation fought valiantly to the end. It was almost certainly by Charles Wesley, the last two lines (give or take a syllable or two) were:
And tell me if I ever knew
Thy sanctifying grace.

Now think of the last line of the tune; we fitted it together like this.

And tellmeif; I ever knew
Thy sancti - fy – I – I – I – ing grace

As we sat down, half the congregation were in tears, the other half were desperately struggling not to roll off their pews with laughter. A situation like this is actually a crisis for the preacher: to attempt to go on with say a Bible reading or prayers would be a disaster. So I said “Well I’m sure Charles Wesley would have been surprised to hear how we syncopated that one”. Uproarious laughter, but the tension was gone and we could all move on in the service. It occurs to me that Charles Wesley would never have heard SAGINA.

Bringing the Roof Down

I was only ever allowed to preach at St John’s two or three times – only once during my “On Trial” two years. The last time I was part way through the sermon, when there was an horrendous roar through the church. I saw the steward dashing out so I asked the nervous congregation to wait. Back came the steward to the pulpit with tremendous news. “It’s all right, some tiles have slid off the roof – but it doesn’t matter”.

Catch up with Part 1.

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