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Our Landscape Of Churches: Chris Fewings

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
churches, brick
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 Both photographs uploaded to Wikimedia by ceridwen and made available under CCL.

7 comments on this post:

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you very much for generously allowing us to post this on Lay Anglicana. That is obviously the first thing to say.

And the second thing is I am not sure I do not like it better than the Larkin. Different of course, but, on me at least, has a more lingering after-effect. I have been thinking about the ideas since I first read the poem a few days ago and the images pop into my head unbidden (‘shuffle’ to the altar rail, the contrast between the electric light and the lichen-covered stones, ‘Council slabs hallowed’).

And then the final melancholic couplet. (I have spent a happy hour trying to find a word for ‘tear inducing’. Lacrymal is not right. Lachrimatory is apparently just a bottle for tears. Lachrimagenitive is invented by me and not recognised in any lexicon. Can you do better? :>)

Chris Fewings said...

Thank you very much Laura! And thanks for introducing me to the word lachrymatory – George Herbert discusses just such a bottle without naming it ( I don’t think I can help with the word you need, though I’m reminded of R.S.Thomas’s “through the tears’ lenses” in ‘The View from the Window’.

30 October 2012 21:21
30 October 2012 17:57
UKViewer said...

Church, here or there, where art thou now,
lost into a time warp, preserved somehow.

Anciently built as if always to exist,
where some worship and still persist.

Timelessly empty, occasionally full,
a shell for faith, not accepted by all.

Empty Caverns, full of quiet, signs of generations, interred there by right,

Holy or Sacred, most now don’t care,
But places of safety, for some anyhow,

God’s abode, on earth they say,
but he lives in men’s hearts mostly today,

Redundant, forlorn, but living still,
Massive monuments to man’s will,

To worship God as one body,
Unchanged, but unwanted by many today.

Chris Fewings said...

I wonder if these ’empty caverns’ are as redundant as many think. When were pews introduced for the hoi poloi? Didn’t medieval churches have many community uses as well as worship? I think it’s good to be practical and turn some empty churches into blocks of flats, but I also like the creativity of places like The Crossing in central Walsall: still owned by the church which keeps two worship areas (a side chapel and a loft) but mostly given over to little shops and a cafe. I’d like to see more multipurpose uses of Anglican buildings, with some reserved sacred space – empty space – space for emptying: like cathedrals, such space could have a wide appeal.

UKViewer said...

Chris, I think that your comments make real sense. We have five ancient churches, which are underused. Problem is that some are rural, isolated where the villages have actually physically moved away from the Church.

They are wonderful buildings that could be brought back into the types of use you describe, but the reality is there are not the people with the imagination or insight to do so.

Most love their church as it is, and can’t see it emptied and used for other things. The only church I know that is currently preparing to undergo a radical re-ordering to achieve wider use isn’t in my benefice. But has benefited from a huge legacy, which gives it the freedom to actually make major repairs, to add modern facilities and to become once again a community focus. Without the legacy, their hands would have been tied by years of fund raising.

Chris Fewings said...

A Methodist church near here tried to find a buyer to ‘develop’ their building, built for a much larger congregation, and lease back some worship space. It didn’t work out, but it’s an interesting model.

Someone must have written a book on alternative use and shared use of churches: maybe Laura could dig one out and get someone to review it. A local Anglican church abandoned its crumbing Victorian Anglo-Catholic redbrick in 1980 and moved into a purpose-built multi-purpose building shared with a day care centre for the elderly and a URC. (It now sports photovoltaic panels, as does a medieval church up the road!)

31 October 2012 11:43
31 October 2012 06:16
30 October 2012 21:36
30 October 2012 19:47
UKViewer said...

In one of our villages, the Methodists closed their chapel, it was an old tin one, and used our church for a while for their services.

When a new Circuit Minister arrived, he got them all to go to Canterbury, which was a shame.

Those who bought the hall had plans to knock it down and build housing, unfortunately, they didn’t realise that the tin shack was listed – poor research we think. And are now stuck with something they don’t really want and can’t do anything with.

We suggested that they open it up to the village as a hall, coffee shop and craft workshop etc – that was rejected out of hand. Not sure of the reasons, perhaps it’s the amount of work needed to bring it up to the standard required for such use. So, it stands, empty, neglected. But the Heritage people will oblige them to maintain the fabric at least for infinity 🙁

There is an excellent example of an Ecumenical Anglican/Methodist/URC parish in Sturry, near Canterbury. It works very well and they are innovative. Probably a good case study for many denominations where apart, they are few, but combined they would be many.

31 October 2012 13:11

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