THOSE who follow the career of the detective Hillary Greene (creation of the crime writer Faith Martin) will understand the attraction of a canalside walk through Thrupp, on the River Cherwell. Hilary lives on a canal boat, The Mollern, while solving crimes in Kidlington near by.
Last Saturday, meeting with friends for coffee and lunch, we walked through sun and showers along the tow-path. North-west from Annie’s Tea Rooms, we stumbled on a hidden treasure: Holy Cross, Shipton-on-Cherwell. We entered the church through an open door, and found a medieval interior restored in Gothic-revival style.
Light streamed from the east windows, drawing our eyes to the sanctuary and the altar. Everything was spectacularly clean, tidy, and well-ordered. Near the entrance were attractively produced service booklets for Sunday morning prayer and holy communion. The annual parish report of the previous year was on display for all to see, as was the parish paper. None was damp or crumpled. A notice reminded us to pray for all who had died from Covid-19. There was hand santitiser in abundance, but also, outside the porch, a bowl of water for visiting dogs.
This was a parish church that signalled that the two things that matter most are worship and welcome. Anyone could find sanctuary here, and, if they wished, find signs of faith, silently proclaimed. I later discovered that Holy Cross is part of the benefice of Yarnton with Begbroke, and that services are held there on only two Sundays out of four. Yet, to me, the church was alive and breathed community, service, and uncluttered holiness.
The Church of England is an incarnational Church, proclaiming and finding God in the physical and material realities of people’s lives. There may be other ways of “expressing” church, but we must always be discerning. Even the freshest of expressions is likely to go off — a sell-by date is implied by the very name. We are part of a fickle society that craves spiritual experience at the same time as it becomes more secular.
What the parish church has to offer has become counter-cultural. It is costly to prioritise place, continuity, and landscape. It takes sacrifice and loving service from volunteers and hard-working clergy. Yet parishes are where generations continue to learn the habits of worship and service, bringing to God not only their own joys and griefs, but also those of their neighbours and the world beyond.
Last week, Save the Parish was launched: an initiative to ensure that parishes remain central to the Church’s mission (News, 6 August). Without the parish church, we lose our roots and even more of our relevance. My fee from this article will go to the PCC of Shipton-on-Cherwell, with love and grateful thanks, for keeping open a portal to the Kingdom, both within and beyond.