Church Going

The current discussions about merging our two City Centre parishes of St Mary and St Peter with All Saints are naturally making us uneasy. We wonder whether we will still be able to worship in our old familiar ways in our old familiar buildings, how these ways may look to others, and to what other uses the buildings may be put. Reflecting on this has called to mind a pair of poems by two of my favourite twentieth-century poets: “A Lincolnshire Church” by John Betjeman, and “Church Going” by Philip Larkin. Both describe a visit to a church.

Betjeman approaches his church in jaunty fashion:

What sort of church, I wonder?
The path is a grassy mat,
And grass is drowning the headstones
Sloping this way and that.

while Larkin is more cautious:

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

Betjeman has an easy familiarity with church architecture:

“Cathedral Glass” in the windows,
A roof of unsuitable slate -
Restored with a vengeance, for certain,
About eighteen-eighty-eight.

but Larkin professes no such knowledge:

From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.

Betjeman is also clearly at ease with the liturgical aspects of his church:

The door swung easily open
(Unlocked, for these parts, is odd)
And there on the South aisle altar
Is the tabernacle of God.
There where the white light flickers
By the white and silver veil,
A wafer dipped in a wine-drop
Is the Presence the angels hail,

Larkin, in contrast, sounds almost oppressed:

...some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Betjeman writes with urbane wit and apparent effortlessness; his poem is good fun. But even in the 1940s he seems to wonder why the church is not used by more people.

Dear old, bloody old England
Of telegraph poles and tin,
Seemingly so indifferent
And with so little soul to win.

Larkin is less easily accessible, with a complex rhyme scheme (ABABCADCD) and rich and sometimes obscure vocabulary. He does not shirk from considering the possible death of Christianity, at least as far as attending church is concerned. He wonders what we would do with the redundant buildings:

...if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.

Yet even Larkin the atheist finds himself unexpectedly moved by his visit:

I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,

and sees that a church building has a powerful hold on human imagination, partly because of its long association with “marriage, and birth, and death, and thoughts of these” - and in consequence:

It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,

A church building will always be attractive to those with some sort of spiritual longing, and also perhaps to those who do not yet realise their spiritual longing. For:

...someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Larkin's masterly use of the word “gravitating” implies somebody pulled naturally but inexorably by a force he cannot see and may not understand, while “ground” can mean not just a plot of land but also a foundation.

It is tempting to take refuge in Betjeman's comfortable familiarity with our buildings and liturgy, gently regretting that those outside have “so little soul to win”. But I think we have to square up to Larkin's demanding analysis, and work out what we should do with these buildings whose care is currently our charge. How may we best use their glorious architecture and powerful symbolism to stir up and direct the spiritual hunger of our fellow citizens? What are we to do with these serious houses?

Michael Leuty

A friend of mine, who knew the poet personally, reminds me that the "persona" adopted in a poem is not necessarily the poet himself, and tells me that Larkin did in fact know about churches.

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Last revised 1st April 2005