History isn't a thing; it's a relationship

Published: Thursday, September 25, 2014


Olivia Horsfall Turner, historian, writer and broadcaster writes about the relationship between history and the future of church buildings. Her article features in the National Churches Trust Annual Review for 2013-2014, first published in 2014.

One of my favourite ways to spend a day is to go church-hunting: an expedition to a number of churches, perhaps in the company of a fellow church-crawler, to investigate architecture, to explore history and to experience atmosphere. It’s not only the bones of the buildings that I find compelling. I’m fascinated by virtuoso carving on tombs, charmed by the naïve vegetable sculptures in a Sunday School corner, or amused by a tongue-in-cheek, no-smoking poster detailing a special exemption for incense.

A particular aspect of churches that fascinates me is that they have at their heart a paradox: they are simultaneously central and yet set apart. Often located at the heart of villages and towns, from the earliest times many have been surrounded by a wall, or set within God’s Acre. Traditionally they have been the location for all manner of community activities, but they have also been the site for special festivals and rites of passage; occasions that are literally ‘out of the ordinary’ – a phrase which takes its meaning from the liturgical calendar.

This dual character, however, is a fragile one, and with the growth of secularisation, or at the very least the diversification of religious identification, it is not necessarily accurate to describe churches as central in any way other than their physical position. Their original dedication for a sacred purpose could be seen to render them now with little purpose at all. Spiritual scepticism is just one threat; another is the crippling financial burden, including VAT on maintenance costs for listed buildings.

On my architectural peregrinations, it is all too apparent that the church redundancy crisis is very real. On average over the last ten years, one Church of England parish church has closed every three weeks. This trajectory looks set not only to continue but also to become more acute. The loss of churches as places for worship is painful. Yet at the same time we need to be realistic – we are no longer living in the fifteenth century. This might seem a surprising tack for someone who studies the past, but the history of buildings makes one thing very clear: if a building has no use, it has no life. It is this situation that generates a pressing question: how to find new uses, or diversify current ones, in order to ensure the physical future of churches while maintaining what makes them remarkable.

Spiritual and historical remembrance

One of the distinctive qualities of churches is that they are places for remembrance. Through the enactment of the Eucharist, Christians remember Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, linking that past moment with the present and with eternity. For believers, therefore, churches are part of a space-time continuum that makes the Time Lord’s TARDIS look like a milkfloat. Given I’m a Christian, I find that spiritual remembrance devotionally powerful. But I’m also an historian, and the links created by historical remembrance within churches are no less potent.

Remembrance is of special relevance in 2014 as we recall the extraordinary bravery and sacrifices of those who fought in World War I, but memory also has a quotidian grain. In parish churches and churchyards even quiet lives and local events are recalled. Through masons’ marks, benefactors’ boards, churchwarden’s plaques, and patrons’ dedications, a church’s fabric is inscribed with the investment and commitment of generations. These are places where people have consciously remembered themselves and those around them.

Like a Russian doll containing her miniature manifestations, within churches are memorials, brasses and tombs recalling individual human lives; sometimes long, sometimes short. A reclining gentleman tells of his death at sea, a husband clasps his wife’s hand for eternity, employers pay tribute to their faithful servants. In these moments, humanity breaks through marble and stone.

For the seventeenth-century antiquary John Weever, author of Ancient Funerall Monuments (1631), monuments such as these were important in several ways – they preserved ‘the honourable memory’ of those who had died, and enabled ‘the true understanding’ of family genealogy. For them to be defaced, damaged or stolen was ‘an unsufferable injury’ to the dead, to their living relatives and to the historical record. It was for these reasons, he explained, that we should ‘continue the remembrance of the defunct to future posteritie’.

Weever’s words remind us that the connection between past and present is continuous and active. History isn’t a thing; it’s a relationship. And that means we have to work at it. Reading one of John Berger’s essays, I was struck by the account of his two visits to the Isenheim altarpiece. On the first, in 1968, he was full of optimism about the future, and viewed Grünewald’s painting as a portrayal of despair. Ten years later, perhaps more cynical, certainly more realistic, he saw it as a vital representation of hope. He explained, ‘The first time I saw the Grünewald I was anxious to place it historically...Now I have been forced to place myself historically’.

Deciding what to do with our church buildings poses us the same challenge. We are not the end point: we are part of a continuum. In order to look to the future, we have to think creatively. While I worked at English Heritage, I saw the principle of ‘constructive conservation’ helping to champion this approach. Now, as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I am part of an institution that is constantly encouraging creative links between our art and design heritage and contemporary life. Projects supported by the National Churches Trust demonstrate sensitive and sustainable ways to reinvigorate church buildings – from providing community centres and cafes to housing a circus school or an educational museum.

Change is not something we can we afford to shy away from. Even amid change, the power of churches as places where we can see ourselves in relation to past and future is not to be underestimated. In this way, remembering can bring with it the re-membering of a community. Buildings that were at risk of being marginal can once again become central, resurrecting the other definition that ‘church’ has always had: a gathering of people.

Download a copy of the National Churches Trust Annual Review - 2013 - 2014