AT FIRST, I wondered what kind of book this was: was it another account of the current state of the Church? Or was it, rather like evensong itself, a book that helps you to unwind at the end of the day? Well, these two elements are not entirely lacking, but the story that it tells is a very human story of a father and son, a vicar and an archaeologist — and a compelling story it is.
Memoirs are difficult books to write. After all, what may be of supreme importance to the writer might not be so significant to the reader. The success of such writing depends on how the story is told. Richard Morris avoids nostalgia, and, as one would expect from an archaeologist, sets out a layered story of the different people and places whose character is vividly drawn here.
The places associated with John Morris’s ministry loom large in the story of the post-war heyday of the Church of England. There is the building of a new church at Longbridge, the story of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, and the excitements of “South Bank religion” in the diocese of Southwark.
And, along the way, other lives intersect and reappear through the story: notable figures such as Stuart Blanch, Leonard Wilson, Mervyn Stockwood, and Geoffrey Beaumont, later to become a monk at Mirfield, and pictured here in clericals, singing in a Soho coffee bar.
St George’s Hard Times, a spoof tabloid printed by the Birmingham Mail as part of a fund-raising carnival for St George’s, Birmingham. One of the ‘parsons’ shown was the author’s father
Rich memories are recovered, letters are read after the death of Richard’s father, and so matters of the heart, as well as plans and achievements, are well documented in the telling of these connected lives. Father and son are in tandem through the book, the focus switching from one to the other.
As life progressed, the son of a vicar found himself involved in working with churches and cathedrals, and there are fascinating chapters on the fate of a church built above a West Yorkshire coalmine, on early archaeological explorations at York Minster, and on the more recent development of “Bede’s World” (now, alas, rebranded) in Jarrow.
The archaeological work on the early monastic community at Jarrow-Wearmouth was undertaken by Rosemary Cramp, to whom the book is dedicated. So-called “Celtic spirituality” is brushed aside, but the stories of the saintly brothers Cedd and Chad are fully told, returning the reader to the environs of Birmingham via Lichfield. There are twists and turns in the narrative, but why is there a separate chapter on the early history of the organ?
Well, music is the thread that appears and reappears throughout the narrative and holds this lengthy tale together. So, what kind of book is this? On one level, it is a celebration of the parish; on another, it is a ringing affirmation of the importance of our church buildings. John Morris was a priest attuned to the rhythm of the Church’s daily prayer.
Days come to an end, but, at evensong, even in the time of Covid, we may catch the tune, and in the morning say: “Come, let us sing unto the Lord” (the Venite, Psalm 95).
The Revd Christopher Irvine is Priest-in-Charge of Ewhurst and Bodiam, and Rural Dean of Rye, in Chichester diocese, and teaches at Sarum College and the Liturgical Institute, Mirfield.
Evensong: People, Discoveries and Reflections on the Church in England
Weidenfield & Nicolson £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50