Busman's holiday

Assistant Rector's House, July 1999

The Arundel Tomb at Chichester CathedralOn holiday in June we visited lots of churches along the South coast - partly to escape the odd shower of rain, partly because churches in their quietness and beauty refresh the spirit, partly out of sheer curiosity as to how other churches work!

Some things still stick in the mind, because they demonstrated so wonderfully the diversity (and idiosyncrasy) of God’s people throughout the ages. There was a church where a large hourglass hung on the screen adjacent to the pulpit to ensure that the sermon did not go on for too long (but note that an hour appeared to be the upper limit!). In the same church is a life size statue of a local 17th century worthy. The body of the statue, magnificently apparelled, is that of the powerful French King Louis XIV - made in England and pirated on its way home across the channel, so that the local squire could put his head on top of it and have a truly regal memorial!

Then there was the tiny Norman village church, where in the 18th century three private box pews had been built for rich local families. These high-sided pews each had a fireplace and were like small sitting rooms with sofas and cushioned chairs; from within the occupants could see neither pulpit nor altar; access was from outside the church so they did not have to mix with the hoi-polloi. In contrast the poor and orphans sat in a narrow first-floor gallery immediately facing the top deck of the three-tier pulpit where they could never escape the eye of the parson.

And for a few days we stayed near a church which seemed all steps. As you enter you find the font in the centre of the large porch. A flight of steep steps goes up from there to the nave, another flight into the chancel, and another flight into the sanctuary. From the font the altar seems high and distant and unobtainable; from the altar the people feel ‘below’ and separate. I wasn’t sure whether this portrayed a prayerful ‘ascending the hill of the Lord’ or if it depicted a sense of rigid hierarchy.

Other memories are of beautiful Saxon herring-bone masonry, of quiet churches on cliff tops and in hidden valleys, and of the many memorials to those who had given their lives in war, killed in the immediate vicinity - airmen in the Battle of Britain, sailors in the Channel. Then just one church where a plaque gave thanks that no lives were lost in the village in the last war.

All of these vignettes convey a picture of the church of Christ as a mish-mash of amazingly varied qualities and attributes. One builds up an image of a people who through the ages have been variously - courageous - vain - holy - snobbish - artistic - interested in the form not the content of religion - devout and faithful. How one asks oneself has the church of Christ continued to exist and grow with such a rag-bag of members? (and that includes us all).

But then one comes across something which gives a clue to the answer. One day we stood in Chichester Cathedral in front of the Arundel tomb. Side by side, carved in stone, lie the earl in full armour and his very proper lady. It comes as a shock to see that the earl has taken off one of his gauntlets and is tenderly holding his wife’s hand in his own. For centuries they have lain hand-in-hand expressing their love for all to see. Philip Larkin wrote a wonderful poem about this effigy, just called Arundel Tomb. It ends with the words:

What will survive of us is love.

This is what pervades churches most of all. An ongoing ‘loving’ - love for God and love for the mixture of humanity which he has created. Despite all the centuries of silliness, and pettiness, and lack of understanding, love has survived in the life of the church. And love is God’s ‘meaning’. That’s what transcends all our failings and peculiarities. The love of God keeps us going and always will.

Eileen McLean

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 1st July 1999