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Inspiration at Mow Cop

Mow Cop is quite a landmark round here. Not only is it physically visible from miles around and affords from its summit fantastic views of distant places, but also it had landmark significance for the Methodist church, and lessons for us all. Let’s think of each aspect in turn.

From the summit , over 1000 feet above sea level, on a clear day you can see the West Pennine Moors, Welsh mountains (including Snowdonia), Shropshire Hills and Cannock Chase. Some years ago Gail and I were at the top at night. I remember being fascinated watching the lights of aircraft landing and taking off at Manchester airport.

Now for the church aspect.

Methodists had started as a new movement in the Church of England in the 1730's. John Wesley originally preached to crowds in the open air, as he wanted to find new ways to reach the whole population (and because in some cases he was barred from preaching in the parish church). By 1800, they had set up their own church denomination, with its own buildings, regular chapel worship and official ministers/preachers.

Against this changing background, Hugh Bourne, a Methodist preacher from the Potteries, felt that the Methodist church wasn’t doing enough to reach ordinary working people like him and his neighbours.

In 1807, he organised a whole day event on Mow Cop, where people could pray, sing and hear inspiring preachers. It was called a Camp Meeting. People would spend most of the day with lively prayer and passionate preaching. It was so successful, that a four-day event was organised a few months later.

Anyone could take part in the Camp Meeting, and offer their own words and inspiration to the rest of the crowd. This sort of thing was now frowned upon by the official Methodist church, despite the similarity to Wesley’s outdoor preaching. This seemed like a movement out of control. Where would it lead?

Bourne and his followers were eventually dismissed from the Methodist church. They set up their own new form of Methodism, deciding on the name “Primitive Methodist”, as they felt they were being true to the spirit of the first – or “Primitive” - Methodists.

The movement grew rapidly, eventually becoming the second largest branch of Methodism. William Clowes should be mentioned as a fellow founder of Primitive Methodism.

However, the Primitive Methodists gradually started to look more and more like the Methodists from whom they had split. Reconciliation was achieved in 1932 when they were reunited. Many Methodist churches/chapels today still celebrate their “Primitive” roots and Mow Cop continues to be a special place for many Methodists.

You have to admire the spiritual fervour of the Primitives. That sort of fervour can (and did) lead to division – but it also speaks of the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. The Gospel the Primitives preached caught the imagination of many 1000’s of ordinary folk up and down the country. Its message of salvation rang true in a way conventional worship seemed not to.

Maybe today we stand on the threshold of new ways of doing and being church. Let’s hope and pray that we can capture a vision and inspiration for our own day – but without tearing ourselves apart!

Englesea Brook Chapel and Museum (originally Primitive Methodist and now recording their history)

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United Benefice of Leighton-cum-Minshull Vernon and St. Leonard's Church, Warmingham

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