Dr Julian Litten

 

The recent pandemic saw – and, in some places, continues to see alterations in access to our churches. In June this year I returned to Thaxted, an exceptionally beautiful small town where it was my privilege to live and worship between 1983 and 1996. The parish church there is of cathedral proportions and, sitting high on a hill, dominates the town.

However, as with all churches, its beauty lies within.This elegant East Anglian building with its closely-set Perpendicular nave windows is full of space and light – the best comparison in the county where I now live – Norfolk – being the church of St Peter, Walpole St Peter. The vista from the west door at Thaxted to the high altar at the east end is a vision of oveliness, harmony and subtle colour. In short, it is probably one of the finest church interiors I know. I more than like it; I love it.

A home from home, a place of worship, of mission, of companionship, of comfort, of rest, of sorrow, of rapture and of joy. This is what a church building should be. Thaxted church means all of this to me, and then to be denied access because of a pandemic filled me with sadness. Not even during our darkest hours of the Great War and WWII was this building ever closed, and now it was shut owing to an unseen enemy, the invisible COVID Angel of Death.

And yet this did not apply only to Thaxted. Thousands of churches across the land were under the same restrictions. Yes, I'm mindful that we do not need church buildings to worship God as that can be done anywhere, in our hearts, our minds and our souls. But, as Christians, we are an Easter People and, as people, we need one another and, to be blunt, we need to worship together; and yet COVID has denied us that fellowship.

The jewel in the crown

Norfolk and Suffolk have the finest churches in England, taken all round, both counties being very little known except to the most dedicated of church-crawlers. It is my privilege to be closely connected with both, as Chairman of Norwich Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee and the St Edmundsbury Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee. Of the two dioceses, Norfolk has the most churches – 666 in all (curiously, the Number of the Beast) – of which more than 600 are rural, each and every one of them the jewel in the crown of the villages and hamlets in which they stand.

All of these churches have served us well over the centuries. They are places where we come to give thanks, to exercise the milestones of our own lives – baptism, marriage and, finally, death – where we receive strength through the Blessed Sacrament and where we can unite in fellowship to experience a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven; they are our pathway to the Eternal City. It is in that unity of fellowship where church buildings serve us best. Furthermore, they could and should become places of formal gathering, for the churched and the unchurched, the Christian and the non-believer.

Prayers of the poor

There were days when it was my privilege to sit in Thaxted church on my own, time which allowed me to reflect on its importance to the town, how it had withstood and held fast during the Black Death, the Peasants' Revolt, the Reformation, the Civil War and the two World Wars. In the chancel are the ledger-stones of the town's wealthier inhabitants of the 17th and 18th centuries, but of greater importance to me was that the walls of the entire building
had been impregnated over the centuries.

To some extent it does not matter that church-going is in decline for our responsibility is to keep the flame alive. The Holy Spirit knows when to stir the heart and whilst few of us will live to see the revival, that revival will certainly come. But, in the meantime, how can we makeuse of our churches, apart from that of worship?

If used sensitively they could provide those valuable services which villages have lost, in the same way that some pubs (provided that there is still a pub) support a district post office and a local surgery. Church buildings are eminently flexible, and there is no reason why they cannot be a place of public meeting, a concert hall, a place for sales of work and Fairtrade merchandise, for exhibitions, to host craft and conservation workshops and much more. In the more rural areas, why not make it the drop off/pick up point for items purchased on line? Far better than making a special journey to town.

A home from home

For many years I've wondered why a church building cannot be a place to support community events and - dare one sayit – even being used as a Wedding Venue? Why do baptism parties, wedding receptions and funeral wakes have to be held elsewhere than in the very church in which the event has taken place? In days past the nave was used for so many communal activities, a real example of living Christian Socialism. Put bluntly, church buildings should be as flexible as ourselves. And how about using our rural churches as a home-from-home for the lonely, where they can socialise and have a cup of coffee and cake and a good old natter?

The mid-20th century church historian Lawrence Jones, summed up English churches well when he said that "If, however, these churches are to attain their full and lasting beauty, that beauty will not only exist in the craftsmanship, but more and more it will be in the lives of those who use the churches, growing more and more like the life of Him who is our one and only pattern, Our Blessed Saviour Jesus Christ." And using such buildings for
purposes additional to worship would, surely, create a cohesive and caring local community.

Julian Litten FSA

Dr Julian Litten is an architectural historian and is chairman of the Norwich Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee and of the St Edmundsbury Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee as well as being a member of the Westminster Abbey Fabric Commission and the Ely Cathedral Fabric Advisory Committee.

 

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