Yesterday, we held the final Light Ships celebration at Gosberton – not in the church, which was taken up with its own Christmas Tree Festival, but in the hall next door. In those much less imposing surroundings, I felt more relaxed about presenting the book than I had standing before the chancel arch at Whaplode and Wrangle, like an amateur preacher. So my talk was both easier to give and closer to what I wanted to say about the joy of working on the project, meeting so many kind and welcoming people, and listening to them speak about why their church and their community matters to them.
The Light Ships has been about gifts, though perhaps it’s only now that I can see it.
The gifts of time and trust that people brought, in coming to meet a stranger in their church, to talk about themselves. The gift of sharing treasures with a visitor – opening drawers, unfolding cloths, rolling back a carpet to reveal a hidden brass, guiding me onto roofs or under spires. The gift of lending photographs and books and knowledge. The gifts of hospitality and welcome, tea and biscuits and saying yes, of course, no problem…
And then, a gift in return, of telling those stories in a way that does them honour and giving each person their own copy of a book that, in its way, is just one more of those memorial books recording the lives of each church community over decades and ultimately centuries.
And yesterday was a day of gifts too. Old friends who drove from Nottingham and Newark to be there for me. A mother who’d organised a letter of permission so that I can put a video online (it will go up later this week). Ian, the vicar, finding time to put up signs to the exhibition in between caring for the sick. Tony, who drove all the way from Sutton Bridge to play the organ, as he has for each event. The Gosberton bellringers – Brian, Carrie Lester, Michael, Nicola, Peter and Rachel – who not only rang at the end of the afternoon, but invited everyone up into the tower to watch and even try their hand on the rope. The Transported team – Joan, Kristina, Lauren, Martin and Richard – who made everything possible: shifting chairs, setting up computers, making tea and, above all, creating a space of welcome for visitors.
All afternoon, in my pocket I could feel a bag of shelled walnuts that was a gift from Lou Thorpe, shared from the abundance of his tree in Holbeach St Johns. How often over centuries, I wonder, has a gift of walnuts been made to someone in the church of Gosberton?
Thursday was Thanksgiving Day in North America, but you don’t need to have got safely across the Atlantic Ocean in a small wooden ship from Boston to feel grateful. As the Light Ships reach harbour, I am deeply thankful for the gift of this time and to all those who helped make it possible.