ON THE last Sunday when the churches were open, my wife and I drove along the apron of the chalk ridge that carries the White Horse away from Westbury. We parked outside Edington Priory, close to where Alfred the Great and his army reportedly repelled the Danes in 878.
Obeying the instruction on the church door, we washed our hands in the basin against the west wall. Then we walked quietly round the nave, while behind the magnificent choir screen a handful of worshippers sang tunefully. When the service was over, I set about exploring the chancel.
Edington Priory possesses a small treasure of exquisite, 14th-century carved figures. Each, about the size of a doll, supports a slender niche about a metre high. (I think these are technically known as imposts.)
One of these figures is a broad-backed young man who might have been recruited from the Young Farmers Club. Although he is still stooped, the niche above him has been vacant since probably the 16th or 17th century. He has survived long enough to constitute a metaphor that couldn’t have been conceived when he was made. In the quiet of the deserted church, he says something to me of the weight of emptiness. Despite the stoicism of his expression, his posture suggests that there is no difference between the load of what is there and the burden of what has gone.
“NICHE” is French for nest. I remember the first time that my wife and I experienced empty-nest syndrome. (As is common nowadays, it didn’t last long.) That peculiar combination of loss and achievement: all that labour, heartache, and joy that we call parenting, and which is directed towards the children’s departure. My mind turns toward the incumbents written on the board in the baptistery. Their vocation involves the same labours of heartache and joy, directed towards the child’s stepping out alone, the fledgling’s taking to the air. George Herbert pictured himself as a tree to which a bird entrusts her household.
Time was when that step was taken, that flight made, only in death — or in such a move away from home as Jane Danvers made when she married Herbert, here in Edington, in 1629 — or in going to battle. In the south transept are photographs of the men of the parish who joined up to fight in the First World War. In those days, the village had its own school and railway station. I do not know how many came to church on Mothering Sunday, but more, surely, than the few who, half an hour ago, were singing to the guitar in the shadow of Covid-19.
FOR many years, church occupied a niche. In those supporting sculptures, I glimpsed those who bore the weight — the clergy, churchwardens, clerks, sacristans, and many others — and the spirit in which they performed their duties. A bearded ancient ruffles a child’s hair; a young girl, full of joy, raises her niche like the cup after a netball final; a weary woman rests her head on her hand; a child angel radiates serenity; an old man buckles under the strain.
The various attitudes of engagement and exhaustion are dependent, not on whether the load is empty space or carved stone, but on perceptions of weight and lightness. A retired butcher told me years ago: “I don’t pray for a lighter load, but for a broader back.” What is it that we conceive as burden, and in what spirit do we bear it?
Our churches have been emptying out for decades. Good souls have been borne down by this, while others have been uplifted: the shedding of a load cannot be burdensome for a Church aspiring to mediate the gospel carried by disciples whose first instruction was to liberate themselves from material attachments.
It seemed to me that those stone figures were shouldering, in those vacant niches, something of little substance, but of great value. In the emptiness, there is room for the spirit to soar and for the space to sing, for the broken to weep, and the lost to rest.
SOCIAL distancing has forbidden us the shaking of hands at the beginning of relationship, and the holding of them at the end. Now, more than ever, perhaps, we feel the need to be close to one another, and to God. The Church’s decline, and the threat of the coronavirus, have both helped to clear the path of our longing. No longer able to count and court the people who come, what better response than simply to open, and to wait, confident that God is in the emptiness as well as in the stranger or friend who enters it.
A week later, the decision was taken to lock church buildings. The space that had been empty became closed.
The Revd Robin Isherwood is Preacher of the Charterhouse, in the diocese of London.