Is this an odd topic for a blog? Probably. It's an attempt to look at the push-and-pull of churches/religion on me and my writing. I was brought up vaguely C of E but I’m ambivalent about the Church as an institution these days. I used to be sent to Sunday School as a child. What I remember most about it was that your team got points for everyone who attended so you’d be beaten up by your team-mates for not turning up. The church was a good mile-and-a-half from home and we would have walked in all weathers, so my attendance was erratic.
My school started each day with a short service and hymns. Once, not long before Christmas, there was a decoration with holly and a candle in front of the Headmistress. It caught fire. We were supposed to be praying – ie with our eyes SHUT. Mine were open, O sin against the Holy Ghost, which is why I saw the thing going up in flames. What was I to do? If I shouted ‘Fire!’ I’d be caught out. If I didn’t, we could all be immolated. I took the coward’s way and kept shtum, but luckily one of the teachers smelled smoke, or heard crackling, or something, opened her eyes and dashed a glass of water over the flames.
I think I was ambivalent even then, although I loved singing the hymns – still do, as long as they are not the dreadful tuneless dirges many of the more modern writers seem to favour. Ear-shrivelling. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, Harvest Festival...very enjoyable markers of the turning year. I also love some of the legends and have plundered some as a writer – I’ve written stories around St Cuthbert and his miraculous encounters with various animals and birds on the islands off the Northumberland coast. Absurd, enchanting fairytales.
Some church buildings are, of course, very beautiful – and some are absolutely not. Some are designed to make us poor humans feel like lowly worms – oppressive – like Notre Dame and the Duomo in Florence, and some are vainglorious, shouting more of the wealth and importance of their patrons than the glory of God. One of my favourites is the little church at Moreton in Dorset, with its clear glass windows exquisitely etched by Laurence Whistler. It’s flooded with light and the countryside is visible all around. I hadn’t realised how much church interiors can be darkened by stained glass until I went there. I keep going back for the sheer joy of it.
The church at Minstead, in the New Forest, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ended up being buried, has a gallery for children and poor people and a shut-off room for the gentry with its own side-door where the servants could bring dinners in. Historic relics? Not entirely, alas, not yet.
I don’t have much to do with churches or the Church these days, except recently when I was involved with Salisbury’s St Thomas’s Church 800th anniversary celebrations. I belong to a Women’s Theatre Group, Juno, based in Salisbury, and we had been asked to kick off the celebrations with ‘Salisbury Tales’ which were a series of monologues and two-handers tracing the history of the church and its place in the community locally and more widely (it’s a pilgrim church). It has a wonderful Doom painting over the chancel arch, with a glorious Satan, half cockerel, half crocodile. Its colours are somewhat faded, as it was covered in whitewash for years to protect it from being pickaxed by the Iconoclasts, and cleaning it inevitably caused some damage to the pigments. It’s still a dramatic feature, though, with its ancient imagery looming over the much newer children’s play area and tea bar.
Salisbury Tales began with the earliest pilgrims and ended with the man installing a new audio system and one of those lovely women of the flower rota and the teas. Some of the writers were new to it and were mentored, which gave us the chance to sort out a 13th-century pilgrim referring to ‘egocentric’ Kings, and the use of ‘O God, you search me and you know me’ set to one of the aforementioned tuneless dirges when it would have been plainsong, most likely. Instead, we had several people planted amongst the congregation/audience whispering the words. Nice and atmospheric.
Salisbury Tales cast
The character in my monologue was Martha, the Holy Duster – a kind of Everywoman, who spoke a prologue and epilogue and all the linking material between the plays. With her broom and her pinny, she could have been from any age of the church; a fallen woman earning her redemption and her dole by keeping the floor swept and the pews dusted. Grateful if slightly baffled by the sermons and the rituals. For her, as for many, the church was and is a kindly, forgiving refuge. A place of safety and solace when plague ravaged the city, a welcoming place for a cuppa and a chat nowadays. – and a focus of caring and outreach during the recent poisonings and their aftermath. I get all that, but still I’m on the outside looking in.