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Turning the church inside out

05 October 2012

Even if a church is locked, the exterior can still reveal a great deal about it. Martin Palmer acts as tour guide


Locked out: many churches are closed for security reasons

Locked out: many churches are closed for security reasons

DECADES ago, it was a common pleasure in Britain to find a little church in the countryside, or between urban buildings, and to push open the door and step inside. Today, however, more and more churches remain locked, except during service times, for fear of theft or vandalism.

Many people still share a love of visiting churches, but finding a church closed - often without information on where a key can be obtained - can be frustrating and disappoint­ing. Yet, even if people cannot go inside, there are some extraordinary stories, insights into Christian faith, and knowledge about the natural world that our buildings reveal, if we know how to read the clues.

And it would be extremely helpful if those churches that are unable to keep their doors open were to make information available to visitors, so that they can "read" the church from the outside.

This is a practical outline of how to discover meaning and history in a church and its setting, and how you might produce a guide to the outside of your church. This could be available in the porch, or mounted on display boards. These days, of course it is possible to make the information available as a QR code (the new matrix bar-code, which can be read by a smartphone). In this way, visitors go away having learnt something, having had an adventure, and perhaps wanting to return when the next service is on.

1 Name of the church

THE old names of our churches had much more significance than just remembering a saint. For example, a St Michael's church is probably on a hill, and possibly to the north of some big town or city, or old religious site such as a monastery. In Christian tradition, St Michael is the archangel who threw Satan out of heaven, and who will fight Satan again in the Last Battle at the end of time.

For Christians, north is the direction of evil and danger, because, in the Bible, invasions always came from the north. So it made sense for a St Michael's church to be to the north, protecting the people below.

If the church is named after a local saint -Cuthbert, say, or David, Swithin, or Petroc - then it would be worth starting a guide by outlining the basic story. And it would be helpful to point to local features that are associated with the saint or the setting, such as a holy well, a river used for baptism, and so forth.

There may be particular reasons why a church received its name. For instance, St Mary is often linked to markets, as she was seen as a protector against corruption and falsehood.

St Peter, on the other hand, opens the door to paradise in Christian legend, and therefore is often associated with death. In Christian tradition, the east is the direction of both Eden and paradise, and churches named after St Peter are often to the east. Telling the story gives people a sense of "Oh, I see," right from the beginning.

2 Physical setting

USUALLY, churches are on a prominent piece of land. Why is that? Is it on a hill? (often St Michael, or St Catherine). Was it near water, for baptism (St John the Baptist, perhaps). Was it beside the castle, and part of the feudal world-view? Was it built by a long-gone monastery, to be the people's church, standing close to the monks' church? Was it built by a 19th-century industrialist, or philanthropist, as part of town planning?

3 Significance of direction

ANY church older than the mid-18th century will almost certainly be orientated to the east; so the church runs from the west door to the east window. Some are orientated to the rising sun at the equinoxes, and others to sunrise on the saint's day.

It is worth pointing out that the north side was the side of the Devil. Therefore, the oldest burials will be on the south side - the holy side. Only in the past 150 years or so have we buried on the north side.

The usual entrance is the south porch. But all medieval churches had a north door so that, when a child was baptised, the devil could flee to his own side. Many such doors still exist, or their outline can be spotted on the north wall.

The eastern end of the churchyard was where the clergy were traditionally buried, and, to this day, few burials will take place there.

4 Shape of the churchyard

IF IT is more circular than square, then it probably predates the Norman invasion, and may have a Celtic or early Anglo-Saxon link, as this was their design style and symbolised the circle of God's love and protection.

5 Sign of the cross

DOES the church itself make the shape of the cross on the ground? Are there the remains of a preaching cross? Is there a clearly visible cross anywhere (not including tombstones)? If so, it is worth pointing out to visitors why the cross is so important in Christian faith. It will be news to many.

6 Ship shape

It may be worth pointing out that the church will probably look a little like a ship. The tower or spire is the mast, and the church narrows down to the east end like a prow. Churches were often designed to remind us of a sailing vessel, representing the ship of faith, which carries you through the troubles of this world to the joys of the next. That is why the central aisle of a church was called the nave: from the same word as "navy".

7 Living churchyard?

A CHURCHYARD maintained in such a way as to encourage wildlife and flowers can tell many stories of how we relate to the rest of nature, in what has always been called God's Acre. In this case, a written guide could double as a nature trail, including pictures of the butterflies, and stories of the bats and bees which are pollinators for so many flowers and fruits in the neighbourhood.

8 Yew tree

YEWS are the oldest living things in Britain, and, at the Millennium, more than 10,000 saplings, grown from the 200-or-so yew trees alive when Christ was born, were distributed to churches throughout the country. Ancient yews tell us that this was probably a sacred place before the coming of Christianity.

9 Gargoyles

THESE were part of the drainage system, and made sure that water did not run down the walls. Many are of ferocious and hideous design, because the church was saying that these disturbing elements have no power over us any longer. The story that these extra­ordinary carvings tell is that even these strange beasts have been tamed by Christ, and therefore should not be feared. It may be worth telling visitors how the phrase "fear not" appears in the nativity story.

10 Following the sun

VISITORS should be encouraged to walk round the church, following the sun.For millennia, in the West, clockwise has been the sacred direction around holy places. We walk the pattern of birth to death, and then resurrection, as the sunrise and sunset remind us every day.

11 Start by the tower

THERE may be empty saints' niches - beautifully carved places where, before the Reformation, a saint's statue would have stood. This is a useful way to discuss the impact of the Reformation, and perhaps speculate which figure would have been where - the patron saint, for example, or Mary, or Christ.

12 Former windows and chapels

THERE may be places where there was once a window, or even an entire side-chapel. There is a simple technique for dating these. If the window or door is narrow, with a small arch over it, it is Saxon or Norman - windows were small because glass was so rare. A larger arch with a point at the top will be from the 13th to 14th century. An arch that sharply reaches up to a point will be from the 14th to 15th century. A squared top will be Tudor to 17th century. Thereafter, builders take one of these styles and reinvent them.

13 Odds and ends

IT IS worth paying attention to whatever quirky details there might be, such as an old sundial carved into the south side, usually with a hole for the stick, and then a circle or semi-circle with lines marking the set prayers of the medieval Church.

There may be a pilgrim cross, showing that this was on a pilgrimage route. Some of these were carved with daggers with small roundels at the ends of each line of the cross. There may be 18th-century graffiti, perhaps by bored servants waiting for their masters and mistresses to come out.

14 Finish at the south side

THE word "porch" comes from the same Latin root as "port". This is where we go to set off on the adventure of faith, the journey through life and beyond. This could be used as an invitation to the visitor to return when the church is open, or as a place to reflect on how faith can help us to make sense of, and survive, the storms and the wonders and joys of our lives.

15 Place for prayers

THE porch could be a good place to locate something - a noticeboard, or a post box, perhaps - to allow visitors to leave their prayers.

16 Somewhere to pray

SOME people may have come to the church to find a solitary moment of quiet and contemplation. A small prayer-garden with a bench could be helpful, or directions to a neighbouring church which may be open.

17 Inside out

IF VISITORS cannot get inside the church, it would useful, none the less, to show them what they are missing. People will want to see what the inside looks like, and what they can find. They will also want to know where they can find out more; so a web address (if available) is vital.

18 Neighbourhood

VISITORS will want to know if there are other locations near by that will help them continue their journey - another fascinating church, an ancient pilgrimage pub, a historical site, an alleyway where monks once walked.

19 Giving notice

FINALLY, too many church noticeboards make you feel the church is not just shut, but dead. Old notices of events long gone; peeling paint; the name of the last vicar painted out but nothing new put in its place: these all tell a story of failure and irrelevance. What the noticeboard looks like - as with the exterior of the building - tells a story about the church, what it does, and why.

Martin Palmer is the author of Sacred Land published by Piatkus Books at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30 - Use code CT941 ); 978074995921.

Photographs by Nick Mayhew Smith come from Britain's Holiest Places, published by Lifestyle Press at £19.99 ( CT Bookshop price £18 - Use code CT941); 978-0-9544-7674-8.


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