In England, the Church of England provides part of the landscape in most villages and in many urban and suburban centres: a building designed to dominate the immediate surroundings. Of course, a large proportion of these were borrowed from Rome, and in town centres they may be now dwarfed by secular buildings. In other countries, settlements often have something similar near their core: church or chapel or temple or mosque. Many people who rarely if ever attend prayers value these for their architecture or as historical and community place-holders.
For twenty years I’ve loved Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going (you can read it online at Google Books in Malcolm Guite’s book Faith, Hope and Poetry, pp188-9, where Malcolm also discusses the poem at length. It’s a poem which Christians and anti-Christians sometimes fight over, and Larkin the atheist seemed to think that Christians read too much into its last two stanzas. Malcolm, for example, a poet and a chaplain himself, says Larkin ‘reluctantly celebrates the numinous’.)
Larkin expected all churches to eventually become redundant. Yet he reflected that churches once ‘held unspilt … what since is found only in separation – marriage, and birth, and death, and thoughts of these…’
I got to know the poem at a time when I was beginning to experience the Eucharist as a nexus and a palimpsest: layers of meaning and personal associations were accumulating on the simple focus of bread and wine at the altar. I don’t think Christians own Christianity: I’d rather see church as a potential space for people ‘of all faiths and none’ to find bits of themselves, and unexpected connections, when they need to. But I know this often works best when people far more committed than I am work together to provide that space.
Larkin reminds us of the traditional churchyard (’so many dead lie round’)and plays with words like ‘serious’, ‘gravitating’ and ‘ground’ in his last stanza as he tries to describe the draw of the empty church. I’ve never wanted to reach out to the author and pull him through the door into a creed, because his words are so reverent: they revere the emptiness and the groundedness of the church experience, which form such a strong strand in Christian tradition too (not least in the poems of R. S. Thomas).
I can’t compete with one of the greatest poets of his generation, but I offer the following as part of my reflection on the potential of the Church of England to be an even better host, even to those who disagree with it. Who’s to say that you or I understand the heart of the matter better than a passer-by who drops in to look round?
These too you have made: stone
chapels or Victoriana:
Gothic, Romanesque, suburban;
sturdy Norman, decorated Saxon
arches, porches, rising
perpendicular from our clay
plain of England, growing out
beyond our borders, looping back
from other hemispheres to remind us
of you. Here you stand
handing out the hymnbooks,
coffees, teas, as we fail
to recognise you, concoct safe
sins to confess, mutter creeds, croon
our hymns. We shuffle to the altar rail.
Electric light seeps through
side windows to the lichen stones
enriched with crumbling bones, or to Council slabs
hallowed by passing feet. What we took
from Palestine and Greece and Rome, brought
from Indies East and West and from our cradle
we have made collectively our own. This
is our landscape: we’re all visitors
grazing on the souvenirs or biscuits
or theology, skimming for a photograph, darkening
the door for a funeral in an unfamiliar tongue.
White surplice or white bridal gown,
we’re passing through and these
extensions to our villages and towns,
these added limbs, are not,
for most, the ribs around the heart.
The body shifts, the breath is found
in national park and shopping mall,
in lecture hall, laboratory and book.
Stage, screen and instrument proclaim
your word. Yet here you built
church centre, minster, corrugated shed
to bless the born, the wed, the dead,
whether they wander in or wonder why,
so many still pause here to look, or cry.
© Chris Fewings 2012
The main illustration is of ‘Iffley church, south door This door, no longer used, is the most exuberantly carved of the three, bearing several rows of Romanesque designs featuring fantastical animals, horsemen, rosettes and zigzags, appearing as if fresh from the mediaeval hands that created them’. The second illustration: ‘Romanesque carving, Iffley church Detail of the west door: rows of beaked heads with, above, the symbols of the evangelists alternating with cat-like masks. One theory suggests that these latter are related to the kirttimukha of Hindu mythology, see http://www.bejo.co.uk/greenmantrail/html/missing.html. Both photographs uploaded to Wikimedia by ceridwen and made available under CCL.