The door creaks open (if the dam thing is unlocked, or you have to wade through the puddles to the key-holder’s cottage) and you descend into the damp, unlit gloom. I love that feeling. Your mind is racing, but so it your body: hit by the chill, nostrils inhaling the moisture, eyes peering through the gloom, you reach for the information board on the side-table to work out why this font or that rood is so special. Well, it looks OK I suppose. Or is there a spirit in one of the pews?
John Spence has recently warned us that regular worship in England’s 10,000 rural churches could soon be a thing of the past. One cannot but help agreeing with him. When out of London either walking or cycling, I visit around three to five of these churches each time. Some, in posh areas of the Cotswolds, say, are plush. They might even have under-floor heating. Others are more what you’d expect: musty, cracked, damp. Last paid the parish share in 2012, by the look of softening A4 on the notice-board in the porch. Should they linger? They need money to do so, and where will it come from?
Why were these churches build in the first place? Can we imagine the time? We have Norman churches, ambitious and sometimes ridiculous but well-meant aristocratic extensions, Victorian grandeur. Was any of this building questioned? Were there protests at the building of the great cathedrals? Quite the reverse; the labourers who died building them did so believing that they were dying for something out of this world.
We don’t believe now, really, in England, do we. That’s not meant pessimistically at all. The inquisitive mind is always seeking something, and is now readily distracted whenever a dangerous searching moment arrives. Hey, some people are prescribed drugs to prevent such feelings, thanks Huxley. Did people believe when these churches were built? Did the average farm hand question his existence when the church was going up in 1242? There must have been a hell of a lot of time for reflection, then. You don’t need words to reflect, it just happens: some people write it down now and blog it, thanks Apple.
I imagine with no difficulty the modest outcry from the village population in the Lincolnshire Wolds, say, when the church closes, and picture it petering out like when the pub closed. What would we do at Christmas? Watch Downton in the morning, too? There might have been a similar reaction when they put the thing up.
I don’t know why I visit these churches. I have a magnetic attraction to them. I stare at the gravestone of Mr. Whatever and ‘Judith’, wife of the above, with no obvious reason or outcome that could be measured in a productivity survey. I may sit in one for an hour, or get bored and leave after two minutes. I don’t know anything about the architecture, even if I read about it. It’s not important to me, like I don’t particularly care if a chord in a Wagner opera is a German 6th or an Italian 6th. I love these places as they create room for meditation. A place for a spiritual connection that is needed by all of us, if we cared listening to our bodies once in a while. And how lucky that they are there and free to go in!
So will it be a bad thing if, in ten or twenty years time, country churches have a different place in the English consciousness? Not as an elaborate and expensive and impractical location for a screeching Christingle service, not as a cold and embarrassing delay to Christmas lunch, as dad awkwardly navigates through that high section of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, with Agnes’ 4-foot flute tweeting out of the haze to the west? What if they were welcomed as a sacred space (with an even smaller ‘s’), encouraged for use, for music, for dance, for quiet, for noise, for parties, for feasting, for silence and solitude? Why not? Look at the heartwarming work of the Churches’ Conservation Trust’, or even at Anna Walker’s idea of ‘Festival Churches’.
Seeing a church hijacked by Winkworth for ‘development’ (carving up and installation of endless, solar-powered atmospheric blue lights), as has happened recently near Clapham Junction station, makes for a sorry sight and an ever-more dull existence of going on Netflix. You can do that at home, can’t you!