An ancient and beautiful church fulfils its primary function merely by existing. It is, in itself, and irrespective of the numbers using it, an act of worship. … It is only in modern times that the belief has arisen that a church has to be filled regularly with worshippers to justify its existence.
These words, originally from the Friends of Friendless Churches and quoted by the late Henry Thorold, in his Lincolnshire Churches Revisited, are a striking reminder of the difference between being and doing, a distinction that is often forgotten in our utilitarian age.
It’s been quiet on these pages for a few days because I’m working on the first draft of the book – well, to be more precise, on the first draft of the first part of The Light Ships book. Using only the words of the 70 or 80 people I’ve met in the past three months, this is the core of the book. It is something of an experiment, as I try to weave a true and interesting tapestry from all those conversations. I did a short version of that for another book called Where We Dream, but this is very different, not least because this is a much bigger conversation between people who have never met. I expect to have it done by the end of the month, so that everyone can check their own part, as it were.
In the meantime, here is a little gallery of church kneelers, which are for me the very symbols of art that in the service of life, faith, community and memory. It is also an art without pretention or, it seems to me, egotism.
Jo Wheeler’s Village Postcard project – a Transported commission, like The Light Ships – is coming to fruition this week, with photographic installations in bus stops at Cowbit, Moulton, Whaplode and Pinchbeck, as well as on the 505 buses that link Spalding with King’s Lynn. All the details are on Jo’s website. Because we’re working in the same villages, there’s naturally some overlap – and here’s her account of a visit to Whaplode church, with some great photos of the churchyard.
Found out about the Whaplode riot of 1482 today, which took place in the grounds of the St Mary’s where I’ve been photographing recently. The grounds are more of a cottage garden than a graveyard, which the villagers plant and tend. There are no oppressive yew trees, and this time of year there’s a wonderful array of colourful and casual blooms lining the pathway to the Church entrance and framing the ancient stone. In the 15th Century the Abbot at Crowland was responsible for collecting Whaplode’s local taxes. When these were not used to make urgent repairs to St Mary’s the villagers asked if they could chop down the trees in the grounds and use the wood to make the repairs themselves. When the Abbot refused the villagers rioted, kidnapping the Abbot’s local steward and taking axes to the trees. So there may well have been Yew trees at one time! Hundreds of years…
Rupert Brooke, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (1912)
Although written long before anyone knew the Great War was coming, and in a lighter tone than the poetry he would write when it did, Rupert Brooke’s evocation from abroad of life in an English village is endlessly poignant. We do, after all, know what came in 1914.
Rupert Brooke died in 1915 on a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea. He was 27 years old. By then, his poetry was both successful and closely associated with the war. His sonnets, The Dead and The Soldier, – ‘If I should die, think only this of me’ – had caught something of the spirit of sacrificial heroism that had inspired young men from all over England to volunteer in the summer of 1914.
Among them were scores of farm labourers, tradesmen and other young men from the Fens, who joined the Lincolnshire Regiment and fought on the Western Front. Many of them, far more than anyone imagined on 4 August 1914, never came back. The lost were remembered by their parents, sisters and former comrades in the parish church, where so many other lives, and so many historical crises, had also left their mark.
The poetry of the First World War is closely linked in the English imagination with the experience of industrial warfare. No other war has left such a trace in our literature. Today, one hundred years after the entry of Great Britain into the Great War, let the words of another fine poet, Laurence Binyon, mark the day, as they have so often in Remembrance Services in each one of these churches:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
In 1914, Macmillan & Co published the latest in their successful series of topographical books on England. Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire was written by a retired Hampshire Headmaster, Willingham Franklin Rawlings, and illustrated with pencil drawings by Frederick L. Griggs. It was a handsome volume, over 500 pages of rich text about the county, with – as usual in Lincolnshire – much attention given to the ancient churches.
Griggs’ drawings, even allowing for the limits of available print technology, are very fine. Although he contributed illustrations for a number of similar books, Fred Griggs (1876 –1938) was far more than a jobbing artist. He studied at the Slade and was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He made an important contribution to English etching and has been described as ‘the most important etcher who followed in the Samuel Palmer tradition’.
And, like Edwin Smith, John Piper and so many other 20th century artists drawn to the subject of churches, his work was firmly within the English neo-romantic tradition. Here are his drawings of fenland churches as reproduced, on the eve of the First World War, in Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire.
Cowbit Church, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
Gedney Church, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
Whaplode Church, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
Boston Stump, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
Pinchbeck Church, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
Surfleet, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
Boston Stump from N.W., Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
Fleet Church, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
Boston Church from the N.E,, Frederick L. Griggs, 1914
A baking July afternoon in Lincolnshire. Everything feels flattened under the heat: sheep, crops, fields. The houses I pass are quiet as if people are waiting for the cool of evening to come out of doors. A wrong turn has brought me to Asgarby, a village I’ve never seen: a few houses and a lovely church sheltered by trees as they so often are in the English countryside. I pull over and walk down the lane to the iron gate of the churchyard; a little wooden sign says ‘welcome’. But, with disappointment, I find the church locked. At least the windows are low and filled with clear glass, so I get tantalizing glimpses of the lovely, light-filled interior through the spider webs. But it’s not the same as being able to sit in the cool stone for a few minutes before going on my way.
Unattended churches are vulnerable to thefts, though perhaps less than they once were thanks to modern security measures. At greatest risk, according to statistics published by Lincolnshire Police, are personal property (such as mobile phones), equipment found in the community spaces now common in churches, and building materials – above all lead. Last Friday night, five strips of lead were stolen from the roof of Gedney church. It’s a distressing blow to any church community and the repairs will cost far more than the stolen metal will fetch. But the church being locked made no difference.
Since 2001, both Labour and Conservative governments have made free admission to national museums a point of principle. It’s certainly one mark of a civilised society that its major public museums are open to all. But not everyone can get to the V&A, Tate or the British Museum to see the nation’s treasures. It may be free to get in, but getting to the entrance is not.
There is great art in every part of the country though: in England’s historic churches. These buildings are among the oldest and finest we have. They are treasure-houses of sculpture, stained glass, metalwork, painting and other forms of art, where elite and everyday tastes claim legitimacy in a cultural negotiation that has left its trace over centuries. And they are freely accessible. When they are not locked.
So perhaps the Department of Culture, Media and Sport could find a way to help ensure that more of them are open, to more people, more often. There’s the Heritage Lottery Fund, ministers will say – but they haven’t spoken, as I have, to elderly people who have struggled with the forms only to be turned down, twice. A government-backed insurance scheme might be one form of assistance, but there are undoubtedly others. A little imaginative help to the communities who use and cherish these buildings, for themselves and for the nation, could make a simple by substantial difference to people’s everyday access to their artistic heritage.
The churches of England do not, like those of France, belong to the state, neither do they belong to the Church Commissioners, the bishops, the parsons or the patrons. They belong to the people. They are part of our common heritage and the responsibility for their custody rests legally with the parochial church councils and morally with the parishioners, of whom the church councils are the elected representatives. In the cases of non-Anglican churches the position is similar. They belong to the religious societies for whose use they were built.
Our ancient parish churches were for many centuries the sole places of worship in the country and they therefore make a claim upon all of us, whatever our religious denomination may happen to be, because our forefathers built them, were christened and married in them and now rest beneath their shade.
Lincolnshire Old Churches Trust, 1976
If allowance is made for some of the old-fashioned assumptions about faith and gender in this 40-year-old quote, it remains a lucid explanation not just of who owns our churches, but why.