In a Country Church

I am seated in the chancel of a glorious medieval church, just behind the great rood screen, one of only a handful in England that survived the Reformation. Originally, it would have been topped by a great cross, with figures of Our Lady and St. John alongside. Today, its intricate carving and delicate arches welcome visitors who, like me, are here to enjoy beautiful music as part of the local festival, which attracts orchestras and musicians from across Britain.
The concert begins with a discordant modern piece. Complicated program notes tell me it’s all themed with the sound of a bell tolling in the note C, but I’m not very impressed, and it’s unmemorable. But then we move on to Mozart (glorious) and a haunting piece by Richard Strauss, written in grief over the destruction of Munich in World War II. And during all this, thoughts rise and expand.

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This church officially dates back to Norman times, but its origins are older. Records speak of it being rebuilt in the 11th century under Norman rule, so the Saxons clearly had a church here, and probably before them the Celts, too; most of the churches along this stretch of coast have Celtic dedications. That makes the 15th-century rood screen seem almost modern.
There is some Victorian brasswork and, of course, stained glass — a rather nice Baptism of Our Lord with John the Baptist presiding, and a charming Christ with a child in His arms: “Let the children come to me.” There is a fine tower and a full peal of bells. There’s a chantry chapel filled with monuments of the local landowning family; they still live nearby but gave up the castle to the National Trust some years ago. There is a War Memorial with its haunting list of names — a long list, double columns, for the First World War with its slaughter on the Somme and at Ypres — and its blood-red poppy wreath.
Today, the incumbent is a lady priest. Bright booklets for “Praise and Worship” show a cheery cartoon-style figure of a woman dressed in vestments, arms waving above her head, mouth open in a big grin, surrounded by other jumping people. Numbers for Sunday attendance are not very large — more traditionally minded worshippers perhaps tend to make their way to other villages, for this corner of the country is rich in churches of quiet beauty in settings of great loveliness.
A Catholic, I was brought up to know that a church such as this was built long ago for Catholic worship, but historical events meant that things turned out differently. During my stay in this part of the country, I’ll be driving into the nearest town for Mass at a crowded little Catholic church, Victorian with a bleak but necessary modern addition to accommodate the larger numbers of the holiday season.
“We must pray for the conversion of England,” my mother would remind us in my childhood, kneeling for a quick prayer whenever we visited an old medieval church on a country walk or as part of explorations on holiday. My sister was keen on brass-rubbing, collecting vast pictures of knights and ladies by rolling out sheets of paper across engraved memorial brasses and rubbing on top with black wax crayons to copy the image. I often found the old churches gloomy and unwelcoming, but it’s different today, with better lighting and heating, and a general awareness of the need to attract visitors. This church has a bright brochure for children, with quizzes and questions to answer, and interesting snippets of information.

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Would we want these great churches back, these fabulous monuments, so rich in history, so beautiful to enjoy and cherish, so horribly expensive to maintain? This one, like so many others, begs for money just to keep its roof intact, its heating system functioning (necessary on this chilly summer evening, crucial in the depths of winter), its fabric in good order. Babies are still baptized here, and couples married — but their families are not necessarily regular worshippers Sunday by Sunday. The building makes a glorious backdrop for a memorable occasion, rather than a week-by-week reality of worship to God. The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, once familiar to all inhabitants of a village such as this, now seem to belong to the intellectual patrimony of a smallish group not necessarily united in affirmation of their meaning and purpose. And when the lady vicar holds up bread and wine, what does she mean by this action, and in what manner is this linked with what previous generations have done in this building?
In Britain we liked to feel we have a unified history: no breaks, no revolutions, no invasions (except for that distant one in 1066). I say “liked” because I don’t think that is the message anymore; whereas at one time continuity was revered, however contrived it may have been and however dishonest the version of history it required, today there is a constant emphasis on the importance of change. Thus we are told that we have remedied the injustice of timeless centuries by allowing men to marry members of their own sex, and babies to be aborted with no legal penalty, and children in their early teens given contraceptives at school, the better to engage in sexual activities without fear of fruitfulness. {mospagebreak}
Today, a sense of a break with the past is celebrated, except where a “heritage industry” promotes a different message for tourists and visitors. So brochures in a country church draw attention to the history of its stained glass, monuments, and tombs; teashops and pubs similarly emphasize age and antiquity. But in schools history is taught warily, with an anxiety lest too much sense of unity with past ideas or values intrude; no patriotism lest it turn nationalistic; and minimal Christianity lest it threaten what is felt to be a private thing.
What of the future? Church attendance in Britain is generally low: Catholics form the largest group of practicing Christians, but the numbers are still not huge. Recent Polish immigration has swollen Mass attendance in our big cities, and despite big losses from the 1960s onward, there is a general sense that the Church is somehow surviving. But we are not about to claim back the ancient buildings — this beautiful place will not be a Catholic church in my lifetime.
What of the Anglicans? Will they continue to be able to keep up these great churches, with dwindling congregations and much uncertainty over the future of the Anglican Communion itself? And Britain generally — will there be people going to concerts of Mozart and Strauss as the years go by? We can be cautiously optimistic here: In the 1970s there were fears that the multi-million-dollar pop industry might sweep away all large-scale enjoyment of classical music, but that hasn’t happened.
But do things survive when the faith behind them is enfeebled? A church that has existed since before the Normans invaded makes you think that things can survive forever. But is it so? How many children in this village could recite the Lord’s Prayer? How many teenagers know the Nicene Creed? How many plan to marry in the Church, or have their own children baptized? How many, if they saw the rood screen as it was originally, with its cross and figures, would be able to name Mary and John, and give some account of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection?
Should one be pessimistic? There are still millions in Britain who do know what the cross means, and what this church represents. Survival since Celtic and Saxon times should mean something: It won’t all pass away just because today it is in Anglican hands that happen to be weak and confused. Who knows what the future will bring?

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The music ends on a haunting note and there is a moment of complete silence before the audience breaks into terrific applause. It has been a concert of great beauty, and in this loveliest of settings. As we reluctantly get up to leave I am still moved, and so are others — there is a quiet buzz of neighborly talk but no outbreak of chattering.
When Strauss lamented the destruction of Munich, it wasn’t so much the material destruction of a city he loved — although that destruction was on a massive scale unmatched by anything known by a city in England. The city’s churches could be, and mostly were, rebuilt; I have visited them. The greater tragedy — and this was what he sought to convey in his music — was the destruction of culture and values by the Nazis.
But one of Munich’s churches now houses the revered shrine of an anti-Nazi hero, Blessed Rupert Meyer, imprisoned by the Nazis and now honored by the Church. And in the strange tapestry of history, a later archbishop of Munich, son of an anti-Nazi country policeman, is today pope.
When Strauss died, his country was still in ruins and rightly ashamed of its recent past, but the city he mourned was rebuilt and had more to give.
Here in England, we have never had that sort of destruction. We don’t know what this country church — and the countryside of which it is a part, and the nation to which both belong — will see over the next century. The rood screen will see other concerts, other gatherings, other changes. One message emerges both from the music we have heard and the setting in which we have heard it: For survival and renewal, Church and nation require saints. We must hope they get them.

By

Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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