Monday 21 January 2013

Going to Church, Going to School - by Imogen Robertson

Clare Parish Church

My New Year’s resolution is to spend more time in church. To be more precise, it is to spend more time in churches. I haven’t become religious, though I sometimes think every writer’s career involves a great deal of praying for divine favour, but for anyone who is fascinated by English history churches are temples not just of God, but of time. 

St Agatha's Church -Richmond
I am a big museum fan. Love ‘em. Show me a museum from the Ashmolean to those tiny local museums that consist of three display boards and an axe head and I’m there, but there is something different about being in a church. In museums you are being presented with the past as past. There are things in glass cases carefully labelled and, separated from human hands and minds, I fear they often become dead objects. In churches objects are still being used for the same thing they’ve been used for for several centuries. The font is the font first, an example of 15th century carving second. The pews maybe remarkable for their poppy-head carving or the humour of their 14th century grotesques, but they are primarily there for people to sit in, just as they always have been. I think the continual use of a place or an object for a certain purpose over many years gives it an atmosphere or energy which lets us get as near to time travel as it is possible to get. When I see medieval wall paintings showing the cycle of the seasons, a man sewing seed for example, I don’t see a historical artefact, I see another human being getting through his year, just like me. 

The Ancient House
I’ve felt like that about churches for a while, the resolution to learn how to read churches was inspired by spending a week in the Suffolk village of Clare. We were staying in The Ancient House which is rented out to holiday makers like ourselves by the Landmark Trust. The bookcase was full of treasure, but the book I spent most of my time with was the Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches by D. P. Mortlock. It had a long entry on the church opposite the Ancient House - dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul - but even better it had at the back a glossary of terms which I wish I could have memorised wholesale. I contented myself with writing half of it down in my notebook. Now I want to spend more time in churches so I can learn to use some of these terms frequently and confidently, really savour them with the pleasure that comes from understanding: trefoil, crocketting, clerestory and squint; hatchment, reredos and pier. With understanding I expect a deepening of that feeling of connection with the people who built, rebuilt, altered and decorated these buildings. Learning to read a church, I believe, gives you a chance to see something of their stories unfurl in the air around you. 

Clare Parish Church
Take Clare Parish Church as an example. On the porch is not only a green man, but a green woman carved in the 14th century, then partially obscured in the 15th. Think of the people that have passed under her eyes on their way into church for baptisms, weddings and funerals as well as their weekly encounters with the saints and angels inside. I love churches with a touch of the pagan. It reminds you of the times when older beliefs were folded into Christianity. Or the lectern. I’ve walked past a fair few brass lecterns in my time, but I never for a moment realised that some of them were hundreds of years old. I’m afraid I’ve always thought brass equalled Victorian, but the one in Clare Parish Church dates from somewhere round the end of the 15th century. Knowing that I couldn’t help thinking of how many generations of parishioners had been keeping it so beautifully polished. It would have been there when William Dowsing, Parliamentary visitor for demolishing superstitious ornaments, came smashing through in 1643, tearing down the apostles from the roof and smashing the stained glass. Some of the later survives in the East window, a sun and a moon, enduring that and whatever else time could throw at them. The church has a range of leaflets about the church and some of the particular items within it. They are excellent. I’ll be looking out for those more and more and working my way through the beautiful new edition of Betjeman’s Best British Churches murmuring parvise, ballflower, cartouche - my own form of prayer, but a sincere one. 

Clare Parish Church


Theresa Breslin said...

This chimes so much with my experiences Imogen. Words like crocketting and clerestory need to be said aloud and I loved your expression 'to read a church'

Penny Dolan said...

Such lovely words - almost like sweets in the mouth.

This is a pointed reminder (at least, to me) to go into those churches one passes on various travels, and not think "Ah yes, next time." Thamk you, Imogen.

Mary Hoffman said...

This is one of many similar books on Amazon (sorry about them - you could borrow it from a library or buy from an independant):

Lovely post and I feel the same about old churches. But I thought "pews" were a very late invention? (As opposed to choirstalls).

adele said...

Lovely post...I love churches too. And cathedrals. Watch this space, as they say!

julia jones said...

You could make a resolution to spend more time in Suffolk - as a 2 for 1 deal. My bro Nick gave our mildly demented (actually not always so mildly ...) mother a guide to Suffolk churches for Christmas with the undertaking that he and I would take her to them throughout the year. We've done three so far and it's tremendous success as the feeling of being in a church is both familiar to her and thus reassuring but also a wonder and an adventure.

Theresa Breslin said...

What a fabulous idea Julia!

Imogen said...

Thank you all! I thought you would all be word fans. Yes, Julia more time in Suffolk sounds like a good plan. My father used to take his mother on coastal tours when she was getting old, he talks about those times with great pleasure.
Yup, Mary I suspect I meant choirstalls rather than pews. I've got plenty to learn, but its enormous fun.