Of The Church and churches by Sandra Horn

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.


Griselda Heppel said…
I've just finished 'Pugin - God's Architect' by Rosemary HIll, and the catholic fervour and idealism that imbued his vision chimes very much with what you say about how churches can make you feel. For him, every part of the church should inspire people with joy and awe, from arches and screens put in an asymmetrical design to intrigue the eye, to richly decorated alters and jewel-coloured stained glass windows. Pugin rarely succeeded in translating his exact vision for the whole building, owing to lack of funds and patrons' not agreeing with all the details, but to read how deeply rooted in his spirituality was his sense of design is very moving.
I agree with you that all that traditional C of E inheritance must have an effect on one's writing; and if studying literature, it certainly helps to know some of the bible stories!
Umberto Tosi said…
Right on. I'm not religious, but I love churches, inside and out - old ones especially, and new one designed with the sacred in mind. I love them especially when not in use for any mass or other ceremony, when they are quiet, with people praying and otherwise contemplating and imagining. They are meditative spaces, places to inspire and evoke the inner life, as long as the priests and ministers stay out of the way.
Elizabeth Kay said…
I went to Albania a couple of years ago, and discovered the most inclusive religious buildings and tolerant clerics anywhere. Albania manages to accommodate various Christian sects, Islam, and Bektashi (dervishes). We were welcomed wherever we went. I am not religious, but this lack of prejudice really impressed me, and the opportunity to see inside mosques and view icons in the highly decorated churches close to.
I'm not at all religious but I used to love going into St Paul's Cathedral at lunchtime when I worked near there (and it was free), and in fact even my sons liked climbing up to the top and looking at the view, when we were last in London sight-seeing together.
Cologne Cathedral, on the other hand, although very lovely from the outside, literally took my breath away as we went in - there were so many candles not far from the entrance that they brought on my asthma and I had to make a hurried exit!
Valerie Bird said…
So many of my sentiments, Sandra. And visiting most churches, except the very ornate over decorated, over statued, I wonder at what has gone before. All that footfall, the centuries of people wanting to believe, all their emotions of hope and despair still clinging to the fabric of the building. I am in awe of that.
Thank you,

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