1,000 years of faith: Roy Strong visits 10 rural parish chuches to provide a dazzling account of England's changing religious life over 10 centuries.
In the 1970s, Strong alerted the nation to its endangered heritage of country houses, thereby launching a substitute national religion of aesthetic historicism: stately-house visiting with lunch or tea and a Victoria sandwich. Now he has turned his overfly pro-Christian scholarship to the equally endangered, and far more socially inclusive, country church. He has written a sympathetic history of the English people's adventurous and very insular spiritual journey over the last 1,000 years: a moving and at times desperately upsetting chronicle.
It is a surprisingly bumpy ride. Until the 12th century, priests were allowed to marry and after that their concubines were tolerated. Virtually every parish had a brew house to supply the church ales that were their chief financial support. After Communion had been taken, in one kind only, unconsecrated wine was handed out to wash down the Host and the entire Holy Loaf was divided and eaten. There were no sermons, hence the rarity of medieval pulpits; most are Jacobean. The class system modified the Faith: gentry married below the chancel, everyone else married in the church porch, except the poor, who generally did not bother at all as it was too expensive. At funerals the coffins of the poor were carried under-hand; gentry coffins were carried shoulder high: elevated corpses. Some intriguing superstitions crept in. Confirmation was supposed to act as a cure for rheumatism, and so many people were getting confirmed more than once that restrictions had to be imposed.
Strong sees the Reformation as a catastrophe of political selfishness, but perhaps the middle classes enjoyed the spiritual turmoil. Was reading the Bible and weighing up the evidence an intellectual treat? Was the chaos it created--the multiple nonconformist sects, the embattled recusants, the High and Low Church possibilities--an enrichment of a kind: God taken seriously instead of the traditional performance of a liturgy? It might explain why there was relatively little protest.
A central theme of the book is that, in its golden medieval age of art, drama, processions and passionate individual involvements with chosen saints and images, the country church gave life and unity to a parish. The worst reign in English history was that of the boy king Edward VI, when the guilds of piety, which had involved the most able men in every church, and founded several Oxford and Cambridge colleges, had their endowments stolen. These enriched an aristocracy that became, in consequence, more powerful than the Crown. Was the loss of liturgical drama in church responsible for the flowering of the Elizabethan theatre? Without the Reformation would we have had Marlowe and Shakespeare?
By ignoring the wreck of the monasteries, Strong concentrates on the common people and gives his history a new slant, but still meticulously traces the shameful stages of enforced change. His stroke of genius is the realisation that all the stage scenery for the principal acts of church history has survived intact, waiting to be understood and appreciated. He has chosen 10 miraculously preserved country churches to convey the successive developments in the nation's faith; illustrated liberally in monochrome and colour plates, these churches are seen, not so much as living museums, but as true reflections of the historic past.
Kilpeck in Herefordshire is an Angevin union of pagan and Christian imagery; Long Melford in Suffolk and Fairford in Gloucestershire are radiant theatres of active faith; Ludham in Norfolk reveals the dead hand of the State taking over from God with its canvas of the Holy Rood reversed to carry the Arms of Elizabeth I; Patrishow in Brecon is symbolic of piety standing its ground; Abbey Dore, Herefordshire, is the beaut), of holiness, and rum repaired; Brampton Bryan, Herefordshire, represents negative Puritanism; Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, shows High Church defiance; Mildenhall in Wiltshire is the Age of Reason playing at Gothick fun; and lastly, at Highnam, just outside Gloucester, the Oxford Movement delivers the real forms of medieval faith a second time.
But then there is a void. There is no 11th church to represent the present, even though a middle-class retreat to village retirement is breathing new life back into old parishes. Think how Betjeman would have chuckled affectionately over the Alpha courses, parish breakfasts and the occasional Murder in the Cathedral performance. Theoretically Strong is for change, but he never offers a model. In his personal retreat to Herefordshire he has tried three local churches, found all wanting, and now serves at the altar of Hereford Cathedral, where 'the liturgy is performed with accessible ceremony'--a very Anglican verdict. He has the grace to cover this up by suggesting that perhaps we are returning to the original Anglo-Saxon solution of having a few big churches--'ministerium'--where the liturgy can be done justice. But when is an archbishop going to have the courage to advise a return to the 1662 Prayer Book and John Marbecke's 1550 setting for every sung Commtmion? They were England's equivalent to the Catholics' Tridentine Mass and should never have been jettisoned. Strong is surely right that a sharing between priest and flock, in responses and in singing, with social cohesion as its invaluable result, has always enriched Anglican Christianity.
Strong's academic scholarship and historical perspective in this wise and emotionally honest book are devastatingly enlightening. The book is a timely reminder that England has almost 1,000 architectural links between past and present, an established Christian Church and a nervously secular State. These country churches are there to be cared for and to be experienced.
Tim Mowl is working on Elizabethan recusants in Northamptonshire.
A Little History of the English Country Church
Jonathan Cape, 16.99 [pounds sterling]
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|Title Annotation:||A Little History of the English Country Church|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2007|
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