What would you be, you wide East Anglian sky,
Without church towers to recognise you by?
John Betjeman, A Passion for Churches (1974)
It’s impossible not to look at and write about English village churches without the presence of John Betjeman. Although he will be remembered as a highly original poet, and was widely appreciated as such in his lifetime, it was his television films that made Betjeman such a recognisable figure in the 1960s and 1970s. Made in television’s salad days, before its executives thought they knew what was good, these are highly personal portraits of places and things that Betjeman loved: the seaside, trains, architecture and, repeatedly, churches.
One of the best, A Passion for Churches, is about Norfolk’s churches and it can be watched on the BBC iPlayer. In it Betjeman visits some wonderful places: Trunch, Sandringham (where Tony Fitt-Savage was organist at the time), Cley-next-the Sea.
But it’s the people who steal the show: the mothers with their children at a Wednesday afternoon Sunday School; the young couple getting married (he went on to be a Bishop of Manchester). He meets the Chaplain of the Broads, chugging about on a boat to greet the holidaymakers, a vicar dedicated to his model railway and another going out to see the men on the Smith’s Point Light Ship. There’s 6am Easter service on the quay at Lowestoft with a Salvation Army band, people singing hymns in the wind and sun. And there’s Billy West, a bellringer for 60 years, saying:
Ah that’s music in your ear, that’s music in the ear. Once that gets hold of you, I suppose that’s like smoking cigarettes; once that gets hold of you that, that’s a drug: you can’t get rid of it. There’s something about it, I don’t know what it is, but you’d go anywhere for it. If there weren’t somewhere where there were some bells I’d go crazy, I know I should. Bells are life to me. I mean, it never seems Sunday to me if we don’t hear the bells.
But it’s hearing the Norfolk in Mr West’s voice that gives that statement its poetry.
And poetry runs throughout the film as Betjeman shifts easily from prose to verse in a way no one would dare to do today.
And should we let the poor old churches die?
Do the stones speak? My word, of course they do.
Here in the midst of life they cry aloud:
’You’ve used us to build houses for your prayer;
You’ve left us here to die beside the road.’
Christ, son of God, come down to me and save:
How fearful and how final seems the grave.
Only through death and resurrection come;
Only from shadows can we see the light;
Only at our lowest comes the gleam:
Help us, we’re all alone and full of fear.
Drowning, we stretch our hands to you for aid
And wholly unexpectedly you come:
Most tolerant and all embracing church.
A Passion for Churches was made forty years ago. It’s not just the clothes and plummy voices that seem to belong to another age. Such public statements of belief would cause embarrassment in public life today. It’s Philip Larkin’s post-religious ‘Church Going’ rather than Betjeman’s faith that fits the tenor of the age.
Nothing is more remote than the recent past: not yet history but how we were is already unthinkably strange. Thus we live and pass and all that we believe to be normal is just more of the vast oddity of human beings.
In some churches all prayer has ceased.
St. Benedict’s, Norwich, is a tower alone.
But better let it stand
A lighthouse beckoning to a changing world.