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Place of witness worth stopping for

by
14 August 2020

Ted Harrison reflects on an empty rural church, where he found rest for the spirit

David Soulsby/Alamy

APART from one sneaky, two-minute visit to my local church, when I spotted that the churchwarden had opened up to check the building, I hadn’t been inside a church for 125 days. That was until the other day, when, to my delight, I came across an ancient country church in the heart of Wales, tried the big iron handle on the old studded door, and found, to my surprise and delight, that the door opened.

I had never been to that particular church before, but going inside was like meeting an old friend — one of those friends one doesn’t often see, but the moment you are together you pick up the friendship exactly where you left it.

Everything inside the church was so comfortingly typical and familiar. It was a plain, 13th-century structure, with straight-backed Victorian pews, whitewashed walls, unpretentious pulpit, unfussy sanctuary — indeed, few embellishments of any kind, bar a couple of modest memorials to long-dead squires. There were prayer books in a neat row on a shelf at the back of the church; numbers were still on the hymn board from the last service; and a visitors’ book, with just one entry since mid-March (and that was dated the day before) — a veritable time capsule of rural Anglicanism. It was a place where 800 years of the prayers and stories of a community were absorbed into the walls.

Some people, I am sure, would have looked around and seen nothing but a sad reminder of the continuing and relentless decline in churchgoing and rural life. The church was in a glorious position that had been first been consecrated as a sacred Christian place when a hermit settled there in the Dark Ages. In the churchyard was a holy well, now almost completely hidden by brambles. And there were several great yew trees, which may well have been growing before the church was built.

What was missing was a community for the church to serve. There must once have been a village, but, today, the church stands in complete isolation. It can be reached only down a narrow, winding, no-through lane. There is no passing traffic. My wife and I found it because we were looking for it.

I am sure that it would have still had a small, ageing, dedicated congregation who, pre-Covid, would drive there for Sunday worship. There was, I am sure, no longer a vicar — just, I guess, an over-worked priest-in-charge who would rush in to take occasional services before rushing off to his or her next appointment. What a change from the days when the church had its own incumbent who lived in the grand Georgian house a mile away across the fields.

 

A DISTANT planner in a diocesan office would be forgiven for wondering what purpose the church served. It is, no doubt, high up on a bishop’s list for closure. Tastefully converted, it would make a wonderful rural retreat for a wealthy Londoner, and, by selling it, the diocese could raise thousands of pounds. With central funds’ having taken a nasty hit from the fall-off in income because of coronavirus, the money would come in very handy.

And yet I know that the church serves a purpose that cannot appear on a balance sheet. I had never been there before, but my wife had visited it, pre-pandemic, with a friend. On that occasion, the church was not empty. Situated on a cross-country footpath as it is, there were walkers inside who had called in on their way past. From the evidence of the visitors’ book, it would appear that, in normal times, the church is seen by a steady stream of hikers. It stands as a witness to the eternal nature of God in a frantic world.

It has seen wars, famines, and plagues, but remained constant. It was there during the years of the Black Death. It stood firm during the Civil War. It has seen religious fashions swing from Catholicism to Puritanism and back again. It has been at the heart of celebrations and mourning. It has survived upheavals and disruptions of all kinds. It will long outlive any memories of the Covid-19 lockdown.

We are currently going through a general period of decline in formal religious practice. This, coupled with the depopulation of the countryside, means that the old purpose of churches such as this one is changing. They are no longer parish churches for the families, farms, and workers living around, but places for outsiders to discover — often by chance. They are resting places for walkers. Places for them to shelter, pause, and, in the silence, reflect. A kind of spiritual service station on the journey through life.

 

Ted Harrison is a journalist and artist.

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