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Word from Wormingford

25 January 2012

Ronald Blythe tries to imagine the voices of preachers long gone

I WAS about to describe what happens to me when I drift into imaginative notions about the incumbents board in church, when someone on the radio, talking about his introduction to music as a choirboy, called an old church “a resonant chamber”.

But I was wondering how these men preached rather than how they sang. Their flock stood around looking up. The old, sick, or preg­nant sat on a ledge — “the weakest go to the wall.” The Church Fathers — Jerome, Cyril, etc. — had their portraits painted on panels below the pulpit to remind the priests to stay orthodox and not to go off into flights of fancy. The mostly illiterate listeners hoped for a good story.

After the Reformation, the sacra­ments were short and the sermon was very long indeed. But, by then, listeners were able to sit, or even doze off for a bit. There might be glorious oratory, plain ignorance, inspired teaching, or just his reverence going on and on. It was a kind of rest, anyway, after a week in the fields. Chestnuts abounded.

After a hellfire sermon, the parson was shocked to see one old soul grinning. “But Mrs Smith, you could not have been listening to what I had to say.”

“Well, sir, what I say is, let them that has ’em gnash ’em.”

What I hear when I gaze at our incumbents — those who had obtained possession of a benefice and therefore who could say more or less anything they liked as long as they said something — is the creation of the English language: Saxon words eventually holding their own against the French, Latin becoming “learned”, and our East Anglian dialect in full swing. All this talk, in the same room, for close on 1000 years.

The speakers have beautiful names. At first, a baptismal name and the name of their origins, then Christian and family names, then names followed by Oxford and Cambridge degrees, then squirearchical names for a couple of centuries, and, eventually, the names of the half-dozen vicars I actually heard and whose voices — rather than whose sermons, I must confess — I can still hear, and this with affection.

The incumbents board is a book of life. “I was here.” “I spoke.” Did they speak like Chaucer, or George Herbert, or like Mr Collins, or like a saint? Or, best of all, like a poet for Christ? Who can tell.

The damp northern wall and the sun-baked south wall, the Victorian plaques, the fragmented glass from unreformed times, the Tudor and Georgian bells, the dead on the war memorial, the wafer-thin lip of the chalice, sipped for centuries, are silent.

It is left to non-believing and part-believing listeners, such as John Betjeman and Philip Larkin, to tell us what was said here; for all ancient parish churches are sound-boxes. Liturgy and local words are locked up in them; the sayings of Jesus, and sayings from the vicarage, scholarly erudition, and tales out of school. Last May, before we walked to Little Gidding, I preached at Leighton Bromswold from the wrong pulpit. Maybe only George Herbert could have got away with furnishing a church with two pulpits — one for the sermon, and one for prayer. Pale and massive they are, with huge hinges from the blacksmith, and creaking steps.

He never saw them, and we have never read his sermons. Yet I hear him, and all the great Christian writers, in our and every old nave. More now than ever.

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