For those who know what they are looking for, the journey to the twelfth-century Norman church of St. Mary the Virgin is still something of an adventure. Others—hikers, tourists, or just people who take a wrong turning—come upon the deserted church by accident.
The winding country lanes of that part of Kent—the county where St. Augustine landed in 597—are narrow, sometimes only allowing for one car to pass through. St. Mary’s, which was officially dedicated as the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is in the hamlet of Luddenham, an Anglo-Saxon settlement situated on the verdant marshland opposite the Kentish Isle of Sheppey.
As Arthur Percival writes in his delightful little guide, the church was built because it was part of the manor house, Luddenham Court, which in turn was built because of the profusion of local spring water. The great conservative writer and contrarian, William Cobbett, visiting the area in 1821 said that it was “impossible to see a finer country than this.” Incidentally, if you wish to read the finest biography of Cobbett, go to G.K. Chesterton.
There are those in the Southern parts of the United States who still call the Civil War the “war of Northern aggression.” I have always preferred the more genteel description of those events as “the late unpleasantness.” For the English, our unpleasant experience of aggression was a little further back, in 1066, when the Norman conqueror, William, imposed an entirely alien culture on the Anglo-Saxon people; for some, that invasion still smarts.
William’s survey of his newly conquered land, the Domesday Book, was completed in 1086; it describes the hamlet of Luddenham as having a population of thirty-three households, seventeen villagers, ten smallholders and, intriguingly, six slaves. Like so many invaders, the Normans distributed the booty of their conquest to their own people, and so the “tenant-in-chief” recorded in 1086 is Bishop Odo of Bayeux, famous for the tapestry of the invasion.
Although it is likely there was a Saxon church in Luddenham before the conquest, it is the Norman church that the pilgrim or lost soul finds in the middle of a working farm today, with the manor adjacent. It has not been in use since the early seventies, yet it is described as “redundant but still consecrated.” In truth, it is not much to look at—it is bare and has a twelfth-century door with walls of that same vintage. The church is owned today by The Churches Conservation Trust, which keeps abandoned ancient churches from decay and, importantly, open for the visitor to wander inside.
Yet what a comfort it has been to enter that church these last weeks as the world grapples with the latest pandemic and so many experience something called “lockdown.” In semi-isolation a week or two ago, I set out to walk to the church, determined to pray in a place that, although “redundant,” had been a Christian church for more than 900 years.
There are no images or statues in the church, and the walls are a dull whitewash. Before the Reformation—or the “catastrophe” as Belloc called it, for such it was—the walls would have been bright with biblical and saintly portraits. There was a “real absence,” of course, for the Blessed Sacrament was not present, and had not been present since the time of Queen Mary, but, in a peculiar way, as I stood facing the wall where the Mass had been celebrated from the time of the Conqueror, or certainly his son, until another cruel tyrant betrayed England’s ancient religious heritage, there was a “Presence.” The walls spoke of all this building had seen and had survived.
Thoughts came to mind not only of the Reformation, when this church, although still Christian, lost its ancient worship but, more powerfully at this moment, of the Black Death, the pandemic that killed so many in the 14th century. It is perhaps, a cliché to talk of “walls speaking,” but speak they did on that windy afternoon with no one else in the church. The villagers who worshipped in that space would not have heard of “social distancing,” the prognostications of experts, or the vapid noise of the media, but the raw emotions of fear and anxiety in the face of a deadly disease are not separated by centuries.
They came through the decades, during times of war and pestilence, famine and fear, to the church, their church, which was always open, both for worship and comfort. Etymologically, the word comfort means to “strengthen greatly.” The people of the parish of Luddenham were strengthened for centuries in the one place where real comfort could be found. Not for them locked doors and decrees that the Last Rites must not be celebrated.
Many are writing their “virus diaries,” and publishing them, a genre that will become wearisome very quickly; there is only so much “love in a time of Corona” that the human heart can take, despite forced isolation. We do not have the diaries of the parishioners of St. Mary the Virgin. They lived, worked, married, and had families; then they died, in the “sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.”
At the very moment English churches were locked, the country was rededicated as the “Dowry of Mary,” the ancient title which would have warmed the hearts of Luddenham’s people for centuries. There is a spiritual component to this present crisis, as there is to every aspect of human existence. That is not to claim that the virus is “God’s curse;” it is merely to point out an essential truth. Like the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Luddenham, some would say that the Catholic faith is “redundant” in England, or that it will be when this pandemic is over. Yet the walls are still standing, and they “strengthen greatly.” The church is redundant, but still consecrated; so is England, and so is the West.
Image: Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire, Evening by Thomas Girtin