‘Churchy days’ may not have been all day events. The day may have lasted no more than a mere morning; alternatively an aching afternoon of ‘having something to do’. ‘Churchy days’ may never have happened. But my mother has often spoken of these days, taken by my grand-parents as if the expression was understood. Although my grand-mother was a Catholic, believing when it suited and my grand-father from Quaker stock, they were not regular religious church goers. For me, then, they fit into the category of church goer and church going that I write about in these blog entries. Neither were they people with Pevsner‘s or Rice’s architectural guides close to hand. No, it was explained to me that on occasion they would get in the car and drive to a church. Just to visit a church. Just a little outing. I wish I knew which churches these were. They spent some of the war in Oxfordshire, so perhaps it was getting in the car to visit a Cotswold church. I wish now I had found out more. As a married couple, they spent most of their married life in Wimbledon and those were the days when there was so little traffic on the roads that it would have been possible to drive to the City in less than twenty minutes. Somehow I cannot see them driving up to a City church. I suspect it was more of a country occupation, perhaps when they were living in evacuation times. And whether a churchy day happened only once, or twice remains a mystery.
And what would they have spoken of as they got out of the car and walked towards the church and within?
”The weather, tomorrow, today, yesterday. The church door, the porch, the gate and where to park.
The opening and closing, the entering and leaving, the going in and out.
The light around and on the church, the weather-vane, the spire, the steeple, the clock, the tower, the windows, the slits, the portals and gates.
The darkening firs and elms against a dull, mid-afternoon sky (yes, it is that time of day I am sure!).
The flint or chalk of the church walls (although I somehow doubt it); the wood, was it oak or cherry or walnut?
The high altar dressed like a wedding cake? Or by contrast, how poorly dressed and ill-prepared the altar was.
You were less stooped than you are now dear lady. You carried yourself down the aisle, arms lithe and thin.
Do you remember that Ivor Novello song we heard for the first time?
Are there any images of saints on walls or in frames darling?
The bells. They are invisible. But how they ring.
Look at how the Virgin Mary stares at her child – she looks irritated rather than loving.
I did not like the vicar. He was not very friendly.
There are doves cooing and pigeons in the belfry and old birds’ nests stuck in the gutters, damp, sodden and good for nothing.
Is the church Anglo-Saxon or medieval or even Palladian?
Look at the tomb. How it takes over half the Lady Chapel. Some important family no doubt. I bet they prayed to God. How could they not with this here? Ooh yes, tomb visiting is what makes a church interesting. Gives us a sense of the history of the place. Oh, and the period.
Beautiful stained glass. Far too difficult to gaze up and look at it anyway.
Look at that heavy Bible. That Bible. The Bible – it looks unloved, un turned, dusty and dry.
This church needs an over-haul, and more maintenance and money. Well, no money in the offerings box I bet.
Where is the silver plate, the church plate?’ ‘Nicked I suspect’ hidden away lock and key, bolt and chest. Too many bad experiences. The gypsies. They are always to blame.”
My grandparents were no architectural or artistic specialists, but like so many of us who without really knowing that we are, like to imagine themselves as part of the church tradition of belonging.
And that belonging is as much about the church in all its grey stone faced austerity as much as it is about the church music at Sunday evensong and the trees cradling the stony, dewy tombs housing the dead in the churchyard, spanning all four faces of the church’s exterior. Even today, a church can be a focal point when visiting a village or town. We may not believe, we may not even try the door, but our sense of how it belongs to the Christian calendar, particularly at Easter and at Christmas does not eradicate its position in our hearts or memories. For so many reasons, churches plunge our common existence, whether we visit them or not. Whether we like it or not.
And so, it was one of those ‘churchy days’ for me. It was a cold, hopelessly wet Sunday afternoon. 1st January 2017. I had been given a book on Sussex churches for Christmas and in my completest state and anxiety that precedes everything I do, I decided to find two churches in the book that were not far from home. The book had said that the two churches were open every day. Soon though I discovered, it was to be an abortive churchy day. And the getting ready, the getting in the car, the getting out of the village and the getting on the right road to visit the churches took only a little less time than visiting the churches themselves. The first church looked promising, old and inviting. It had a chancel that looked older than the nave. It had some old and wonky beams in the porch. But a porch notice also informed us that we had to go and pick up the key from a house called ‘The Firs’. I knocked on the door of the house of the Firs, a white weather boarded house. I knew that I was going to disturb a man who was seated in a chair by the window, by the Christmas tree, with full-beamed spotlight lighting up what looked like a large newspaper – the Illustrated London News came into my mind. He was most gracious upon his arrival at the door and gave me the keys with clear instructions as to how to open the church door. Not the main door beyond the porch, but a much smaller door to the right, he was keen to say. The entering was easy. The going not so long after too. Our first inclination was to find the lights. Although it was only about 2.45 pm, the church was dim and soon to be getting dimmer. We looked in all the obvious places, such as behind the curtains framing the doors, on pillars, on walls beside all the doors. But no lights revealed themselves. We wandered around, with much to decipher and little hope of doing so. And my eyes did not really adjust. There we were, picking out distinctive low-slung Gothic arches at the chancel and a memorial to a local seventeenth-century scholar, a Mr. Harbert Springett who lived his life with virtue, peace and solemnity. But there was not enough light to really look and gaze at altar, font, pulpit, screen, tracery, brass or tablet or carving. I touched a pillar, just so I could say that today I visited a church. And nothing trembled, nothing moved. All inside was hard and smooth and sheen and stark and getting black. We solemnly departed. We departed, without light; we did not see the Light. The man was apologetic when I returned the key and said that I could not find the keys (to see the light – well I did not add this bit in brackets). His wife was also there when the door was opened for the second time and she said that the lights were behind the curtains by the bell tower. I did not look there I had to confess. She then asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. As I am so used to saying now, I said no. All I wanted….I just enjoyed looking around churches.
But I did not say that I was on a churchy day.
We tried another. A church prominently positioned on top of a small hill at Glynde. This is a small village with a stunning view of the South Downs and very close to Glyndebourne. I don’t think the opera house was here when Bishop Richard Trevor from Durham came to live in Glynde Place way back in the eighteenth century. But according to the records, he liked the Downs and bought himself a house where there was an existing church next door. But presumably in the name of the visual church zeitgeist, he demolished most of the medieval church and put up a so-named Palladian style church. This was in the years 1763-5. He was clearly a fast worker and this also suggests that he did not run out of money to build his church. Unlike so many. I am not sure why it is really called Palladian, as with its main pediment and then smaller pediment and then its two empty curved headed niches either side of the main door; it looks like many other eighteenth-century churches. The colour and timbre of its appearances certainly does not look Palladian. Its dark grey exterior equalled the greyness of the day. The church’s stone is a very dark grey, it has austere blocks, and it has little colour and surface decoration about it. A church fit for a Bishop and with an open door in the wall of the church-yard to break into his house! But the door we wanted, the church door was firmly locked and had no helpful notice to tell us where to get the keys. There was a notice saying that a New Year’s Day candlelit service was taking place at 5pm. This would mean waiting in the drizzle and the rain and the grey and the cold for over an hour. We could wait for our light. But tea and mince pies back home seemed that much more inviting.
My grand-parents would return home to their sky-high kitchen and the kitchen cupboard with the door that did not quite fit. And there they would have taken out a can, usually of Heinz tomato soup to have for lunch. To lunch at the rickety white, with flaking paint table that had one side placed against the wall. So sometimes, it was like talking to and eating with a wall. We eat on stools
So, as you can see, it was a very short churchy day today. Nonetheless, in one way or another, it was still a churchy day. Two churches. Solid out and solid in. Great shadowy beings on misty vales and hills. But today they gave me no light. Not even the glow of candle-light or the dancing, chasing and late flickering light of the late afternoon. But maybe my grand-parents have seen me through a cloud following in their steps. Church going does not have its limits and does not have to mean open doors. And yet, while we know that church-goers to services are a dwindling group and have been for over a century, is it possible that now even the custodians and volunteers of churches are struggling to keep churches alight and alive and open? Please, let the doors be open sometimes.