New beginnings for minister as Bev says farewell to dale
When she arrived in Teesdale nearly eight years ago, Revd Bev Hollings oversaw eight Methodist chapels. As she prepares to leave this month, that number has been halved. But it’s far from doom and gloom, as editor Trevor Brookes finds out
REVD Bev Hollings is on the move. Before the Mercury arrived, a removal man just been to give her a quote for taking her worldly possessions to Hartlepool, where she will soon be superintendent minister.
She has held this role in the Barnard Castle and Teesdale district since 2012.
“It’s unfair to give just one special memory from that time,” she says. “The rededication of the Pathway chapel in Middleton-in-Teesdale was so special. I can think of many weddings and funerals. The first thing I did when I arrived was to visit to Joe and Marjorie Swinbank for their 70th wedding anniversary in Barnard Castle and I later conducted both their funerals. I’ve been there for so many important moments.”
Ms Hollings was born and bred in Huddersfield. She was taken to Sunday School “to get me out of dad’s way”. It was to have a lasting impact because she answered the call to ministry in adult life, serving for six years in Cornwall before heading north to Leeds and then Teesdale.
“Teesdale’s a wonderful place – it’s great to be part of a rural community,” she says, acknowledging the added attraction of the dale’s rich Methodist history.
There were once chapels at Forest, Forest and Frith, High Force, Bowlees, Newbiggin, Middleton, Mickleton and Harwood. Only Middleton’s survives in the upper dale – its building has been reinvented for the 21st century. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, preached from the pulpit at Newbiggin but in May 2017, this chapel closed. There are still chapels at Cotherstone, Barnard Castle and Staindrop.
Ms Hollings is part of a national committee of Methodists seeking to find a new direction for modern day worship. She’s optimistic.
“Dwindling congregations mean we have had to lose a number of chapels – which was not what I came here to do but it became apparent it was necessary. But out of that are coming new things,” she added.
She points to the transformation of the chapel in Middleton-in-Teesdale which underwent a massive redevelopment.
“Since then, we are seeing people joining us there. In Eggleston the chapel closed but now we have a cafe-style service where we discuss the Christian message, rather than the traditional ‘five hymn sandwich’ you’d get in chapel. The question is ‘what church do we need today?’.
“We are not going to see hundreds of historic chapels reopening but I see it going back to its roots – people meeting in small groups and then getting together for celebrations. Instead of going to church to hear a sermon, young people listen to podcasts – they can listen to preachers from all over the world,” she says.
Ms Hollings, who once baptised a meercat toy at Bowes Hutchinson’s school as part of a RE lesson, has also helped to build up schemes such as the “Open the Book” initiative, which sees worshippers visit schools to act out scenes from the bible.
“That will continue when I’m gone – that’s the beauty of being part of a team,” she said, praising the work done by volunteers and lay preachers.
Ms Hollings, 59, took over as superintendent of the Darlington circuit 18 months ago to plug a gap, adding to her workload in Teesdale.
“There has been a lot of baptisms and plenty of funerals in my time here,” she said.
A recent survey showed that the rate of baptisms in the Methodist chapels in the North East outstripped those in the south. Ms Hollings says that this shows that although the denomination had taken a few knocks, it was still rooted in communities in the region.
She believes Methodism will return to promoting social justice and working with the poor – just as it once did when it helped set up Sunday schools to educate the working classes in its early years.
Ms Hollings is expected to be replaced by Revd Graham Cutler, who is currently based in the Manchester area, in September. In the meantime, a number of retired ministers will help cover the patch.
Ms Hollings’ last service in Barnard Castle will take place on Sunday, March 8, and in Middleton-in-Teesdale on Sunday, March 15. All are welcome to say farewell.