Going to church nowadays is very much a matter of choice. People go because they actively believe in God, have a religious conviction, and a sense of commitment to their Church. Congregations may have dwindled over the years, but those who continue to go to church do so largely through personal choice.
For our grandparents, going to church was a very different matter. Whatever one's personal beliefs, church attendance was a social and moral obligation; only generations before, our ancestors were fined or even deported for refusing to attend church. So churches, as we saw last week, played an important part in everybody's lives, and worship was only one of several activities on offer at most churches.
For example, it wasn't such an easy thing in strict families for young couples to meet and go courting - but where more innocent and harmless than church, for young couples to meet and court regularly on choir practice evenings:
"My parents were Baptists but I was brought up a Methodist because it was the only non-conformist church here. We had quite a decent-sized choir here then, there were a lot more younger people in the churches than there are nowadays."
This lady's attendance in the choir was richly rewarded when a young man who had eyes only for her underwent a religious conversion from Anglican to Methodist, joined the choir, and was able to court and eventually marry her:
"The choir didn't sing for our wedding, it was just a morning wedding, we were in business, and in those days you didn't close the shop for a whole day for a wedding, it was a morning wedding and everybody was working."
For many young people who enjoyed singing and music, the church choirs gave them the opportunity to compete in competitions like the Mary Wakefield Festival;there were plays and outings, concerts and summer picnics, Sunday School treats and Christmas parties:
"Each Church except St Mary's had a Christmas party for the children, so we'd do the rounds until we found the church with the best party. But you had to attend for at least three weeks before they'd invite you. We used to think the Plymouth Bretheren parties were the best, so that's where we'd go to church for three weeks before Christmas, so we could go to the party!"
This casual exchange of religious loyalties to find a good choir or party didn't always work, though:
"I went to every Sunday School there was in Ambleside. And if they had a party and one was better than t'other, we used to go. I went to the Mission, I went to the Church of England, and I went to Chapel. Well, when I got to the Chapel, being a singer I had to sing all the solos in the choir. I was doing very well at Chapel. Then our lot, being Church (of England), had to be confirmed. Well, the woman that was teaching me to sing was a real Chapel person, and if you're confirmed, well, that's not Chapel. And she lost interest in me. Well, that was the end of my singing career until I was about eighteen."
With next to no unemployment benefit, and often no sick pay or compensation, the generosity of the churches was most welcome during hard times. Some churches were even concerned with the welfare of the poor and sick who were not of their own particular faith, and many kindnesses were done quietly and discreetly:
"Methodism was very strong in those days. We had what we used to call a benevolent society and at Christmas time, just done very privately, the Minister or perhaps a steward would know someone who was perhaps in a little difficulty and they always used to take them something which would help them, but the general congregation didn't know, it was purely just a little help at Christmas."
Flowers from church were distributed each week to the sick and housebound, but in those days many people had their own gardens and were not short of a cheerful bunch of flowers. So, instead, people would donate sixpence to buy fruit or eggs for those in need:
"They did appreciate it, especially people who weren't Methodists, they often used to say how pleased they were to think they'd been remembered."
Many single young women used to belong to the GFS, or Girls Friendly Society:
"It was a religious thing, Church of England. I suppose it was like Young Wives things are to day, only we were not married, we were all single. And we used to go to church and we had a banner for church, and it was like a religious meeting.When we first went in, we'd say a prayer, then they'd always give us supper, we used to get sandwiches and cake, of the type, I would imagine, of the Womens Institute today. I know we had prizes for attendance, and all sorts of thing like that, and we did a lot of little plays for socials and things, and all for the good of something. I suppose the money would be sent to something belonging to the church."
With such an important social function in small towns, the churches were forced to move with the times to provide what people required; and when one old church was finally replaced by a bigger one, the Vicar at the time put the old church to good use during the last War:
"We used to have what they used to call 'socials', And Mr Thompson took over the old church and he made it into a social hall for us, that was when the prisoners of war were there, and they used to go as well, and we used to play table tennis...the prisoners working round here, they were more or less just like one of the family, and they were never kept tied up. And they used to accept them, people, and they used to play table tennis and then we'd have a social which consisted of dancing and singing and games....that was our socials and we loved them."
But once a church, always a church, and moving with the times upset some elderly church goers:
"When they dug the foundations out, they dug up a lot of bones and coffins and there's people buried under that church floor. When they did it up just after the war they put a fresh floor, proper floor in and took the old wooden boards out and they conceted over the joists that went across - and they dug out to concrete and there was bones and bits of wood all over the place."
Eventually the old church was converted into homes; but once a church, always a church:
"I often think about these people that's living in there, it must be quite an eerie thought must living in those flats...and to me, I don't really think under the circumstances that as there was people buried under there, that it should have been used for that."