An ancient church is a complex physical object, in a particular place and marked by the passage of time. We recognize that it has purpose and meaning and so we often talk about it – directly or indirectly – as needing to be decoded. It’s true that its sculptures, paintings and stained glass were intended to remind people of specific biblical stories. Its form and the rituals it served were shaped by clear theological beliefs. Nowadays, in the age of cultural studies, ‘text’ is frequently applied to things other than arrangements of letters like these. Everything is a text, if you know how to read it.
But, it’s said, we live in a post-Christian country. People are no longer brought up with the stories of the Old and New Testaments. They do not know about the loaves and the fishes or the Tree of Jesse, nor where a Catherine Wheel gets its name. The uncertainty evoked by Philip Larkin in Church Going – ‘some brass and stuff / Up at the holy end’ – is felt by many people (though perhaps not the poet himself). At any rate, those who write about churches think so. Simon Jenkins writes in England’s Thousand Best Churches:
To most people today a church is a puzzling place […] Why piscinas, stoups and misericords; why gargoyles, corbels and Green Men? The church is a song without words, an architectural Sanskrit.
Sir Roy Strong, though he disagrees with Simon Jenkins about many things, also feels that this knowledge can no longer be taken for granted, explain that his book
is an attempt to tell those who love visiting these beautiful field buildings what went on inside them and in some form, however truncated, still does today.
And so books and TV programmes are dedicated to helping the visitor decipher the text that is an English parish church. Full of recondite information, they can answer almost any question you might have about architectural styles, funerary monuments or rood screens.
But do we really need them?
The point of Larkin’s poem is that, even without such knowledge and whatever their own relationship with Christianity, each person who enters a church understands that this is a place where, for centuries, people have wanted to be serious about themselves and their community, about love, about death, about existence. The forms in which that desire for something beyond ourselves is expressed matter less than the desire. And having been built and used for that purpose for so long, the place may not need help to communicate to strangers from another time or another culture.
(And if we do get stuck, there’s always Wikipedia.)
- Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Churches
- Roy Strong, A Little History of the English Country Church
- Richard Taylor How To Read A Church: A Guide to Images, Symbols and Meanings in Churches and Cathedrals
- Clive Fewins, The Church Explorer’s Handbook