14 May 2023

Octagonal Methodist
Church in Heptonstall
closing after 260 years

Heptonstall Methodist Chapel … one of the oldest Methodist churches in continuous use, known for its octagonal shape (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

The octagonal Methodist Church in Heptonstall is one of the oldest Methodist churches in continuous use today and one of the oldest Methodist churches in the world, having been founded in 1764.

Later this month, the church is celebrating more than 260 years of Methodism in the Yorkshire village. Sadly though, the church is ceasing regular Sunday worship with a service in a fortnight’s time (Sunday 28 May 2023), as we learned last week when we visited Heptonstall, on the hilltop above Hebden Bridge.

The final service of thanksgiving and celebration will be led by the Revd Kathie Heathcoat and the Superintendent Minister, the Revd Vicky Atkins, with a selection of favourite hymns, and followed by afternoon tea.

This unusual octagonal chapel is tucked away at the bottom of a flight of steps off Northgate in Heptonstall. This is one of the first octagonal chapels in England. It was built in 1764, and the design and construction of the Grade II listed chapel were overseen by John Wesley, who frequently preached there.

Methodism in Heptonstall began with the evangelical activities of William Darney, who has been described as a firebrand Scot ‘of prodigious size.’ A pedlar, cobbler and itinerant poet, he founded many Methodist societies on both sides of the Pennines as he travelled, preaching as he went.

Darney’s preaching had been Calvinist and many of his converts moved between the Methodist societies and local Baptist groups. At first, the Methodist society in Heptonstall met in a cottage at Northgate End. John Wesley placed Darney’s groups under the supervision of the Revd William Grimshaw of Haworth, a friend of Darney and of John and Charles Wesley.

The Wesley brothers were frequent visitors to the area, perhaps because of their friendship with Grimshaw. John Wesley first visited Heptonstall on 21 May 1747 and visited 21 times in all between 1747 and 1786. He drew immense crowds and also preached in the now-ruined Church of England parish church of Saint Thomas Becket, which he labelled ‘the ugliest church I know.’

The Methodist chapel and Sunday School in Heptonstall nestle peacefully in a natural amphitheatre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In these early days, Heptonstall had a preacher every sixth Sunday, with the travelling preachers receiving no stipend or allowance and eating where they could. But the society became so successful that it decided to build a chapel.

The octagon shape was then fashionable for Methodist chapels. The first octagon chapel was built in Norwich in 1757, followed by Rotherham (1761), Whitby (1762), then Yarm, Aberdeen and Heptonstall (1764).

It is sometimes said Wesley favoured the octagonal shape for his chapels because this left ‘no corners for the devil to hide in.’ Others said the octagon reflects the figure 8, regarded as the ecclesiastical figure of regeneration. The real reason is that Wesley was not building churches, but preaching houses, and wanted to avoid conflict with the local Church of England parish churches. Wesley said: ‘All our houses should be of this shape if the ground allow.’

The symmetrical octagonal chapel in Heptonstall was built on land called Dockey’s Croft, bought and given to the trustees by Thomas Colbeck of Keighley.

John Wesley preached in the unfinished shell, lining out his then unpublished verse, perhaps inspired by the sight of Hardcastle Crags from the hilltop:

Ye mountains and vales, in praises abound,
Ye hills and ye dales, continue the sound,
Break forth into singing, ye trees of the wood,
For Jesus is bringing lost sinners to God.

Local historians Chapman and Turner later wrote: ‘Wesley had obviously been impressed by the roof at the Rotherham Octagon, he had the same man construct the roof in Heptonstall. The sections were brought by the most direct, though hazardous, road over Mount Skip, the people meeting the procession of pack horses and singing hymns of joy. Men and women laboured with their hands to build the chapel with the most primitive of tools.’

The building was finished in 1764. The society grew and became strong. In 1795 the Sunday School was started – possibly the first of its kind in England.

Over 1,000 children were once enrolled in the Methodist Sunday school in Heptonstall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Following the death of John Wesley in 1791, there were tensions and schisms within Methodism, including the formation of the New Connection in 1797. Heptonstall escaped these divisions, however, and by 1802 the chapel was too small for the 337 members and over 1,000 ‘scholars’ or children enrolled in the Sunday school. The solution was to knock down the far end of the chapel, lengthen the walls and rebuild it, preserving its octagonal shape. Internally, the pulpit was raised up, and new singing pews built.

By 1821, the chapel once again was too small, but by then industry was developing in the valley and the population was beginning to move down from the hilltops. It was felt wiser to build in Hebden Bridge, and so Salem Chapel was built. Heptonstall also planted new congregations and built chapels in Highgate and Blackshawhead.

The chapel in Heptonstall is a hidden jewel and nestles peacefully in a natural amphitheatre. Tended terraced graveyards rise above it to the village and fall away below, leading the eye to the views over the valley. Although we did not get inside the chapel last week, we were told that inside there is ‘a perfect stillness,’ with ‘a simple grace and humility.’

The building featured in the BBC 4 series ‘Churches: How to read them’. The historian Dr Richard Taylor named the chapel as one of his ten favourite churches, saying: ‘If buildings have an aura, this one radiated friendship.’

During repairs in 2017, including the installation of a new toilet, kitchenette, heating system and renovations, services were held in the neighbouring Church of England parish church, Saint Thomas’s.

The two churches in Heptonstall have worked closely together, sometimes holding joint services in either Saint Thomas’s or in the Methodist Church. Now, it seems, the oldest continuous, surviving Methodist Church is about to close its doors in two weeks’ time.

Looking across Hebden Bridge from Cross Lanes Methodist Graveyard near Heptonstall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (36) 14 May 2023

The Ascension Window in the North Transept (Jebb Chapel), Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Sixth Sunday of Easter (14 May 2023). Later this morning, hope to be at the Parish Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton.

A note on the Easter Season in the service booklets in Holy Trinity Church, Old Wolverton, and Saint George’s Church, Wolverton, reminds us:

‘The Great Fifty Days of Eastertide is where the joy created on Easter Day is sustained through the following seven weeks, and the Church celebrates the gloriously risen Christ.

‘The Paschal Candle we lit on Easter Day stands prominently in our church for all the Eastertide services. The Alleluia appears frequently in the liturgy, speech and song, and white or gold vestments and decorations emphasise the joy and brightness of the season.

‘On the fortieth day of Easter, there is a particular celebration of Christ's ascension. He commissions his disciples to continue his work, he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then he is no longer among them in the flesh. The ascension is therefore closely connected with the theme of mission.

‘The arrival of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost completes and crowns the Easter Festival.’

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. As Ascension Day is later this week (18 May 2023), I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Looking at a depiction of the Ascension in images or stained glass windows in a church or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Ascension Window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick … dedicated by Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1961 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Ascension Window, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick:

The Ascension Window in the Jebb Chapel in the North Transept of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, where I was the Canon Precentor in 2017-2022, was dedicated on 28 February 1961 by the then Archbishop of York, Michael Ramsey, who was about to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

The window was presented in memory of Horace Stafford-O’Brien (1842-1929) and his wife Eleanor Elizabeth (née Holmes), and was donated by their son, Major Egerton Augustus Stafford-O’Brien (1872-1963), who lived just outside Limerick at Cratloe, Co Clare.

The Ascension Window is the most modern of all the stained-glass windows in Saint Mary’s Cathedral. It immediately attracts attention because of its size and because of the amount of white antique glass in its execution, allowing light to filter into the Jebb Chapel below.

The glass in this window is known technically as antique glass. It is of English manufacture – this glass is not made in Ireland – and is made specifically for stained glass work alone. Unlike sheet glass, it is not made mechanically. This window contains many thousands of pieces that have been leaded together by hand.

The main image in the window depicts the Ascension as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. The lower images depict, from left to right, Saint Catherine of Sinai (lower left) with her wheel; the Parable of the Prodigal Son; the Annunciation; the Parable of the Good Samaritan; and Saint Nicholas (lower right), shown as Santa Claus, distributing gifts to children.

The figure of the Ascending Christ is in pale gold and ruby. The Apostles, the Virgin Mary and Saint Mary Magdalene are depicted in a rich array of blues, reds and greens, preserving a rhythmic balance of tone and colour that is consistent with the best traditions of stained glass. A neutral tone of green binds the composition of figures in an harmonious whole and gives a sense of stability to the grouping of the figures.

The Ascension Window was donated by Egerton Augustus Stafford-O’Brien (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 14: 15-21 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 15 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. 17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 ‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’

Saint Nicholas and the children … a panel in the Ascension Window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Ascension.’ USPG’s Global Theologian, the Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar, reflects on the Ascension in the prayer diary this morning, where he writes:

. ‘The Ascension happens at a crucial point in the life of Jesus’s disciples. After the initial trauma of the crucifixion the disciples are getting used to a new reality – Jesus’s resurrection. They are used to encountering the Risen Christ in unexpected faces and places, like during their encounter with a ‘stranger’ on the road to Emmaus. This makes them hopeful, and in Acts 1: 6 we see them expectantly ask Jesus whether this is the time when he would fulfil their long-held hopes of the restoration of their kingdom. It is at this precipice of hope that Jesus is taken away from them.

No wonder then that the disciples are perplexed and are caught gazing up toward heaven, struggling not to lose sight of that source of power around which they have learnt to rebuild their lives. The message of the ascension story to the disciples is to not cling to familiar ways of knowing God, but to be open to new ways in which God might be active in the world.

The Ascension conveys the powerful truth that it during times of God’s seeming absence, when the last signs of our hope seem to fast disappear behind the clouds of hopelessness, uncertainty, doubt, and despair, that God chooses to enter human lives with transformative intimacy and depth.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Sunday 14 May 2023):

Loving Lord,
when we fear you are absent,
remind us that we are not orphans.
Embolden us with your Spirit
and in drawing close to you
transform our lives.


God our redeemer,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life,
so by his continual presence in us he may raise us
to eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

God our Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ gives the water of eternal life:
may we thirst for you,
the spring of life and source of goodness,
through him who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

The Good Samaritan … a panel in the Ascension Window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org