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Pit, Cornwall, England
Gwennap Pit, Cornwall, England.
Church of Great Britain.
Not a building, but rather an open-air amphitheatre in former
mine workings. John Wesley, preaching at outdoor assemblies
in the area in September 1762, took refuge in the pit when a
strong wind suddenly arose, and went on to preach to a crowd
of 1000. Noting that the pit formed a natural amphitheatre,
Wesley preached there 18 times between 1762 and 1789, to increasingly
large multitudes. Methodist preachers continued to use the pit
after Wesley's death, but it eventually fell into disrepair.
In 1806 it was remodeled into the form it essentially takes
today, with 13 concentric rings of continuous turfed seating,
the circles decreasing in circumference from the top to the
bottom. Today Gwennap Pit is a tourist attraction (admission
free; donations welcome) but also serves as a venue for Methodist
camp meetings, youth rallies, and worship services. Described
as an historic preaching place, it is now a UNESCO
World Heritage Site.
This is clearly a shrine of Methodism. Wesley called it "the
most magnificent spectacle which is to be seen on this side
of heaven." Since Wesley's time, there has been an annual
preaching on Whit Monday and services held on Sundays in July
and August, as well as on special Methodist anniversaries.
Gwennap Pit is situated southeast of Redruth, a town in Cornwall,
in the southwestern-most tip of England. It is not far from
Truro, Falmouth and Penzance. The area is mostly farmland and
former mining land. From my seat I could see stone cottages
beside the amphitheatre, and pigs, goats, horses and chickens
over the hedge in a nearby field.
A man called Tony welcomed us, and the Revd Steve Wild, chair
of the Cornwall Methodist District, led the service. "John
Wesley," portrayed by actor Mark Topping, who has achieved
some fame for his traveling one-man show entitled "An Evening
with John Wesley," preached a sermon in the style of Wesley.
The Revd Jerry Grace, a minister with the Bodmin, Padstow and
Wadebridge Circuit, prayed a thanksgiving for the offertory.
The date & time:
Sunday, 16 August 2009, 3.00pm.
What was the name of the
Worship Service during Methodist Heritage Week. The service
marked the anniversary of Wesley’s last visit to preach at Gwennap
Pit on 23 August 1789.
How full was the building?
The capacity of Gwennap Pit is officially given as 1500, although
Wesley is said to have preached to crowds in excess of 30,000.
I counted about 190 people and three dogs who were sitting on
the grass tiers around the amphitheatre. During the service,
people were asked to identify where they were from. This revealed
a surprisingly global congregation for a quiet corner of Cornwall
– there were visitors from Australia, India, Northern
Ireland and the United States. I presume the dogs were locals.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
At the entrance gate, I received a warm welcome from a sidesman
who looked me in the eye and handed me a hymn sheet and a carpet
square. Not over the top, but I felt that he was genuinely glad
to have me join their worship.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a spacious section of grass on the top tier of the pit,
directly opposite the two stone pillars dubbed Wesley’s Pulpit.
My seat afforded some lovely views across the surrounding countryside.
I needed my carpet square and coat to sit on – after a short
time I realised the grass was still a little damp.
How would you describe the pre-service
Expectant, with people extending friendly greetings to one another.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Welcome to Gwennap Pit. It’s very nice to see you."
Spoken by the man called Tony.
What books did the congregation use during the
‘The Gwennap Pit Hymnal Sheet, full of great Methodist
hymns. People hardly needed the words; many seemed to know the
hymns by heart and sang with great enthusiasm.
What musical instruments were played?
Electric keyboard, positioned right at the bottom of the pit
and amplified through two loudspeakers perched higher up on
Did anything distract you?
Apart from occasional "noises off" from the animals
in nearby fields, at one point the service was drowned momentarily
by an aeroplane flying overhead.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Structured, but with a natural informality. In what I have come
to admire as one of the strengths of Methodist worship, Mr Wild
led us effortlessly through the service, which flowed with hymns,
extemporary prayer (but not too wordy), scripture, sermon, confession
and thanksgiving. It had a light touch, but was utterly sensitive
and appropriate to the context. Some people raised their arms
in worship during the hymns. Mr Wild made several references
to the place being holy ground and a gate to heaven – in short,
a place where we might have an intimate encounter with Jesus.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 (Sorry, John Wesley!) It was slightly disarming to
see Mr Wesley stood before us. Mark Topping was dressed in 18th
century preacher's garb and began by saying, "Two hundred
sixty years ago, I preached here to 26,000 people." Earlier
in the service in an interview with Mr Wild, Mr Topping revealed
how his affection for the reputedly earnest Wesley had grown
as he had studied him and worked as the custodian of the New
Room, Wesley's chapel in Bristol.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Mr Wesley preached on Ephesians 5:8-21 (do not live as the unwise
do, but as children of the light). It was a sermon very much
in the spirit of Wesley, not hectoring or extreme, but expertly
crafted, straightforward and direct, shot through with scripture
and undergirded with the spirituality of revival and rebirth
to a new life in Christ.
Which part of the service was like being in
It was the combination of the very ordinary (sitting on the
grass with a damp bum in a former mining pit, surrounded by
farmland) with the hope of the eternal, proclaimed so naturally
through stirring hymns, confident preaching and heartfelt prayers.
Down to earth, yet profound. Perhaps that’s the essence of Wesleyan
Methodism at its best.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During a brief interlude, Mr Wild introduced his ventriloquist’s
puppet Clarence the Frog, complete with preacher’s tab and gown.
This I found to be rather irritating and a distraction.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was plenty of tea and cake and conversation available
in the neighbouring visitor centre and chapel. Some stood around
waiting to chat to and photograph "John Wesley." Mr
Wild greeted me warmly, and when I told him I was a visiting
Anglican, he hugged me!
How would you describe the after-service
Homemade cakes with well-brewed tea served in china cups. The
cheerful ladies behind the refreshments counter in the visitor
centre were made to work hard by the influx of worshippers but
they coped admirably.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 But on my next visit I'll make sure to bring some waterproofs
and a golfing umbrella, just in case!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, without a doubt. It made me think how much we need the spirit and enterprise of the Wesleys and early Methodists to wake up God’s Church today.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Having my heart and spirit uplifted by an act of worship that
helped bring an historic preaching place alive.
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