Home yesterday from 3 days in East Anglia, indulging in a little gentle church crawling. Sad, I know, but that's life! Actually, armed as we were with Simon Jenkin’s 1000 Best Churches, and with 50% of the party determined that we shouldn’t miss any 4 star treat within reach, it wasn’t so much gentle as, well, gruelling, really.
I’d wanted to look at angel ceilings, so angel ceilings we looked at, and looked at and looked……….there were very few within range of our Kings Lynn base that we didn’t visit and enjoy, but sadly the effect of so many in a short space of time was to blur the details. My favourite, though, had to be Upwell, where a Georgian gallery means that you find yourself nose to nose with those fantastic beings, carved a good 600 years ago…close enough to touch.
It was the first time I'd been on a serious church-crawl since ordination, and I was intrigued to discover how much my perspective had changed; now these were not simply beautiful and historic places to meet God, but potential worship spaces. My critical faculty never kicked in in quite this way even at the height of my short lived career as an Eng Lit academic...I could still read trashy detective fiction with huge pleasure, but now I seem to consider church buildings in terms of some ideal Eucharistic celebration...and many of these didn't quite work for me. Sad.
There were other worries, too, though. With so much to marvel at and celebrate, so many of the churches needed massive repairs and were clearly losing the battle to fight decay. Thanks to those ambitious wool merchants, these mini cathedrals serve tiny villages, which would never have supported a building of such size and grandeur even in the heyday of Christendom. Trunch, for example, has one of those “the fundraising so far” boards outside the church, and alarming cracks and harbingers of doom about the place. It also has a stunning font, some choir desks with inkwells (left over from a period when the village school met in the chancel) and such a sense of the presence of God that I felt as if I’d slipped out of time and into eternity.
So…how do you square the circle?
These buildings are beautiful, precious, and speak volumes about the presence of God in those places.
They are also huge, rotting, and largely unsuitable for most main- stream Anglican worship.
Do we pull them all down?
Sign them over to English heritage without delay (always assuming they would take them)?
Or allow congregations and clergy to spend their days in endless cycles of fundraising and anxiety about the next big thing to go wrong?
I loved those churches but I came home praying that I’d never find myself vicar of most of them.
The shining exceptions were Blakeney (which had the added attractions of free coffee facilities for visitors, and a lovely display of work from the local primary school) and St Margaret’s King’s Lynn…which was, amazingly, open well into the evening and was so inspiring I felt tempted to begin an academic study of Margery Kempe (probably the most famous former worshipper there) on the spot. I'm not sure she'd be an altogether helpful example, though, as she is noted for her extravagant emotions...and I suspect I do those quite well enough anyway!