Keld: But is it even a Church?

Keld Chapel is a National Trust property situated in the pretty Cumbrian hamlet of that name. There’s no twee gift shop selling tea towels nor a hefty admission charge and the key which allows visitors to access the site is kindly kept by neighbours. Inside, there’s a table supporting a simple cross and a vase of flowers. The benches are laid out that all may see the ministrations at the front. It certainly looks like a church to me, though there is some question as to whether this is actually the case. In 1917, Lord Lonsdale’s solicitors argued that it was just an old barn and fit to be demolished. The noble lord’s carriage was inconvenienced by the chapel’s awkward positioning by the road, and his journeys to his hunting lodge at Rafland Moor were delayed as his coach was required to reduce its pace. Like most rich men, his own comfort was a greater priority that others’ heritage and his application was rejected. To be fair, there are no records describing Keld as having its own church and we know that it was a dwelling-house for at least some of its history. In 1673, a record lists the baptism of a traveller’s child ‘at Keld’ but this is hardly evidence of a worshipping community. Others have suggested it was a chantry chapel, a church with the sole purpose of praying for particular souls in purgatory. The building is sixteenth century, so maybe it was erected just before the reformation when such beliefs were swept away. On the other hand, it has a chimney piece and fire place in its middle which is unusual for a church but natural for a home. 


So, there is the mystery. An intriguing barn or discreet chapel? Take your pick, but the answer doesn’t really matter. There are many more questionable buildings in Britain that claim to be churches. They have signs that proclaim their ecclesiastic status; they have pulpits, altars, pews, organs, worship bands, even bibles and ministers. But are they churches? Many ancient parish churches are just museums, selling visitors guidebooks explaining the age and style of the windows or font. There’s precious little spiritual content available; one wonders if they should transfer themselves to English Heritage and be done with it.

Others are obsessed with social justice and economic fairness around the world. These are important issues, but again, where’s the spirituality? No-one mentions sin, or repentance, or grace. They have just become a campaigning organisation, a community action group. Perhaps they should de-register as churches and approach the Electoral Commission for recognition instead.

Other ‘churches’, this time decidedly more evangelical ones, are so obsessed with music, they have lighting technicians, sound engineers and professional-quality musicians. Their premises have been redesigned to include a stage upon which their people can perform. The lights dim as the spots focus on the singers who are so amplified, the congregation’s contribution is barely noticed. Is this a church or a concert venue? Is it leading worship, or showcasing the talents of a few gifted individuals?

Other establishments focus on public speaking, offering lifestyle coaching. How to spend your free time, how to manage a family, how to cope with stress. Useful material, I’m sure. People go away feeling their batteries have been re-charged, able once more to face the coming week with all its attendant challenges and problems. But is it church, or a well-being service? A psychiatrist’s couch? A counselling centre?

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul gives as good a definition of the word church:

To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

If you attend a church on Sunday for which the service’s key themes are not found here, ask what it is you’re actually attending. I suspect that Keld ‘chapel’ really was a place of worship. But its status is not determined by the sign on the door, but the activities and motives of that which takes place within. 

‘Unto him be glory in the church.’