It's been really lovely to welcome Aggie to our fellowship for a few days. At the age of 97, she is the oldest remaining member of the Extremely Primitive Methodist church that I was brought up in. A particularly strict sect, who took notice of the instruction in Psalm 8 to look up to the starry skies, all their services were held at night in a roofless chapel. As a result, the hymn books were always drenched in wet weather. The Ministry of Healing was much evidenced by Pastor Selby-Date, which was just as well, as the worshippers were constantly contracting Trench Foot.
Agnes left for Dorset in the 1970s, and chatting with her yesterday, I finally got the explanation to a mystery that has always bothered me.
It was the custom, among the Extremely Primitive Methodists, to sit down during the singing of the last verse of the hymn before the sermon. Any stranger who stood up to sing it would be hissed at until he or she hit the pew. My parents told me that it "was always like that", and that was it. We used to say of Wesleyans, and other such heretics, that "They're so godless, they'd stand up afore the sermon."
But Aggie was a small girl when she saw the first time the congregation sat down for the last verse. She reckons it was about 1924. The Extremely Primitive Methodists had a new minister, who was used to singing Wesley's hymns in the "short" version. Accordingly, after what he thought was the "normal" 24 verses of "And Can it be", he sat down. Seeing him do this, the congregation did likewise. And so they sang the last verse in that position.
Now the congregation thought that, where the new man came from, they always did it like that. So, assuming it was the hippest new tradition (for he had come from that hotbed of liturgical innovation, Bedford), the next week they all sat down for the last verse of the hymn before the sermon.
Presuming this was what they always did, I guess, the pastor saw the congregation sitting down, and did likewise. And so that was the new tradition. For 70 years, until the damp really got under the walls and the building fell down.
It's nice to have a tradition explained. But, somehow, I wish I'd kept the mystery.