Middleton Village Church: The Fading Importance of Religion to a Historically Religious Community
Updated 6 April 2023
By Max Carson
‘Community‘ is not just the name of one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. It is a powerfully human idea that has allowed the evolution of our civilisations, bringing people together in order to provide for and protect each other. The community that I grew up in is a small village in the East Midlands, where you have to know everything about everyone because socialising is all there is to do - that is to say, if you don’t go on a lot of walks or drink all the time.
I understand ‘community’ as a congregation of people: it’s about unity and social spaces. In my village, it can be seen in the pub, where the kids who grew up here serve adults who moved to start families. It’s also in the primary school, the monthly get-togethers, the parish council. Without these spaces, you would never have met the lovely couple who live down the street, or your kid’s best friend’s mum.
However, it hasn’t always been this way. Our sense of community is now spread across these different centres, whereas there used to be a single heart of the villages: the churches. My village is called Middleton, and it’s connected to another called Cottingham. The boundary between the two is almost non-existent, so there’s a lot of overlap between our communities. Up until very recently, Cottingham had two churches: a Methodist chapel, and St Mary Magdalene’s. The latter was where I went to school for Christmas and Easter, where I watched the marriage of my sister and the baptism of my nephew. Despite not being religious, this church represents a wonderfully valuable part of my upbringing, and an equally valuable pillar of my community.
The Methodist chapel, however, is much different. I’ve only ever been inside once, for a birthday party when I was about 7. It’s much less of a staple to our village today, and more something that you point out nostalgically when you walk past. This is only the case for my generation though, as it was once an important cornerstone for the villagers of the past.
The first Methodist chapel in Cottingham was opened in 1808 and, due to its popularity as a place of worship, a second - the chapel that still stands to this day - was built in 1878. To such a small community, religion was an incredibly strong unifier. People celebrated life and death there, they got married, baptised and held funerals within those walls. It held a valued place within the community for nearly 200 years, becoming one of the first landmarks that people coming into the village would see. However, as time went on, its relevance began to fade. The England and Wales census has shown that since 2001 the Christian population has fallen from 72% of the total population to nearly 46% in 2021. This general decline of religion has led to less people visiting village churches, and the Methodist chapel has been a victim of this declining faith as it is now closing.
This announced a shift in how our community interacted with itself as the chapel was not only a place for worshipping God, but also a popular communal space now gone. Village festivals such as Harvest Day were celebrated there throughout the early 1900s, and the last Sunday school outing - a weekly afternoon out for the students - was held there at the dawn of World War 2. These congregations were so significant to the people who lived and died within the village boundaries, and so much of our history is left within those walls, and now that has shifted due to the loss of the Chapel.
With fewer people going to Sunday Service or using the Church to worship God, it’s likely that St Mary Magdalene’s will soon suffer the same fate as the Methodist chapel. Whilst I’m not necessarily saddened by the aforementioned decline of religious faith, I am saddened reflecting upon its impact on my childhood, on the community that raised me. However, moving on from these places is probably for the best. In an increasingly faithless world it is imperative that community is allowed to evolve and shift to fit the people that make it up, through more modern activities such as the village fair or the school play.
The significance of the village church cannot be understated or explained simply by religious belief. Historically it was about bringing and holding communities together, and that is fading. I find that one of the most enjoyable aspects of history is mapping out our evolution, and I hope that despite this change, people never forget the importance of these places to our communities.