Flying kites on Brancaster beach is the epitome of summer-holiday fun. So the children were not easily persuaded that we needed to leave the sand and sea, and go off in search of churches. But they were outvoted by the oldies.
First to the beautiful Burnham Thorpe, the church where Nelson’s father was Rector, and where my great-grandparents are buried just outside the porch. The thoughtful parishioners had even left orange squash for visitors, with a note inviting us to help ourselves. Next month is the 250th anniversary of Nelson’s birth, and the whole place is gearing up for celebrations. This is where he learnt the values that made him the great leader that he became.
I muttered the prayer he wrote before the Battle of Trafalgar, the wisdom of which remains stunningly relevant: “May the great God, whom I worship, grant to my country and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory: and may no misconduct, in any one, tarnish it: and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet.”
Then on to the shrine at Walsingham: “What are we doing here?” pleaded little furrowed brows. “What is so special about this place?” Well, it is a special place, and people have been coming here for years.
But responding to my children’s exhortations was not easy. Could I really say that God was somehow more fully present here than he was on the beach? Little did the kids know that they would have found a ready ally in the Reformed theologian Joan Taylor, writing in her book Christians and the Holy Places (Oxford, 1993): “The concept of the intrinsically holy place was basically pagan, and was not in essence a Christian idea. The idea of sanctified places, to which pilgrims might come and pray, cannot be found in Christian teaching prior to Constantine.”
Yes, God is everywhere, and is not contained or limited by churches or shires. None the less, there are places where I am able to recognise more of the divine presence than others. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once said to me that he believed the gap between heaven and earth was “thinner” above Jerusalem than anywhere else in the world. There are some places where that seems to be exactly the right way of putting it.
Even more so, as Christians, we are committed to a God who makes himself manifest in the specifics of space and time. In the incarnation, God is caught up in the nooks and crannies of the particular: in the stable where Christ was born, in the Holy House at Walsingham, and, yes, even on the golden sands of Brancaster. My mother calls Norfolk God’s own country. And so it is.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.