Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Superstitious Reverence

It was the small midweek Mass yesterday, just the eight of us to mark the feast of SS Simon & Jude. Discarding the planned theme for my two-minute homily I spoke instead about the idea of Simon and Jude as companions, about the importance of discovering God via our friendships and relationships, and how I increasingly thought less during the Eucharist about the great theological truths of the Christian faith and more about the actual community of people around me. Ironically, after that, as I was giving the Host to Ray - 'the Body of Christ preserve your body and soul to everlasting life' - a tiny flake, a miniscule fragment, of wafer flew up and adhered to the flesh of his palm above the fingers held out actually to receive the Host.

In that infinitesimal object is contained the whole of creation: the novas and nebulae, the tempests and seas, the teeming galaxies. Sufficient to cover every sin from Adam to the Last Day, it sits on the hand of a man in an obscure church at this one moment nobody knows or will remember, ready, probably, simply to dissolve in a tiny tear of sweat, or disappear into the air. The Cross crosses at that point, that second, the eternal mark and method of the divine will opening out through time. Ah, grace. Grace is everywhere.

Monday, 27 October 2014


'There's this gigantic church in the middle of nowhere, I vaguely remember visiting it', said Alec from the LGMG once. I was fairly sure this was Salle - eccentrically pronounced 'Saul' - which coincidentally enough is one of the handful of churches now looked after by a former curate from Swanvale Halt, translated to darkest Norfolk a few years ago. So while I was on holiday I went looking for it. You glimpse the place as you approach along the lanes, but then with the gently undulating landscape and the intervention of trees it disappears until you turn the corner and are right on top of it.

The little guide leaflet (an earlier full-scale booklet is no longer available) very accurately predicts the visitor's first reaction by asking with its initial words 'Why so big?' This church is colossal. It may not be quite as huge as some of the Norfolk buildings I mentioned in previous posts, but the contrast with the empty space around it, shared merely with an old Victorian schoolhouse and a cottage or two, and the vacancy of the space within, make it seem even bigger. The answer to the leaflet's question is either the long one provided by Simon Knott in a wonderful introduction or the short one, that it was built by a consortium of medieval aristocrats who wanted a bigger church than Cawston, the next door parish. The regular congregation nowadays is about seven, but the truth is that this building wasn't constructed with the needs of a congregation in mind: it was a space for guilds and chantries, and a demonstration of the wealth and power of its founders.

The church was in a state of thorough disrepair by the end of the 19th century but benefited from a very restrained and antiquarian-minded restoration thereafter which left the building with the minimum of addition and amendment, mainly the windows (including St Catherine with her fancy hat) in the north transept and a couple of bells. Nothing has been repainted, recarved, replaced, or otherwise tarted up, and the woodwork and stonework have a strangely bleached quality which only increases the sense of age and space. October has been mild this year, but with no heating of any kind I imagine the church gets challengingly cold as winter draws in.

The Norfolk churches site has far more comprehensive photographs of Salle than I could take, and mine here do no more than give a flavour of this awesomely grand, spare building.

There is even a copy of a map of the church glebe which shows a field immediately west of the church by the name of Well Pightle - so there may have been a holy well here once.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Norfolk Wells

Now, Norfolk is not a county known for its holy wells and apart from a small, hard-to-come-by monograph written in 1978 by a Mr M Burgess for a long-defunct local history journal that covered Suffolk as well, there's nothing written about them. But, fewer and perhaps less-regarded than those in other parts of the country though they may be, they are there, and I saw some of them when I was away.

This is the Round Well, on the boundary between Costessey and Teverham on the outskirts of Norwich, photographed on a wet afternoon as the light was going. It's marked on the OS map although I know nothing of its history; however that's a splendid obelisk and urn on the top.  I wonder whether in origin it may have had a connection with St Walstan (see below)?

Not strictly a holy well but clearly originating in the same sort of milieu is this wonderful and very grand 'reservoir' next to All Saints Church in Upper Sheringham, constructed by the lord of the manor to celebrate victory over Napoleon in 1814 (a bit prematurely, as it turned out). Apparently the spring water comes from just above the church.

The Calves Well lies along a track along the hill south of Sheringham. At least I think this is it: there was nothing else remotely watery along the whole length of the lane that bears its name.

Continuing the theme of weed-filled pools, this is the Pettywell not far from Reepham. It sits in front of an old farmhouse which bears the name.

St Withburga's Well at Dereham finds a place in every list of holy wells, and is an absolutely classic example, rising just west of the church. It has an association with the legend of the Anglo-Saxon princess whose name it bears, though there are suggestions that in origin the well was a fourteenth-century grotto which has been turned into something else. It's railed off, understandably, as there's a steep drop down to the water and no obvious way of getting to it safely.

St Walstan's Well at Bawburgh is another long-famed holy spring which is associated with the legend of St Walstan, supposedly having risen where his body rested on the final stop along its journey to be buried. The well stands in a little glade just north of the church, private but with public access. Nothing about it looks very old: I wonder when it was restored and changed from the open round well you can see in old photographs.

And finally: I'd seen the Mermaid's Head Spring on the OS map in the woods south of Aylsham and went to look for it. I know that very often I find nothing more than a muddy hole in the ground, but always nurse a fantasy as I stump across fields or wade through mud in a wood that the well I'm looking for will have been noticed by some mad 18th-century aristocrat who will have built a folly round it, or will at least have some brickwork or something. As far as the Mermaid's Head was concerned, the fantasy remained just that. If this is indeed it!

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Extraordinary Extraordinary Synod

A return to something more-or-less topical.

The conservative Roman Catholic bloggers hate Pope Francis. They hate the fact that people like him, they particularly hate the fact that non-Roman Catholics like him, because that isn't the business of a Pope. A Pope is supposed to be a mixture between a tribal war-leader and a tribal battle-totem, who encapsulates the sense they want to have of being in a war against a Satanic world. This is why they've been rejoicing over what looks like Francis's humiliation at the weekend when the special Extraordinary Synod on the Family refused to endorse the draft document the Vatican had prepared stating that the Church 'respects and welcomes' homosexual people. You can go to Rorate Caeli if you want this kind of thing, although be warned, it's horrible and depressing.

Of course in fact the Synod didn't actually vote down the draft document, it merely declined to endorse it by a sufficient majority for it to pass, although you could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion from Rorate Caeli that something entirely different had happened. There is every likelihood that when Francis has another go next year he will get his way.

You will recognise a certain pattern here which mirrors the Anglican Church's anguished attempts to sort out how to ordain women to the priesthood and episcopate; the pattern of it being very clear indeed which way things are going to go, but there being not quite enough enthusiasm for it to happen in one go, instead inaugurating a lengthy process of to-ing and fro-ing until the vote manages to get over the Church's traditional two-thirds-majority hurdle. Anglican Archbishops are used to sitting in Synods watching their opinions being thrown back at them and votes mounting up to achieve a lack of decision yet again. Anglican Archbishops are used to it; Popes aren't. The Roman Catholic Church isn't. The Roman Catholic Church is far more used to telling itself a completely fantasised story about magisterial consensus and Spirit-guided authority which completely ignores the way structures composed of human beings actually work.

The abiding significance of these gatherings, and of Francis's pontificate as a whole, is the destruction of this fantasy. Francis has gathered a group of people who haven't taken the decision that he very clearly wanted, although diplomatically he refrained from stating too openly that that was what he wanted. Familiar though this way of working may be to the likes of Rowan Williams and Justin Welby, for a Pope, in the context of Roman Catholicism, this is an act of almost incredible boldness and hope. This is the end of the dream world trad Roman Catholics live in, and the irruption of reality, not in terms of gays, not in terms of admitting divorced people to communion, but simply in terms of the way things really are, and always have been. It's the end of fear, the end of control, the end of power, of a certain conception of auctoritas. It's a revolution that potentially puts Vatican II in the shade.

No wonder the conservative bloggers hate Francis: it's a bit like the disorientation that must have befallen Japanese nationalists at the end of World War Two when the Emperor renounced his own divinity. What do you do when the centre of absolute authority refuses to play that role any more? When they get down off the pedestal? Do you try to find someone else? But it's too late. The spell is broken. The old world ain't coming back.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

St Catherine in Norfolk

As usual I look out for representations of St Catherine when I'm out and about and found several in Norfolk. This one is on the 15th-century rood screen in St Nicholas, North Walsham. I only just about spotted it, as holy Catherine is now rather ignominiously covered up by the pulpit erected almost against the screen, which wouldn't have been there when she was originally painted.

Then this one is in the south aisle of Norwich Cathedral. The saint looks about to nod off here, though she has enough presence of mind to wrap her hand in her cloak so she doesn't prick a finger on the spokes of her wheel. Actually the cloak looks strangely like a chasuble, but we'll ignore that. The window was given by five sisters 'in thankfulness to God for a lifetime of happy worship in this Cathedral Church', and I wonder whether the ladies chose Catherine as she is the patron saint of unmarried women.

The last two images here come from the gigantic church of SS Peter & Paul, Salle, of which more on another occasion. This early 20th-century window (one of a set Pevsner gaily describes as 'hideous') seems to show Catherine wearing an Edwardian lady's driving hat, tied under the chin so it doesn't blow off. But it's in ermine and so a bit medieval.

The final image is also from Salle, a bit more of a conventional 15th-century depiction: a tiny window right up at the top of one of the walls. Very sweet.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Old Chapel, Banningham

I thoroughly enjoyed my week at The Old Chapel. Banningham proper, such as it is, is about a mile away from this bit, Mill Road, a dead-straight line of mixed old and new buildings which peters out in the fields and turns into a footpath after about a quarter of a mile. Its straightness gives it a strange end-of-the-world feel, although I can confirm there is indeed something beyond the end of the footpath as I went walking out that way. The Chapel has TARDIS-like qualities, appearing a very compact building outside and managing to fit within its modest space a lofty lounge, double bedroom, kitchen and two bathrooms. In the pattern of Landmark's Abbey Gatehouse and Ty Capel, the bedroom has been put on a mezzanine and the Necessary Facilities beneath it, a neat way of making use of the space. I'm not sure about the history of the building - it's too humble for the Buildings of England to have noticed, apparently - but looks early Victorian or before, the kind of humble structure that even the Primitive Methodists would have scorned after about the 1860s. When the current owners, the Greens, bought it in the early 1990s it was fairly much derelict after being used for various utilitarian purposes, but some of the chapel's former congregation were still living nearby, and behind glass in the bookcase there are some items relating to its time as a working building - including a small penny loaf, which must be pretty stale by now. My stay in the Chapel gave me great respect for anyone who must have played the harmonium for these small congregations: my attempts to keep the thing going while trying to produce anything resembling a tune were not especially edifying.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

"We are a welcoming church"

I spent last week in Norfolk and will be talking a bit about that in the coming days. To get me in the frame of mind (perhaps), here's a grouse! I had no idea that the Norfolk town churches are sometimes so huge, arising from the considerable wealth of the region towards the end of the Middle Ages. They vary in 'churchmanship', as you can sometimes pick out from the fantastic Norfolk Churches website maintained by Simon Knott; St Nicholas, North Walsham, is moderately Anglo-Catholic, with its statue of its patron saint surrounded by candles, as is St Michael's Aylsham, the only church where I've ever seen the traditional Epiphany cypher (20+C+M+B+14, this year) chalked on the wall; St Peter Mancroft in Norwich is the grandest of civic churches; SS Peter & Paul, Cromer, is evangelical, with a fabric 'flame' rippling away in a side chapel to encourage visitors to reflect on the action of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

I'm less sure about the stance of the two biggest churches of all, as St Nicholas Dereham and St Nicholas Great Yarmouth (popular dedication in Norfolk, it seems) were both resolutely shut. I went to Dereham mainly to see the holy well of St Withburga which rises just west of the church, and was frankly shocked to find the colossal building closed. It's rather ironic in view of the edition of the Ecclesiastical Insurance newsletter I found waiting for me when I got home - Ecclesiastical is the not-for-profit Church of England insurance company - which contained a series of articles encouraging churches to stay open, even if it meant (as one correspondent described) 'walking away leaving the door unlocked for the first time'. I sometimes find closed churches put up a note for visitors blaming the insurers for the building being locked, which isn't true. Dereham displays its mission statement, 'to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our community' (or similar words) on its noticeboard, and I'm afraid I mentally made several uncharitable amendments to this.

Great Yarmouth church - which calls itself a 'minster', inaccurately but not unreasonably considering it's the biggest parish church in England by floor area, is even more vast, and even more closed. When I arrived in the town there was a graduation ceremony or something going on, so I thought I'd come back on my way back to the car park. I did, and found it shut. Walking around the building, and noting the positively terrifying west front two of whose three towering gables you can see in this picture, I discovered this is the only church I've ever encountered which has barbed wire around the roof. True, it's only around the flat roofs of the vestries at the east end, but even so. Are the residents of Yarmouth really that bad? To judge by the style of the little plastic signs which warn potential ne'er-do-wells about the barbed wire, it's been up there possibly since the late '70s. The wire, which is that type with razor blades rather than spikes, is now rusting nicely so trespassers run the risk of tetanus as well as lacerations.

I note that Simon Knott hasn't been able to get into Yarmouth Minster yet, either.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Messing About

I like this collage our last Messy Church gathering put together. The Last Supper might have gone so differently had there been cake, especially, if you look at the relative sizes of the food and the figures (even Jesus), cake this big.

In his book Sacramental Worship with Children Fr Simon Rundell, late of  the much-lauded St Thomas the Apostle, Gosport, says 'If our liturgies are creative, innovative, and yet still correspond to the shape of the liturgy, and are done in sincerity and authenticity, then the liturgical police should not come knocking at your door in the middle of the night'. I bore his words in mind as we broke a lot of rules the other Saturday and did communion at Messy Church. 'As we know', remarked one of my colleagues a couple of weeks beforehand, 'you can call it an agape and do whatever you like'. The trouble is that if you call it an agape nobody will know what you're talking about, so I merely said as we began whatever it was that we were going to do, that the Church was gathered, God was there, and whether it was a real communion service or whether we were just pretending was up to them to decide. However, I pointed out, 'If you ever meet a man in a pointy hat who says, "Hello, I'm the Bishop of Guildford", you are to swear blind that nothing happened.'

Everything passed off with great quietness and dignity and the simple service - following, as Fr Simon would put it, 'the shape of the liturgy', was much appreciated and worked very well. I know that many of the people I trained with, and many others besides, would probably throw up hands in horror at this debasement of the holy rite of the Eucharist (if it was a eucharist, which of course I am honour bound to dispute). To an extent I know exactly what they might mean and sympathise. As my experience of Christian life and ministry has gone on the ideal of the Eucharist as something which expresses the mind of the Church, something we all serve and in which we discover God, has grown. You don't muck about with that because it isn't your property, which is why I cavil a bit at Fr Simon's use of words such as 'creativity' - I don't necessarily regard creativity, as such, as a liturgical virtue. However, within the liturgical experiments suggested in his book, as, I hope, in our 'Messy Communion', there is a very definite determination to concentrate on what God is doing, not on what we think, feel, or are trying to do, which I would hope is the essence of a Catholic liturgical approach, no matter how wacky the form appears to be.

This will be in the forefront of my thinking as we start to consider how Swanvale Halt church responds to the social shifts which are necessarily forcing change on virtually all sorts and brands of church. The liturgy is how God speaks to us, and is not our plaything to do with as we choose. But we have to make sure, as best we can, that there are people there to listen to him.