ponsongath chapel interior


Losing their Religion?

I'm one of those who thinks that scientific evidence is the way to find the truth. When it comes to religion, there's no evidence that God exists, faith and belief doesn't make it true; to be honest, I'm uncomfortable with the concept of worshipping an amorphous deity. I'm not a rabid atheist, I simply see religious conviction as, at best, opinion, and at worse, dogma, nothing more or less than that. So it's perverse that when I hear about little chapels, similar to the one in the hamlet of Ponsongath, where we lived for many years, not having a guaranteed future if membership declines, that I feel surprisingly sad.
ponsongath chapel in the past Chapel Sunday school chapel exterior in a rare snowfall The Little Ship The Chapel interior as it is today

It's a Methodist chapel and almost two hundred years old; it's built on a grassy slope, dense with wild cyclamen, primroses and forget-me-not at this time of year and is bordered by a stream, fed from springs rising out on the downs, The stream tunnels under a bridge and along the edge of the garden, carving out a valley that eventually reaches the sea. This was my boys' playground. It's where they learnt about nature. Their boots, full of water from adventuring up and down stream, constructing dams, catching newts and frogs, bringing home eggs and wild flowers and making camps on the river bank. If the chapel were to close, where will the echoes of decades of children's laughter resonate and who were the families before mine, that the chapel meant so much to in more God fearing times?

With the help of parish records, I found that Ponsongath had six houses in 1841 with a population of around 130, including the surrounding farmsteads at Gwenter, Poldowrian and Arrowan. I discovered a vibrant community; thatchers, farmers, fishermen, a miller, two cordwainers.... shoemakers to you and me, and a pauper. Today, even taking into account the in-fill of ubiquitous '70s bungalows, the population is about twenty, a mix of in-comers and descendants from some of the original families. The congregation would have filled the chapel to bursting as there was a Sunday School as early as 1833, with over 150 christenings in the mid 1800s. I can only imagine this remote, rural community being so resonant with life; its legacy, sadly, nothing more than a sleepy hamlet of mostly retired folk and couple of holiday lets.

I wondered why the folk of Ponsongath warranted having their own place of worship and rummaging through the archives, I read that those good souls worshipped a religion quite different from any I have previously encountered. Don't worry, they didn't practise black arts or anything weird.... if they did, they kept quiet about it, although it may have its innate spirituality from an older time. The chapel was built in 1829 and the minister wrote ' a newly built chapel by united efforts of preachers and people. Friends in the neighbourhood are generally poor but it was begun in hope, carried on in faith and finished in charity'. The original walls were stone and cob, with a thatched roof and the floor lime and sand. However, earlier, in 1824, an Alice Rule, from Arrowan, open her home for worship. Alice, nee Harris, was a local girl, married William Rule, had ten children and was a Bible Christian.

I hadn't heard of Bible Christians. Research revealed that they were a breakaway evangelical denomination of mainstream Weslyan Methodists. In 1815, the year Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, William O'Bryan from Luxulyan, a radical evangelist, began the Bible Christian church in a farmhouse in Shebbear. He wasn't permitted to preach in the Methodist church due to his 'indiscipline' and irregularity' , he went beyond the boundary of his circuit into the wild wasteland of Cornwall, preaching in fields, on village greens and in his followers' homes. What amazed me, is that he encouraged women as equals, including his wife, to address the congregation directly. He would have known that the scriptures had no place for woman as preachers, but he felt God blessed this and his wife, Catherine, became his first female preacher. It's understandable that he annoyed traditionalists as this quote from Corinthians is a tenet frequently used to replace reason, "As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church'....mmm. no comment.!

Of course, this didn't last, as the years rolled under the restraints of the Victorian era, emancipated thought was throttled... women in an assertive position of power and influence ...tut, tut... scandalous... but I will hazard the musings of a lifelong pantheist. Contemplate the sacred feminine of Celtic spirituality. William O'Bryan was a Cornishman from Irish descent, who was taught to pray by his mother - maybe, suggesting the influence of the priestess as the keeper of custom and belief? Perhaps there was some vestige of pagan spiritualism shading his Christian beliefs. Living in remote places, close to the pulses of the natural year, age old traditions associated with birth, death and healing are compatible with the feminine wisdom of women who were revered and not feared.

O'Bryan's converts, known as Free Willers and Shining Lights, found fertile ground amongst country people seeking salvation. My impression is that the movement was hugely successful; it provided more than redemption and brought communities together for fun and games and a lively break from the drudgery of a hard life. The Bible Christian Tea Treat, as a celebration of a summer feast day, still lingers on in Ponsongath with a 5 a-side football match and BBQ. Coverack had two small chapels, one of which had a congregation of over 60 and is now a pretty, thatched cottage; a holiday home, called the Little Ship. The class register noted that there were 'backsliders and wanderers' who were removed from the list and if the role call was anything to go by, the recalcitrants were 'downsers' from out on the moor - Exelbys, Iveys, Rules, Pengellys, and Gays, all of whom lived around Ponsongath!

Yes, it will be sad if any chapel closes its doors, but does it really matter? It's a building dedicated for prayer, but a building doesn't stop prayer or the congregation keeping its faith. I like the thought of a belief without the excesses of churches, opulent with gaudy paraphernalia and elaborate services with iconography and incence. Those simple country people who worshipped in their own homes or in a field with the sky above, were just as near to their God.

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