Closing the church doors against the enemy

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As a result, the members’ room of the Société Jersiaise was filled recently for a talk by the author, the Rev Dr David Chapman, a Methodist minister and Superintendent of the Central Sussex United Area.

Mr Chapman lives with his family in Horsham and his latest book is entitled Chapel and Swastika – Methodism in the Channel Islands during the German Occupation.

He is the author of two previous books on Methodist history and theology, as well as numerous articles in academic journals. He has a doctorate in theology from Cambridge, and serves as a member of the international Methodist-Catholic dialogue commission; he is co-secretary of the British Methodist-Catholic dialogue commission.

As a boy in the 1970s, he spent five years living in Guernsey, where his father was stationed as a Methodist Minister.

‘Many of the Church people I met then had been in Guernsey during the Occupation,’ he said. ‘From that time my interest in Methodism in the Channel Islands during the Occupation has grown.

‘My book on this subject is a project I have always wanted to complete, but it has taken ten years of research, on and off, for me to do so. I knew that if I didn’t finish it now, it would just lie in a cupboard and never get done.’

His book is the first major study of Methodism in the Channel Islands during the Occupation years. In his words: ‘How the churches were able to survive, despite intense scrutiny by the Third Reich, remains one of the last untold stories of the Occupation. The military authorities monitored public worship and midweek meetings, and even musical concerts on church premises were subject to censorship.

‘Although the research I have done cam be found in archived documents, the study of the Church during the Occupation doesn’t feature in official histories. No other author has done an in-depth study, and I felt I wanted to do this. I restricted the scope of the book to Methodism, because it is what I know best, and because of the volume of documentation available.’

He continued: ‘What this book is bringing into the public domain, for the first time, is the idea that the Churches themselves were a space for passive resistance against the Occupier. By going to church, people could register their defiance of the enemy in a way that wasn’t quite the same as going along to a sports club, for example. Going to church was directly subversive of the enemy.

‘The Germans allowed the churches to carry on their activities openly, so long as they didn’t do anything to undermine the Third Reich.’

His book, it was suggested to him, seems to bring out the attitude of the time of the Methodist Church – possible all Churches – in just attempting to endure the Occupation as stoically as possible, and carrying on with routines of worship and church socialising that had been set in the pre-Occupation years.

Dr Chapman agreed that, interestingly, contemporary records had as few references to the Germans as possible. Minutes of committee meetings, for example, had their set agendas, in which the circumstances of an enemy Occupation had never been foreseen, and had no natural place in the agenda of meetings along with ‘treasurer’s report’, ‘any other business’ and the other items.

He continued: ‘More than that, I think there was a sense in which the Occupation wasn’t allowed to “invade” the spiritual space of Islanders, so even when liberation came, there are not many references to it in the documents, apart from one brief note about a service of thanksgiving for having survived the past five years. But church files just continued to be written in the same ways as they had been before and during the Occupation.’

It was a challenge to maintain public worship every Sunday of the Occupation, he said, and it was a source of pride to Island Methodists that the 27 chapels remained open every Sunday for 52 weeks of the year for five long years – maintaining public worship was a key aspect of Methodist life throughout the Occupation.

Mid-week activities – fellowship and concerts – also provided a space in which people could create an Occupation-free community.

The congregations also provided support for needy people known to Church members through poor funds and collections.

Transport difficulties were a particular challenge, he said. ‘Jersey is a small Island, but it is a big Island when you have to walk, without the possibility of private transport. Petrol was unavailable, and even horse transport was difficult to find.’

He quote a conversation he had had with Reg Jeune, who during the Occupation was a young preacher. A horse and carriage would pick him up at 8 am on a Sunday morning, and he wouldn’t get home until gone 3 pm.

Heating fuel was also difficult to come by, and churches were cold places. The Jersey Gas Company gave advice about installing wood-burning stoves, but then wood for fuel was itself in short supply by the end of the Occupation.

Interestingly, no Methodist ministers from Jersey were deported to Germany, despite the fact that they were mostly UK born, and thus liable for deportation. One or two deportation orders were issued, but were then rescinded. One minister was imprisoned in Jersey, for listening to the wireless, and his daughter, who was also disseminating the BBC news, was imprisoned in France – but returned to the Island safely.

Two ministers from Guernsey ended up in internment in Germany, and led Free Church congregations among the internees. One of them, the Rev Donald Stewart, has been stationed in jersey, and was transferred to Guernsey in September 1942. The same day that he arrived in Guernsey he was sent off to internment in Germany.

He wrote to the Greffe: ‘If I had stayed in Jersey, I would not have been deported.’

Mr Chapman said: ‘It is curious to know why he was so confident that he would not have been deported from Jersey. There seems to have been some agreement that ministers would not be deported. Was it just a policy difference between the German authorities in Jersey and Guernsey, or was it more?’

Mr Chapman summed up his book: ‘The Church was regarded as a “space away” from daily life. Not an escape – there was nothing escapist about this. Life was too real and painful to be able to escape from it. But it was a space in which the enemy was not going to be allowed to intrude.’

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