Our thanks go to Derek Leach, a local historian and church member, for allowing us to use this adaption from his 2011 Epilogue at the Church Anniversary Meal.
1834 - In the beginning . . .
The first record of a Methodist preacher in River is 1834 in the open air in Common Lane, but River also appears in the 1834 Wesleyan Circuit plan with a Sunday evening service probably held in somebody’s house. After closure of the River Union Poor House in 1836 services were held there, but by 1871 were being held in a cottage now part of the Royal Oak and later in a cottage behind the pub.
1876 - The first Church Building
A church building was needed and Mr Churchward of Kearsney Abbey donated land in Common Lane despite the objections of local Anglicans. The small chapel opened on 2 March 1876 and cost £162 plus £80 for a small cottage adjoining (for the caretaker) which was soon converted to the Sunday School room.
1925 - The first wedding
The first wedding in the chapel was in 1925 when Lillian Challis and Tommy Bailey tied the knot. Membership at that time was 40 with an afternoon Sunday School of 80. Alec Stephens was the Sunday School Superintendent for many years both before and after the war. The Women’s Guild, which closed only recently in 2010, began in 1926. There was also a girls’ club.
Pre-World War Two
With 12 churches in the circuit little was seen of the minister. Every year there were several big celebrations – Chapel Anniversary, Sunday School Anniversary and also Temperance Sunday. Local preacher Tom Drinkwater always preached on Temperance Sunday – how appropriate! Everybody signed the no alcohol pledge of course.
With an expanding village and increasing membership, fund raising began for a larger church, a scheme was drawn up and ground purchased in Lewisham Road but the war intervened.
Post World War Two
Post war the fund raising for the new church resumed. The Trustees Meeting in 1953 was divided over whether to build the new church or not, but the impasse was broken when Ray Bass stood up and cried ‘Oh yea of little faith’ and promptly proposed the go ahead which was then agreed! Owen Woodland, designed the new church which cost over £12,000. It opened complete with vestries, kitchen and toilets on 17 March 1956 during the ministry of Bill Joynson. The congregation quickly jumped from 60 to 100. The old chapel was converted into the church hall; however, the ever growing Sunday School demanded more space and in 1965 two classrooms were built above the kitchen and toilets.
The new worship area was dual purpose with a stage at one end where a drama group performed plays and pantomimes. Frank Constable and John Ball started a youth club, which has been carried on by others ever since.
1960s – The Start of local Ecumenical links
In the 1960s the Anglican-Methodist unity talks failed at national level but locally joint services started followed by joint Lent groups and in 1983 a combined church magazine, all of which continue plus joint Alpha courses.
1970s - 1980s – The ever-expanding church
By 1970 there was a thriving playgroup every morning run by the church. It continues but managed now by a parents’ committee.
By 1970 the Sunday School has over 100 children in the morning, and classes held in all the rooms, kitchen and Mrs Kenworthy’s house next door. When Mrs Ken left the area in 1982, the church bought her house for Junior Church and Young People’s Fellowship (YPF) use on Sundays and small weekday meetings. A junior youth club started in 1985 and closed only recently.
Revd Leslie James started the Luncheon Club in 1972. This service lasted more than 30 years. The beautiful Flower Festivals began around this time. Art, craft and music were to the fore in the 70s and 80s with over 100 entries in the annual District Festival including our church orchestra. Recorder and folk groups took part in services and whilst the Senior Choir disbanded, the Junior Choir under Joyce Barnes and later Julie Ruck blossomed.
Our organ was bought and the Sunday School staff put on pantomimes as did the strong YPF. Their Peter Pan was the final production on the stage before it was demolished.
1991 – An ambitious building project
This was due to yet another building scheme in 1991 during Neil Cockling’s ministry. A £20,000 scheme was prepared but rejected as not ambitious enough. Instead £135,000 scheme was approved. The worship area was turned round, the demolished stage area became the apse; the former apse area and part of the garden were sacrificed to provide the much used Coffee Bar area of today. Every weekend during construction volunteers cleaned up all the dust ready for Sunday services!
A stewardship campaign accompanied the building scheme prompting us to reconsider what we could offer in response to God’s love – in time, talents and money. This, I think has paid dividends from what has happened since.
In 1991 Steph Perrow challenged us to feed the homeless, which has happened every night ever since involving 200 people in the area.
During Gordon Newton’s ministry with Junior Church numbers declining Christian outreach to young people was refreshed with after school clubs and exhausting Saturday fun days. A number of all age musicals were staged – Hopes and Dreams, Rainboat and Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat. It was our church that started the Easter sunrise services on the cliffs at this time, which are now a regular ecumenical venture, supported by Churches Together in Dover.
The here and now!
With no church fund raising necessary through stewardship, monthly coffee mornings are held for charitable causes and whilst the Luncheon Club has ceased to meet a similar number now enjoy fellowship every Tuesday in the coffee bar.
More recently monthly prayer days have been revamped, a Mums and Toddler group, First Steps, is bursting at the seams. A toddler music group has started – Music Makers – and enjoys a thriving attendance.
We also have different ways of ‘doing church’- Genesis, Revival and Messy Church. Each of these ventures try to make church accessible for different people, with different worship styles and approaches.
We have also enjoyed a recent Celebration Weekend in 2011 with a flower festival, art and cookery exhibition, meals and a concert.
This is just a glimpse of this church’s firm foundations. I have mentioned only a few of the many over the years whose witness and service enabled River Methodist Church to take root and grow. Today and tomorrow it is our turn. In his foreword to the 1991 Stewardship Campaign booklet Neil Cockling said ‘keep this booklet in a safe place and remind yourself of how you were prompted to respond to the challenge.’ How well did we do? Not bad at all, but could do better. Let’s try.