In 2000, there were three Methodist churches in East Lothian – Dunbar, Tranent and Cockenzie. Their social bases and therefore their traditions differed, though the differences had become blurred; Dunbar was Wesleyan, Tranent and Cockenzie Primitive, Methodist. Post-1932, all were simply Methodist.
A study of the membership figures from 1950-2000 gave some indication of the fluctuating situations of each. The figures can be regarded as reliable, as the assessment of each church’s contribution to the Circuit funds was largely (though not exclusively) based on this number, but more importantly because a requirement of membership was attendance at worship, so ‘pruning’ was ongoing.
The oldest church of the three was Dunbar, whose society was established in 1752. It was the first Methodist building in Scotland and remains the oldest church in the town still in use. Registered in the town’s records in 1770, it was visited many times by Wesley, who called it ‘the cheerfullest in the kingdom’. The members are proud of their history and ready to go along with developments in Methodism both locally and nationally. Dunbar was, and is, a local commercial centre to which the members were connected rather more than to the fishing. Latterly, the increasing number of commuters had not impinged on the life of the church; in 1950 there were 113 members, rising to 135 in 1962. In 2000 there were 24. These 24 members were keen participants in Dunbar Churches Together and in ecumenical Bible Study.
Mining people attracted to Primitive Methodism’s energetic evangelistic worship built Tranent church in 1870. Its viability was directly related to the mining economy on which Tranent depended though many church leaders were employees of the Co-operative Society, the other principal employer in the town. The closure of the mining industry led directly to the departure of families in search of work and a consequent fall in membership. There were 55 members in 1950, 72 in 1962 and 61 in 1973; in 2000 there were 65 members, noticeably more than there were in 1950. Difficulties with the ageing building did not lead to apathy, and over the 50 years the members continued ‘to serve the present age’ with their work in Youth, Fellowship and House groups. The society in Tranent was always closely involved in the town’s ecumenical life.
Cockenzie church, Primitive Methodist like Tranent, was built in 1877. Most of the families were involved in fishing, taking the men away for many months of the year; leadership fell on the women and older men. When the men were working down the East Coast, they joined other fishermen in the local Primitive churches and came home refuelled for evangelism, bringing with them a love of the Moody and Sankey hymns (still important in 2000). After the failure of the fishing industry and departure of families for other work, Cockenzie’s independent spirit and reliance on lay leadership continued. Here again, decay in the fabric of the church was tackled and the church family strengthened by effort and by friends from other churches. In 1950 the membership was 46, its highest this half-century. It sank to 11 in 1993, and in 2000 was 14. Unlike the other two churches, however, at the end of the period, the regular weekly congregation was more than double the membership, a sign of hope for the future.