Friday, 28 August 2015

The decline and demise of the Brethren assemblies in the London Borough of Havering: part one

When I came to live in Hornchurch, Essex, in the London Borough of Havering, in 1975, Brethren assemblies and the Brethren movement were influential and numerically strong. They had large Sunday Schools, well attended meetings, morning and evening services, very active preachers, high profile Christian leaders and wealthy supporters.

Today in 2015, there is only one Open Brethren assembly, chapel or fellowship in existence in Havering. It is the Collier Row Gospel Hall. I believe there are a few Exclusive Brethren people who meet in the Romford area, but as far as the Open Brethren are concerned there is just one active Open Brethren place of worship and witness in this Borough. There is not one in the Hornchurch area, where they once thrived.

I remember Brethren assemblies at Rise Park, Cranham, Craigdale Hall, Upminster, Ingrebourne Chapel, Bethany Chapel near Abbs Cross, and Emerson Park. The latter, which once thrived, seemed to me like the flagship, and it lasted the longest. The premises are now used by a charity (Stand By Me) and I understand that the trustees are looking for a Christian fellowship to use the building for worship, witness and fellowship. Its future is therefore uncertain.

I wish to look at the causes for the decline and demise of this once powerful and influential Christian movement in Havering. I believe that there are important lessons to be learned from this situation, lessons from history, from experience, from the wisdom of Christians involved in this decline and demise over forty years, and from the Lord Himself.

If you were involved in the Brethren or have any observations, comments or contributions then I would love to hear from you.  This is, therefore, a work in process.

I intend to interview a number of people. In fact, I have already received helpful advice and details from people who attended Brethren meetings and were actively involved.


John Plater said...

As a child I went to a Brethren Sunday School for a time, and I have a great deal of admiration for their knowledge of the Bible. I am therefore hesitant to criticise them.

However, in trying to find reasons why they may have declined so much over the past few decades I offer the following thoughts.

Churches die because they have not been able to attract new members. Were the Brethren so 'separated from the world' in a legalistic sense (no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, no going to the sin-ema) that they lost their appeal to outsiders?

Were they too white anglo-saxon protestant middle class, especially for the Havering area?

I will be interested to hear what you can glean from your interviews.


Johlibaptist said...

Thanks for you comment John. Somehow the Brethren in the Hornchurch area lost the means of reproduction. They sadly failed to win the next generation. My wife, who grew up in the Brethren, believes that a contributory factor was their attitude to women. In today's society women are now holding positions of influence and authority; they can be better educated and more able than their husbands. In some Brethren assemblies the women significantly outnumbered the men. Their daughters voted with their feet and joined churches where they could use their talents much more productively.

John Plater said...

Yes, I agree that could be another factor. Since making my previous comments the thought also occurred to me that some of the Brethren became 'Charismatic' in the 1960s and 70s, and joined (or helped to form) the 'House Church' movement. I have just read the Wikipedia article on New Frontiers, and it mentions there that Terry Virgo, the founder, was from the Brethren church, and he took a 'complementary gender' approach to women in leadership.

Anonymous said...

Since Hornchurch is in the London Borough of Havering it cannot possibly be in Essex.

Johli Baptist said...

As my postal address is Hornchurch, Essex, and the local Baptist church is in the Essex area as part of the Eastern Baptist Association, not in the London Baptist Association, it is argued that Hornchurch is in Essex. Barnet is in Hertfordshire and in the London Borough of Barnet. Bromley is in Kent and also in the London Borough of Bromley.

Paul Gibson said...

I met & married a girl from the open brethren assembly at Wangey Rd Chapel in Chadwell Heath nearish to Hornchurch & The borough of Havering. So my comments come as an outsider.

I found their morning breaking of bread service (what I would have called communion) new & quite invigorating coming from a background of Crusader leadership & membership of a Baptist Union church.

Reading the history of the early days of the brethren movement I was struck by just how radical they were, particularly in breaking away from the established church. But my observation is that they failed to carry this radicalism forward from the 19th to the 20th century. By the time I started meeting occasionally at Wangey in the 1970's there ways had become set in stone & just nothing was going to change.

An example was the Sunday gospel evening meeting; week after week 52 weeks of the year the faithful few would gather at 6:30, the preacher would preach an invitation to respond to become christian style of sermon to those who had already responded, what a waste of every body's time time I am sorry to say. What was needed was a little less preaching & a little bit more involvement in the community around about them, rubbing shoulders with non christians & influencing society. Looking outwards not inwards, they seemed to fear the sin of the world while failing to get there hands dirty in the real world.

Another example of the fear of change was/is in the employment of full time assembly people, holding to the past there model of unpaid leadership was good & worked, many young men in the early to mid part of the 20th century had time on there hands. But by the time the1960's came the work place was fast changing, the pressure on men to work more intensively & longer hours meant contraction & eventual closure of many assemblies.

The Charismatic movement in the 1970's hit hard also, all assemblies appeared to believe in the Holy Spirit but it seemed to be from a distance, something written on paper as a belief statement; they seemed to deny any close encounter with God as if learning about God was enough but not to experience his power. And so those with different views left & joined with like minded christians from all sorts of denominations, some being part of the leadership setting up House churches.

Having said all this the open christian brethren always referred to themselves as a movement not a church, so the fact that many other denominations have been helped & influenced by there way of doing things is to be applauded, I look forward to meeting many of them in heaven.

Johli Baptist said...

Thanks Paul for your most helpful and perceptive comments. I intend to share my conclusions later this year having almost completed my interviews and lines of enquiry.

Andrew Hague said...

I grew up in the Brethren. I think that the defining factor in whether a church can be considered 'Brethren' is whether it is governed by an eldership or 'Oversight'. I think that most Brethren churches have migrated into Evangelical chapel's through the appointment of a pastor. Why this happens would be interesting to investigate, but a central factor is probably laziness. People just can't devote the time to the unpaid duty of leadership, or the emotional resources to getting along with other elders etc. The big brethren church in Exeter 'Belmont Chapel appointed their first Pastor in the early 80's and you'd be hard pressed to find a Brethren church in Devon now, where they used to really thrive. Having said this since appointing a pastor Belmont has grown significantly. Regarding the House church movement. Yes most of the early leaders were from the brethren movement. Jack Hardwidge who founded the ISCA fellowship in Exeter was an elder in Whipton chapel there.

Keyboard King said...

Tap any Hornchurch postal address into the Royal Mail website and the word Essex will not appear in the finished article.

JamesEdel said...

Thank you for this. I am new to the Brethren and joined the church because it was walking distance from my house. I came from a Christian and Missionary Alliance background. I find all this discussion helpful as a leader there who is trying to be a fresh voice and hoping a fresh wind of the Spirit comes. I love that they Brethren are like a standing army [sorry for the baggage with this word], like Switzerland? or South Korea. We don't have a pastor so our pastor leaving would never impair us. So many are able to teach/preach on very short notice. I have heard lately that we need to 'come prepared to share what Christ is doing in our lives' and this strikes me as very relevant. Unfortunately, because of the factors above, I believe these are why we have declined so much and can't really pay our bills. We will pray through this list you guys have contributed. Thanks! (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)


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