Friday, 15 May 2009

Back to the Future: scrapped, preserved, rebuilt or revolutionised?

yorkshire pullman yorkshire pullman 3 The photographs show steam locomotive A1 60163 'Tornado' blasting up the east coast main line near Newark. This is a brand new locomotive of the A1 class, the last example of which was scrapped in 1966, and it cost three million pounds to build. The Guardian editorial had this to say as Tornado took to the rails:

It is almost 40 years since British Rail sent its last mainline steam locomotives to the scrapheap. When the final steam-hauled train left Manchester Victoria station on August 11 1968, and arrived (half an hour late) in Carlisle, most people assumed that the days of rail travel behind snorting, smoking and dirty steam engines was over. The future was to be diesel and electric. But they underestimated the British love of the past - and the emotional pull of steam, which is a vibrant thing compared with the robotic predictability of modern travel. Tornado, a recreated Peppercorn A1 a copy of a 1940s design, built by the London and North Eastern Railway to pull trains on the east coast mainline.... The engine is the first to be built from scratch in Britain since 1960. No one can doubt the commitment of the enthusiasts who raised £3m to build it, or the pleasure that people will get from travelling at up to 90mph behind a steam engine. Some might wonder, though, whether Britain's love of past glories has come at a price: a country that can recreate its old trains lags behind the rest of Europe in adopting the best and fastest of the new. France has the TGV. England still loves steam

And love steam I do, hardly surprising since my grandfather was a driver on the GWR based at Stafford Road Shed in Wolverhampton. Here he brings King Class locomotive 6020 King Henry IV into Birmingham Snow Hill station on an express service to Paddington.  I am glad that today it is still possible to travel behind examples of this class of locomotive; to smell the hot oil and enjoy the crisp bark of the exhaust and the steam powering the cylinders.  I applaud the work of enthusiasts who ensure that across Britain preserved steam railways lovingly maintain this part of our national transport heritage for future generations.

driver wp chester bringing 6020 king henry iv into birmingham snow hill with a wolverhampton - paddington express

And I am equally glad that I can travel quickly, reliably, safely and in comfort on today's modern railway. Public mass transportation systems, based on renewable energy, are an essential part of planning for a green future. To be still using coal would be unthinkable.

It is this tension between nostalgia and the cutting edge needs of tomorrow which the Guardian editorial highlights. The choice facing Christians is essentially the same. Many of us are attached to that which has been special for us, whether a church, an activity or a way of worshipping; many long for this way of being Church to flourish again, just like in the old days.....

So what are we to do? Do we scrap all our old motive power and much of the network, like an ecclesiastical Dr Beeching, who put the axe to much of Britain's Railways in the 1960's? Many communities would find themselves no longer connected to the network, especially those which are smaller, rural and more remote from large centres of population. In the early to mid 1960's steam locomotives which still had years of life left in them were surrendered to the cutters torch because the British Transport Commission's Modernisation Plan decreed that it would be so. Diesel and Electric traction was to take over from steam, and steam had to go. Many of our branch lines, and some main lines too, went with it. Competition from road transport provided the economic and political death knell. Passenger and freight totals were in decline. Working practices were outmoded and unprofitable. Today of course, we are beginning to realise what an asset those thousands of miles of lost lines would be to us. And it seems silly to scrap something which still has lots of working life left in it just for the sake of scrapping it. Is it not the case that with minimal effort there are churches which can still do good work and which could be usefully maintained, not least by dedicated enthusiasts who know that they are valued?

Or do we preserve a representative cross-section of locomotives for future generations? The policies of English Heritage seem to want to preserve many of our churches like a prehistoric fly caught in amber. History and heritage demand that examples of the past are kept as just that. Modern mission needs - the very purpose of our churches - seems always to come a very poor second. And so many churches struggle to exist and witness in buildings which are hopelessly out of date for the task.  Who will keep these museums going, for isn't that what they are in danger of becoming?  And what of nostalgia? How is affection for the past to be turned into commitment to the present? Is preservation marketable?

Or do we rebuild; just like Tornado taking an old trusted design and reworking it to the latest standards? Will that attract the crowds and drive up passenger numbers? In some places it seems to.

Or do we revolutionise everything? Do we retain a commitment to public transport and radically revisit the primary purpose for which the network exists  and ask how best this can de delivered in a sustainable way? And then put all our resources behind it? The urge to plant fresh expressions and parallel congregations, develop pioneer ministries and youth participation whilst growing social action projects which engage with our communities is part and parcel of this new impetus of the Spirit.

Mapping a Way Forward: Reshaping For Mission has elements of all of this. There is no great predetermined plan of what the Methodist Network will look like in 20 years time. There is no hidden agenda to scrap anything. There is simply the godly question of how Methodism is to be fit for purpose in the 21st Century.


  1. Excellent post as ever (and a situation that one church I have pastoral charge over is trying to face), but I was totally distracted by the pictures. Pure, pure photographic bliss. I touched Tornado on new years day and I haven't watched my hand since !


  2. Thanks Graham. I am delighted to have brought a bit of bliss to you soul!