Gifts from the past
In this article the Revd Corin Child looks around some Norfolk churches and finds a living heritage, not just history.
Years ago, before I lived in Norfolk, I accompanied a school trip to Norwich Cathedral. I wasn’t quite sure how this was going to go; the pupils were boisterous South Londoners, more used to cars and concrete than choirs and candles. But as the vaulting drew their eyes upward, they became quiet. A cathedral guide took us to the cloisters and showed us the smooth grooves worn at the base of the pillars. ‘We think the monks used to play a game,’ he said. Then, casting a shrewd eye across the class, he picked out Daniel, a boy I thought would be bored already. ‘You,’ said the guide. ‘Come and have a go.’ Daniel was allowed to swing round the pillars, instinctively placing his feet where the grooves were. It provided an explanation; but it also turned Daniel, of all people, into a monk having fun. His enthralment was complete when we moved on to see some historical graffiti. Daniel found his own initials carved by some much earlier visitor, and he ran his finger along the letters, amazed that his name was waiting for him in the stone.
Experiences like these may explain a recent piece of research which shows that a significant number of young people come to faith because of a church building. Inspired Classrooms, a project begun in Aylsham with its own online resources, invites schools to spend a day in a church with the full possibilities of the place in mind. A stained glassed window is, after all, not just period decoration; it is a story and a work of art, the perfect prompt for poetry or painting. A font is not just an antique, but also an ingenious mathematical and material construction. Churches are storerooms of crafts and philosophies; to visit is to receive a gift from the past.
The font, often the first sight to greet anyone opening an old church door, is a good example of a church fitting people have never stopped using. Take the font at St Mary’s Reepham – an obdurate object, made for the ages – in whose waters people have been washed for eight centuries. Locals passing it may reflect on a sacred moment in their childhood and, at the same time, the continuity of their community. Or there is the astonishing font cover at St James the Great, Castle Acre, which dates from around 1450. Impossibly perpendicular and seemingly fragile, it is still removed for baptisms as it always has been. In a village known for its ruins, it is a remarkably unruined feature.
Further in, a great wall painting may stop a Norfolk church visitor in their tracks. In All Saints Hemblington there is a 15th-century mural of St Christopher, standing astride the river that he carried Christ across, the decisive moment that divided his life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’. The person looking at it naturally contemplates their own life direction, and the image stays in the mind long after leaving the church. The church in East Lexham, dedicated to St Andrew, is one of the oldest churches in the country; nonetheless a local artist was given access to the walls to depict its saint in a modern mural. Andrew the fisherman looks out across the North Norfolk coast in jacket and jeans, holding fish but looking for faith. You can’t help looking with him.
In the end, though, church buildings are more about an overall feeling than separate features. Step into a church and you find it ready for worship: Bible open, parish newsletters printed, a sense that another service will be along soon. Great effort goes into keeping these buildings open because they are a kind of home, a place that centres people. Visitors checking out a church are also checking in. It may be a cultivated habit or simply because ‘it pleases me to stand in silence here’, as Philip Larkin put it in his poem ‘Church Going’.
On a recent visit to St Peter and St Paul, Bergh Apton, I found the church is as connected to the community as ever. The grass in the graveyard was left uncut because the hospitality extends to wildlife as well as humans. It all added up to something inviting that I wanted to return to – a place both ancient and modern, steadily doing its job. It made me think of Daniel, who will be grown up now. I wondered whether he has returned to a cathedral to remind himself of those mixed feelings of heaven and home. I hope he has.