Sunday, 20 February 2011

The English Parish Church

I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Taylor's insights into the significance of the English parish church (BBC2 Friday evening Churches, How to Read Them.) Searching behind our Victorian and post Reformation history, we find inspiration for returning parish churches to the centres of life that they once were, embracing every aspect of daily life and offering protection and assistance from the cradle to the grave.

St Michael's Downholme
 How does this sound - games, children playing and drama in church, sports and fayres in the churchyard, business transacted and courts held in the porch, cartoons (in their time) of bible stories and theological truths in the frescos on the walls, and areas of the church given over to special uses - for children, for baptisms, for churchings (women giving thanks after childbirth) and for trading and holding meetings. In particular, Taylor showed us a marvellous font in a Herefordshire church which depicted the whole story and theology of Jesus' baptism. He also showed us an area of a church with beautiful images of mothers and of St Margaret, the patron saint of chidbirth, where women had come to pray for strength and safe delivery before giving birth. Apparently, unidentified corpses were laid out in some church porches so that families could claim their mssing dead. The church was the place people naturally came for help, advice, support and in times of personal difficulty.

Some parishes are beginning to return their churches to the community in exciting new ways and to welcome a rich diversity of events to take place there. A few have never stopped being places of gathering for the whole community.  Others are more cautious and the fragrace of 'reverence' and severity pervades at all times - there is not a square inch without a pew in which to do anything! In the last parish where I worked as a parish priest, we used to hold our annual church festival in the churchyard in and among the graves. One or two people commented that it seemed a bit irreverant but most people welcomed the convivial atmosphere and thought that it was good to mix life with a remembrance of those who had once lived and enjoyed such events in their village. We also had games sessions for toddlers in church, often pausing to marvel, through a three year's eyes, at some of the artefacts in the church. Again, not everyone approved but the number of young families attending church improved dramatically! Many of the churches I visit now have special places set aside for prayer with candles, prayer trees and other prayer aids. Spaces for young children (some more convivial than others) are quite common, as are areas for exhibitions, infomation, art work and local photography. One or two churches even have places where visitors can make themselves a cup of tea. And I'm glad to say that a very large number of our country parish churches are open in the daytime.

In our generation, we tend to be rather shy of using churches for business (unless they are redundant and have been turned into carpet warehouses or pottery shops!) But medieval churches were places where a lot of business was carried out and where people came for justice and for education and information. People also caught up on gossip and ate in the nave. If you walked to a morning service and stayed for the evening service, you needed somewhere to shelter and eat in between. Personally, it always gladdens my heart when I discover churches that offer services the community needs, values and enjoys, even where this leads to money changing hands and crumbs in the transepts! It is also great to see churches used for lectures and meetings and these do not always need to be religious ones! It is all about balance and the PCC retaining proper control of the building so that at times when the building needs to provide a quiet, dignified and reverential atmosphere, this can be achieved.

St Edmund's, Marske
A few months ago, I took services at Downholme and Marske and I was moved by a deep sense, in both churches, that here were about 16 or 20 of us worshipping very much in the way that people had worshipped at the Reformation and even before it. Yes, some of the words had changed and, yes, the music had changed but, essentially, there had probably been a couple of dozen people from these villages saying their prayers together, celebrating Holy Communion and marking the joys and sorrows of people's lives in these sacred spaces for the past several hundred years. Box pews, pulpits and sanctuary spaces had changed, but the sense of the life of the community flowing through the church had not changed and nor had the expectation of meeting with God here. Nor, I suspect, had the fact that most of the village were not in fact present!

Let's find every way we can to open our churches up to people, to make them welcoming, interesting, enjoyable places to be!

You can view Richard Taylor's program on   

No comments:

Post a Comment