Printer Friendly

The church as a building and the church as a community in the work of John Betjeman.

Still they stand, the churches of England, their towers grey above billowy globes of elm trees, the red cross of St George flying over their battlements ... schoolmistress at the organ, incumbent in the chancel, scattered worshippers in the nave ... as the familiar Seventeenth Century phrases come echoing down arcades of ancient stone.

--John Betjeman's Guide to English Parish Churches, 1

With more than two million copies of his Collected Poems sold to date, John Betjeman is one of modern English literatures most popular figures, loved for his poetry and for a broadcasting career of longer than forty years in which he shared his interests with his audience in radio and television programs. A measure of his revered status was the flood of new or republished material that greeted the 2006 centenary of his birth, including a new biography by A. N. Wilson and the release in DVD format of the films Betjeman made for BBC television in the 1970s--Metroland, A Passion for Churches, and Summoned By Bells. A collected volume of his BBC radio broadcasts, assembled by Stephen Games and titled Trains and Buttered Toast was a great success, and a further volume, Tennis Whites and Teacakes, appeared the following summer, drawing together Betjeman's published and unpublished writings on the theme of "Englishness." The autumn of 2007 also marked the publication of another volume edited by Games titled Sweet Songs of Zion: a volume more religious in its content, drawn from a series of radio broadcasts on hymns and hymn writers that Betjeman gave toward the end of his life.

On reading this extra material, it becomes clear that Betjeman was a far more complex figure than we may have hitherto believed him to be. The man described by The Times in the 1970s as the "teddy bear to the nation" had once been something of a snob in his outlook, scornful of the very suburban, middle-class society that would later take him to its heart. Although, in the words of one biographer, he "never entirely threw off [his] pacifist convictions" when war broke out in 1939, his wartime writing and broadcasting toned down the harsh aesthetic pronouncements of the 1930s in favour of a more inclusive, shared sense of the "Englishness" that was so threatened by Hitler's war machine. (Wilson 135) (1) His work from the 1950s to the 1970s, seen at the time as a prolonged exercise in "nostalgia," was actually an urgent call to preserve aspects of English culture that were being lost in the drive for post-war modernisation and "rebuilding" Furthermore, Betjeman's religious writing is remarkably candid in nature, and the honesty with which he addressed his own spiritual doubts and anxieties makes him a figure of considerable relevance to modern readers. Betjeman's Christianity was vitally important to him, but he was not always comfortable in "that arduous love affair," as he described it in Summoned By Bells, and his writings fluctuate between spiritual assurance and anxiety. This fueled some of his finest poetry, collected and discussed by Kevin Gardner in his 2005 volume, Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman, and it may also be seen in his writings on subjects like church architecture and hymnology. From the material now available, it would appear that whilst Betjeman was never wholly comfortable in his religious life, he never sought to suppress that unease but chose rather to weave it into all aspects of his writing. In doing so he left his readers with poems that, in Gardner's words, "describe the perils of faith and the struggle to believe ... celebrate the social and cultural significance of the Church of England [and] reveal the intersection of architecture and faith, of aesthetics and the spirit" (Faith viii).

In his lifetime, the enormous success of Betjeman's poems and radio and television broadcasts testified to his capacity to connect with his audience. His appointment as Poet Laureate in 1972 was, as some commentators noted, the official acknowledgement of what the British public had already decided: that he was the poetic voice of the nation's culture. When one reads his poems in praise of such peculiarly English pleasures as steam locomotives, medieval architecture, seaside holidays, and athletic young women who win the poet's heart by beating him at tennis, it is easy to appreciate this sense of connection. Although its subject matter was more intensely personal, Betjeman's religious poetry, with its simultaneous appreciation of the Church's heritage and its awareness of his own doubts and unworthiness when set aside the demands of Christ's teaching, also struck a chord with many readers in a society no longer so avowedly "religious" as it used to be. As he wrestled with his doubts, Betjeman found the "aesthetic" elements of Christianity useful in helping him approach and frame the issues that troubled him. His love of church architecture was both an appreciation of the beauty of the building and of the community of believers whose labors had created it and whose shared faith was embodied in its fabric. In a similar vein, his love of hymnology, where hymns were "the poems of the people" (Sweet 21) connected the spiritual vision of the hymn writer with those who sung the hymn, each finding within it a common bond and vision. Betjeman once wrote that "it was through looking at churches that I came to believe in the reason why churches were built," (Trains 236) and whilst this may not, perhaps, seem to us evidence of a deep spiritual rebirth, it serves as a useful starting point for an enquiry into the way that Betjeman found succour for his own faith in the works of others and the feelings that underpinned them. As the contemporary Anglican Church wrestles globally with a variety of social and doctrinal issues, it is perhaps timely to use the material that is now available to explore, and to ascertain the relevance of, Betjeman's vision of the Church as both an institution and a community in a rapidly changing world.

"Church Crawling": The Church as a Building

Churches were always an important part of Betjeman's vision of England and he was keen to share them with readers and listeners whenever an occasion presented itself. His love of church buildings had started in childhood, when the routine of his early years at the Dragon School in Oxford was punctuated by his exploration of the city's churches, recalled years later in Summoned By Bells:
 Who knew what undiscovered glories hung
 Waiting in locked-up churches--vaulting shafts,
 Pillar-piscinas, floreated caps.,
 Squints, squinches, low side windows, quoins and groins--
 Till I had roused the Vicar, found the key,
 And made a quick inspection of the church? (Betjeman, Collected
 Poems 430) (2)


In London, Betjeman explored churches built by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor after the Great Fire of 1666, drawn to obscure ones where he was often the sole worshipper as "some lazy Rector living in Bexhill" read the services to a near-empty building each Sunday. Whilst the exact benefit accrued from such visits was hard to define, Betjeman felt that "my London Sundays [were] incomplete / If unaccompanied by Evening Prayer" (439). Later, his friendship with the artist John Piper enabled him to visit literally hundreds of parish churches in the course of compiling the series of "Shell Guides" to the counties of England--amassing material that would later form the foundations of his mammoth 1958 Guide to English Parish Churches. As the pace of modern life became ever more intense, Betjeman viewed churches as points of connection with a national past and a way of life increasingly valuable because it was not circumscribed by the same factors as everything around it. In a radio talk from August 1938 titled "How to Look at a Church" he suggested that his audience should consider a church building not as "museum of showpieces but a living thing, still in use," and encouraged them to regard churches as the receptacles of "the England we are all beginning to wish we knew, as the roar of the machine gets louder, and the suburbs creep from London to Land's End" (Trains 230). For Betjeman, one of the problems of guidebooks was that, in making churches places to see, they reduced the role of the visitor to that of a spectator in the process.
 Let us visit the church of Hagworthy St Philip. There isn't a
 church nor such a place but we'll invent one that stands for the
 typical English village church.

 The guidebook says, "Hagworthy St Philip: Norm. with Perp
 additions. Note interesting E. E. pisc.' This gives you no idea of
 what Hagworthy church is like. You'll have to use your eyes and
 your common sense. (Trains 231)


Betjeman evokes his church without the jargon, asking his audience to notice the color of the stonework, to see that the "thinner and more garish" colors in the windows denote Victorian as opposed to Medieval stained glass, to appreciate that the chancel with its steeply pitched roof is a Victorian addition, whereas the flat-roofed body of the building is older. Through such details he brings the building, and its previous users, to life. If the visitor wonders why there are hardly any tombs on the north side of his imagined church, it is because in medieval times it was believed that the Devil lived there. If they are puzzled by the fragments of wall paintings they see--"the wing of an angel, the halo of a saint, or the fearsome form of a devil carrying off a shrieking soul to hell" he explains that the original bold designs have had to withstand both the whitewashing of the Puritans and subsequent Victorian "restoration" (Trains 232).

More importantly, though, the church is, and has always been, a place where people have come to mark out the defining events in their lives. It is a focal point for the community in the midst of a changing world. Betjeman does not suppose that all his listeners will share his faith but nonetheless feels that the building itself communicates a blend of human transience and spiritual continuity to a modern visitor:
 The old churches of England are the story of England. They alone
 remain islands of calm in the seething roar of what we now call
 civilization. They are not backwaters--or they shouldn't be if the
 clergy and people love them--but strongholds. I only hope I've
 shown you in this talk that a church is not just an old building
 ... but a living building with history written all over it--and
 history that, with very little practice, becomes easy and
 fascinating reading. (Trains 234)


The inclusion of "clergy and people" in the definition of a church is highly significant, for Betjeman knows that without an ongoing sense of parish life the church is an empty shell--beautiful, perhaps, but empty all the same. In pursuing this approach, weaving a human and, more subtly, a spiritual element into the appreciation of the building and its material aspects Betjeman, in the words of Richard Ingrams, "did more to teach Englishmen to love their churches and their Church than anything or anyone else in modern times" (Wilson, 131).

During the war years the Church, both as a building and as an institution, became an integral part of the England that Betjeman was intent on defending. In a talk titled "Coming Home, or England Revisited," broadcast in 1943, he lists some of the things about England that he has missed most acutely whilst away from the country. (3) Amongst these are found "oil lamps on bold Gothic mouldings at evensong in a country church" and "tattered copies of Hymns Ancient and Modern" (Trains 135). The war served to remind Betjeman, as it had many others, just how fragile "England" (as both a physical and cultural entity) could be. Much was lost to German bombing raids, but, resuming his radio talks after the war, Betjeman was not prepared to let the nation's drive toward progress and rebuilding wholly obscure the past that old buildings, and churches in particular, represented. In a 1948 radio broadcast he introduced his listeners to the practice of "church-crawling," the activity of going around the country visiting churches:
 I know no greater pleasure than church-crawling. You never know
 what you are going to find: an eccentric incumbent, a derelict
 church, a live church, an ugly or a lovely one, or just a church.
 And even if it's "just a church," there is always something about
 it for those who have eyes and ears and imagination. (Trains 235)


The activity is one of constant discovery: "it leads you to the history of England in stone and wood and glass, which is always truer than what you read in books" (Trains 236). It is also a spiritual experience, even to those not otherwise given to such things. Betjeman goes on to ask that his audience consider "the church for what it is: a place of worship and a piece of architecture combined." Indeed, he recalls that, for him, it was the contemplation of the fabric of the building that led to a spiritual epiphany.
 It was through looking at churches that I came to believe in the
 reason why churches were built and why, despite neglect and
 contempt ... they still survive and continue to grow and prosper.
 (Trains 236)


This recollection of a process by which, in Philip Larkin's phrase "the eye leads the spirit" may not strike some as a very convincing instance of religious rebirth (Required Writing 207). There is no sudden transformation, no sense of being "saved," no complete revaluation of every element of the individual's life of the kind that may be found in more evangelical forms of Christian faith. Indeed, Betjeman's faith, as he discussed it with others and expressed it in his verse, arguably never had these things: it was a personal relationship with God, never wholly free from spiritual doubt and, as such, was closer to the more "moderate" Anglicanism that he was later to champion in much of his writing. His interest in churches was, in addition to its antiquarian element, founded on what Bevis Hillier refers to as an awareness that churches "are creations of religious culture, are touched by religious usage; and their beauty can lead people into religion" (711). It is true that Betjeman's Christianity was somewhat aesthetic: he appreciated the beauty of the church building and associated the desire to produce such beauty with the service of God. It is also true, though, that he found in the church a symbol of a faith that has withstood change and doubt and remained an integral part of the world over centuries. The endurance of such a body of believers was, for Betjeman, its own eloquent testimony to the strength of the creed to which they adhered, a creed that he himself found congenial and, with the passage of time, maintained with increasing vigor to counteract his spiritual doubt.
 Betjeman's Christianity

 What is conversion? Not at all
 For me the experience of St Paul,
 No blinding light, a fitful glow
 Is all the light of faith I know
 Which sometimes goes completely out
 And leaves me plunging round in doubt. ("The Conversion of St
 Paul," Collected 384)


Whilst Betjeman's comment that he arrived at Christian faith via appreciation of churches as both aesthetic and communal entities may seem to us to lack the element of spiritual awakening that is so often equated with a new Christian life, we should take care when querying the depth of his belief. Christianity, often in a very austere and judgemental form, was a part of Betjeman's life from his earliest years. In a poem from the 1950s, "N.W.5 & N.6," he looks back on his childhood visits to church in the company of his Calvinistic nurse (whose sense of predestination has led her to believe herself to be amongst the "lost') and recalls being terrified by a sense of inescapable and eternal judgement:
 "World without end." What fearsome words to pray.
 "World without end." It was not what she'd do
 That frightened me so much as did her fear
 And guilt at endlessness. I caught them too,
 Hating to think of sphere succeeding sphere
 Into eternity and God's dread will.
 I caught her terror then. I have it still. (232)


As Gardner notes, the lines quoted above turn "world without end" from "a promise of eternal bliss" into "a threat of certain eternal damnation" solely by adopting a different perspective (Faith 3). This fear of God's judgment, and of the inadequacy of his own faith, permeates much of Betjeman's later writing. Poems like "Archibald" (the subject here being Betjeman's teddy bear, which remained with him from childhood onward) chart the passing of time with the awkward sense that the middle-aged Betjeman is "half a century nearer Hell," and a work like "Aldershot Crematorium" (1974), with its funereal gathering, is heavy with a sense of mortality and doubt:
 But no-one seems to know quite what to say
 (Friends are so altered by the passing years):
 "Well, anyhow, it's not so cold today"--
 And this we try to dissipate our fears.
 "I am the Resurrection and the Life':
 Strong, deep and painful, doubt inserts the knife. (302)


It may be said, however, that these moments of doubt actually make Betjeman's faith more accessible and less like an idealized vision of Christianity, which many desire but few attain. In being candid about his doubts, he spoke not just to those who believed already but also to those who would consider themselves "Church of England" but perhaps lacked the faith that true membership of the church entailed. After meeting Betjeman in April 1977, Dr. Gregory Scott wrote that the poet "suffered from considerable feelings of anxiety" and that his fear of death and divine judgment arose out of the thought "that the faith is not strong enough and that Hell may await the sinner who has committed the unforgivable sin of thinking that there is no God" (Hillier 556). For each moment of doubt, however, there was a moment, or a lingering sense, of belief. Betjeman feared the sin of doubting God's existence because at other times he was so sure that God did exist. The tension that this created found expression in his poem "Before the Anaesthetic," in which his thoughts prior to unconsciousness wrestle with the question of God's existence and the strong desire to not contemplate surgery without the assurance that God actually exists to guard his soul:
 Now, lying in the gathering mist
 I know that Lord did not exist;
 Now, lest this "I" should cease to be,
 Come, real Lord, come quick to me. (107)


The dual nature of the verb "lying" (as both to recline on a bed and the deceive oneself or others) in this extract draws attention to Betjeman's need to hold on to some "truth" at such a time, even if it is just as easy to argue that such a truth is itself false. Earlier, in a letter to Roy Harrod on 25 March 1939, Betjeman had set this down with notable honesty:
 I choose the Christian's way (and completely fail to live up to it)
 because I believe it true and because I believe--for possibly a
 split second in six months, but that's enough--that Christ is
 really the incarnate son of God and that Sacraments are a means of
 grace and that grace alone gives one the power to do what one ought
 to do. (Tennis 432)


These sentiments also found eloquent expression in the 1955 poem, "The Conversion of St Paul":
 What is conversion? Turning round
 To gaze upon a love profound.
 For some of us see Jesus plain
 And never once look back again,
 And some of us have seen and known
 And turned and gone away alone.
 But most of us turn slow to see
 The figure hanging on a tree
 And stumble on and blindly grope
 Upheld by intermittent hope.
 God grant before we die we all
 May see the light as did St Paul. (384)


As Gardner notes, "faith was never simple or easy for Betjeman," and the dedication with which he followed the Christian path may be seen as directly proportionate to the doubts that he was endeavoring to dispel in his doing so, relying as he did "on the traditions of his church to sustain him" in the process (Gardner, "Anglicanism and the Poetry of John Betjeman" 364). Churches, serving as they do to remind us that our spiritual journey in the world is essentially the same as that of previous generations, give us the space that we sometimes need for these thoughts in the midst of everyday life. In a 1953 contribution to the CBS series "This I Believe," Betjeman wove his beliefs, his doubts, and his need to see some "meaning" in the religious heritage around him into one sustained argument:
 I want to believe that Christ was God become Man. If that is so,
 then the Resurrection, the Sacraments of the Church, prayer, and
 the Scriptures are comprehensible. If it is not true there is no
 point in everything: my own prayers that I have found answered, my
 own sins that have found me out, grace that comes to me in the
 Sacraments and particularly when I receive Holy Communion, are all
 delusions: the huge cathedrals, the many priests and ministers and
 millions of Anglicans ... are all deluded.

 But of course it is true.... I know that my own Church is full
 of love--or charity as we call it--and I believe that it is the
 true Church. I know that Christ, who was Perfect Love, lives in
 it. I force my will to make me believe that God became Man nearly
 two thousand years ago. Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief.
 (Tennis 440)


The power of those closing sentences serves, arguably, as a fitting comment on Betjeman's faith. It was not confident nor evangelical, but in its readiness to admit an element of doubt it resonated with people in a way that a more assured belief may not have done. A good example of this is his poem "Christmas," the final three stanzas of which rest upon a conditional clause, the question of whether or not Christ really was God Incarnate:
 And is it true? And is it true,
 This most tremendous gift of all,
 Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
 A Baby in an ox's stall?
 The Maker of the stars and sea
 Become a Child on earth for me? (154)


If this is accepted as truth, the poem concludes, then none of the modern trappings of Christmas--"Bath salts and inexpensive scent / And hideous tie so kindly meant"--and none of our familial love and happiness "Can with this single Truth compare--/ That God was Man in Palestine / And lives to-day in Bread and Wine" (154). Whilst the poem seems to end on a note of affirmation, though, closer reading reminds us that it is itself conditional. The question "And is it true" (asked thrice within the poem, as if to alert us to the element of doubt) is answered only with the phrase "For if it is ..." that draws the poem to a close. Ultimately, a degree of faith is required if the real meaning of Christmas is to be understood. After hearing the poem read on BBC radio on Christmas morning 1980, Betjeman's friend Sybil Harton wrote to him of her sense of wonder at having heard "flung high into the air over Great Britain ... your affirmation of faith (requiring doubt), hope (resting on despair), and love, love which is the final resolution of life" (Betjeman, Letters 550).

In times of spiritual doubt or uncertainty, Betjeman found succour in the examples of others, and in his daily attempts to live with the demands of his faith, he drew comfort from the example of the church, both as a physical building and as a body of believers across the centuries. The evidence of the endurance of others' faith, expressed in stone or "seen in a stained glass window's hue," served to strengthen his own.

Churches and Communal Nostalgia

In the autobiographical Summoned By Bells, in Collected Poems, Betjeman tried to explain why his early years in London had been consumed by a desire to visit the city's various obscure churches, led not by the peal of bells that denoted "somewhere active" but by the "tinkling" (439) from a near-forgotten church almost wholly lacking a congregation. It was not so much, he recalled, "a conscious search for God" that motivated him as "a longing for the past, / With a slight sense of something unfulfilled" (439). Such thoughts resurfaced in his Guide to English Parish Churches, which was finally published in 1958. Assembled piecemeal as he traveled the country, it represented Betjeman's collected thoughts both on the fabric of church buildings and also the relationship between them and the communities they served. Writing in The Listener just after the Guide had been published, he argued that churches were symbols of continuity amongst the political and cultural complexity of the modern world:
 So when we walk down a green lane like an ancient cart track
 towards the ringing church bells, we can see the power of God in
 the blossom and trees, remember legends of the saints about birds
 and stones, and recall miracles that happened in the parish at this
 or that spot. On a feast day we can see the churchyard set out with
 tables for the church ale when mass is over, and as we enter the
 nave we can see it thronged below the painted roof and walls with
 people in the village, young and old, the rest of the parish
 crowding in with us. (Coming Home: An Anthology of Prose 321)


The building, old as it is, functions as a point of intersection between past and present, and to those prepared to make the necessary imaginative effort an otherwise lost culture can be revived through its location and fabric. What has been lost, however, is the church's place as the center of the community. In his 1954 poem "Churchyards," Betjeman actually suggests that even a place associated with mortality was once a place for communal gathering and merriment:
 For churchyards then, though hallowed ground,
 Were not so grim as now they sound,
 And horns of ale were handed round
 For which churchwardens used to pay
 On each especial vestry day.
 "Twas thus the village drunk its beer
 With its relations buried near,
 ... Close to the church when prayers were said
 And masses for the village dead. (Tennis 365)


We find in these lines an example of what Larkin praised as Betjeman's ability to catch "the interplay of time and place, so that his best poems in one light seem authentic social history, in another to demonstrate acutely the passage of time, in a third to show the inherent dignified sadness of life" (Further Requirements 163). There is a sense of community in Betjeman's view of the churchyard, even between the living and the dead, in which the church, both as building and as body of believers, plays a key role. As his own faith was prone to periods of doubt, Betjeman found himself returning to the conception of the church as an enduring institution in a changing world and seeing its ongoing existence as something to bolster the faith of the individual and the nation at large. Such a vision was to be challenged, however, by the rise of an increasingly secular post-war Britain, in which the role of the church, as both building and institution, was more problematic than it had been when Betjeman had gone "church crawling" in the 1930s.

Church and Society in Post-War England

To Betjeman, in Gardner's phrase, "the Church was undoubtedly the most significant institution in England. When he wrote about the Church, he was to his way of thinking also writing about England" (Gardner, Faith 91). Such an outlook was undoubtedly important in wartime, when the Church was emblematic of much that needed to be safeguarded. When victory was finally secured in 1945, it was clear that much of England would have to be rebuilt, both in terms of infrastructure shattered by bombing raids and social ties transformed in wartime to such a degree that a return to the world of the 1930s was simply not an option for the country and its people. The Church, as both a physical presence and a spiritual force, was very much part of this debate. The new modernist cathedral that rose amidst the gothic ruins of Coventry was the most striking example of a program of material rebuilding, but there were also many other new churches, built either to replace those lost in the war or to cater for the new towns that were springing up to house a population slowly getting back to normal life.

If the material fabric of Britain had suffered damage, the same could be said for the nation's spiritual health. Although religion had been important to the nation in wartime, church attendance declined sharply in the postwar years. By the end of 1946 a government-commissioned survey of 500 residents in a typical London borough found that only 1 in 10 attended church "fairly regularly," while on a national scale church attendances were estimated at 5 million people compared to some 40 million customers at the nation's cinemas each week (Kynaston 125). In such a climate, Betjeman was quick to notice that if the church building was no longer the focal point of a rebuilt town layout, it was perhaps because, for whatever reason, the church itself was no longer as important in the lives of the people as it had been. For him, the decay of old churches and the architectural paucity of new ones were themselves symbolic of a deeper spiritual malaise, a society for whom religious belief could never recapture the assurances of the past in a troubled post-war world.

Betjeman, with his avowed love of the eccentricities of older buildings, adopted a markedly nostalgic stance on the topic of church building, distrusting the newer styles of architecture partly on aesthetic grounds but partly because they did not seem to give the church the level of importance it deserved. If the old churches in which he delighted were the expression of centuries of belief in the midst of a community, what could be expected of the new town planner, who could cite declining public interest in religion as grounds for relegating the church in the architectural hierarchy of a rebuilt town? In an essay for the Times Literary Supplement on 6 December 1947, he put forward his own view:
 Perhaps the poverty of modern church design is a confirmation of
 the adage that every age gets the architecture it deserves. For
 without a doubt this age is not interested in new churches. Town
 planners, infected with twentieth-century unbelief, put churches
 below the cinema and a long way below the "community centre" in
 their orders of priority. And it looks as though most of the
 architects [...] if they do not share the current unbelief, are at
 any rate affected by it. Their buildings are often not so much
 churches as cinemas with ecclesiastical trappings or lecture halls
 with a reredos on the wall when normally there would be blackboard.
 There is too much evidence of compromise with the world--cheapness
 in material, devices for turning the church into a community hall
 [...] jazzy decorative devices that are not even symbolic. (Tennis
 359)


Betjeman often made his points through humor as effectively as through more direct prose, and a good example of this is his article on "High Frecklesby," which appeared in the satirical magazine Punch on 27th May 1953. In this spurious "report," submitted by "J. Betjeman, Town Planner, Borough Surveyor, Sanitary Inspector, Phil. D (Art Hist.)" he proposes the redevelopment of High Frecklesby, a typical old English village and "a particularly wasteful rural unit" by turning the entire village in a single tower block, thus bringing all necessary "elements" together in one easily manageable form (Coming 246). The loss of old buildings, including the church, is an integral part of this process:
 [The church], although ancient, will have to be demolished as it is
 in the very centre of the area to be replanned. Though we regret
 its departure as a historic relic, the compensatory saving of space
 and the provision of an inter-denominational meeting room at the
 top of High Frecklesby should satisfy any dissentients. Nor must it
 be forgotten that those who utilize the two Nonconformist chapels
 in High Frecklesby for religious purposes will also be permitted to
 avail themselves of the privileges of inter-denominational
 assembly. Moreover, the village atheists, a considerable body at
 present without a place of worship, will also find themselves
 catered for in the High Frecklesby meeting room. (Coming 246)


Not only does this passage show a lack of understanding for the function of the church, it also removes any degree of spiritual life from the community. The church is, naturally, at the heart of the old village, because the faith it represented was at the heart of the villagers' lives, but could an "interdenominational meeting room" in which atheists could also gather to "worship," fill the void left by its loss? Such proposals ultimately undermine spiritual communities built up over centuries, replacing them with ill-defined modern alternatives and a moral and physical vacuum where the church used to be. For Betjeman, in Gardner's phrase, "the Church ... breathes life into a society" and its removal directly impoverishes the lives of those denied its presence (Gardner, "Anglicanism" 368). Even as the war was drawing to a close in June 1945, Betjeman had warned against the "innovations" that threatened High Frecklesby in a poem "The Planster's Vision." This work appeared in the New English Review and offered a bleak view of a post-war Britain in which architectural redevelopment went hand in hand with the loss of the communal way of life and, more worryingly, the spiritual foundation of that way of life. Its strident opening lines--"Cut down that timber! Bells, too many and strong / ... Have pealed the centuries out with Evensong" (104)--express an intention to systematically remove the Christianity that has underpinned birth, life, and death for people and replace it with an ill-defined, modern alternative:
 I have a vision of The Future, chum,
 The workers' flats in fields of soya beans
 Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
 And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
 From microphones in communal canteens
 "No Right! No Wrong! All's perfect, evermore." (104)


The very assertion that all could be perfect is, for Betjeman, a dereliction of the Christian faith that has underpinned the country's past. If "progress" entailed regarding oneself as being somehow beyond religion, then the future would hold only the prospect of further horrors conducted in the pursuit of a human-centred utopia. Rather than concede the inevitability of this, however, Betjeman retained a belief that the church still had a part to play in post-war society and in his poem "A Lincolnshire Church" stresses the essential continuity of Christian belief in a rapidly changing world. The poem seems, on one level, to disorientate readers, drawing them into a world with "the usual sprinkling of villas" where a "woman in slacks, / Cigarette in her mouth ... stands / As a wireless croons in the kitchen," but in the midst of this vision of modern Britain, Betjeman finds, upon entering the church, that one feature remains constant, for "there on the South aisle altar / Is the tabernacle of God" (141). The presence of the Sacrament in the church building--"a wafer dipped in a wine-drop"--brings the eternal into the earthly realm, and in the light of such a miracle human concerns fade away:
 God who created the Heavens
 And the wide green marsh as well
 Who sings in the sky with the skylark
 Who calls in the evening bell....
 There where the white light flickers,
 Our Creator is with us yet,
 To be worshipped by you and the woman
 Of the slacks and the cigarette. (141)


The Sacrament is, as T. S. Eliot described it in "The Dry Salvages," "the point of intersection of the timeless / With time" (212). Previous generations have flocked to the church to mark the defining events in their lives and to acknowledge their obligations to their Maker. Now, with more to fill their time, in an England "seemingly so indifferent / And with so little soul to win" their attendance may not be so regular, but the church is still there for them--a symbol of God's presence in a rapidly changing world.

A useful counterpoint to Betjeman's thought on this issue is found in the work of Philip Larkin, himself a great admirer and perceptive critic of Betjeman's work, who was also acutely conscious of the fragility of much of England's post-war fabric. His poem "Church Going" picks up Betjeman's image of the "church crawler" but presents a less spiritually engaged visitor: one who enters the church only when sure that "there's nothing going on" and views it with a mild sense of disdain:
 Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
 And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
 For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
 Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
 And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
 Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
 My cycle-clips in awkward reverence. (Collected Poems 97)


This visitor either doesn't know that a church has an altar or chooses not to admit that he does, simply adding that there is "stuff" at the "holy end" of the building. And yet, how does he know that it is holy? However much he tries to play it down, a residual trace of something in the building unsettles this jaded "church-crawler" and although, as he goes on to reflect, "the place was not worth stopping for" he admits that "stop I did: in fact I often do" (Larkin, Collected 97).

The church building exercises this influence because, as Larkin's speaker concludes, it serves as a receptacle for peoples' thoughts, a place in which the focus of one's mind can go beyond the demands of the everyday and seek out something deeper and more lasting; a form, perhaps, of wisdom: "A serious house on serious earth it is / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet / Are recognized, and robed as destinies" (Collected 97). Discussing "Church Going" with Ian Hamilton in 1964, Larkin said that the title was intended to suggest "the union of the important stages of human life--birth, marriage and death--that going to church represents; and my own feeling that when they are dispersed into the registry office and crematorium chapel life will become thinner in consequence" (Hassan 38). Even in a society where much is changing there are still elements of life that retain an aura for people, and the church, even if it is a declining one, plays a part in framing those elements for each successive generation.

As post-war English society changed in hitherto unforeseen ways, Larkin, like Betjeman, registered with concern the way in which the physical embodiments of the past were lost to the demands of modern life. His 1972 poem "Going Going" foresees the country being built over, save some "tourist parts" within which traces of heritage will be preserved. This is not, however, the kind of preservation that maintains something and keeps it going; rather, it is preservation like that of a laboratory specimen, divorced from the context that made the original meaningful.
 And that will be England gone,
 The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
 The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
 There'll be books; it will linger on
 In galleries; but all that remains
 For us will be concrete and tyres. (Larkin, Collected 189)


Churches, with their "carved choirs," are an integral part of that "old" England threatened with extinction. As in Betjeman's more humorous take on this issue in "High Frecklesby," the question remains: can religious sentiments survive if there is not a building upon which to focus them? The fate of the building seems, in some way, analogous to the spiritual health of the nation, for taking the church out of its surroundings not only severs the link between the people of today and their common past but also ruptures the shared spiritual values that they have drawn from their shared faith in God.

Whereas Larkin resigned himself, albeit with regret, to seeing the buildings of the Church in decline, Betjeman rallied to the cause of their preservation. Amongst his many public duties, he was a keen supporter of the Churches Conservation Trust and an assiduous letter-writer to The Times and other newspapers in support of high- and low-profile causes, as may be seen in the title of his 1952 poem "Verses Turned in Aid of a Public Subscription towards the restoration of the Church of St Katherine Chiselhampton, Oxon." Here, the bell that calls the parishioners to Evensong is also a reminder of the church's enduring presence in the life of its community; a community which now must rescue the building which, even in its reduced condition, remains its historical heart:
 And must that plaintive bell in vain
 Plead loud along the dripping lane?
 And must the building fall?
 Not while we love the Church and live
 And of our charity will give
 Our much, our more, our all. (150)


Such sentiments may not have been those of everyone, but Betjeman hoped that there remained a sufficient number willing to act to preserve such churches before they were lost. Although many churches are indeed "gone," as Larkin feared they would be, St Katherine's is not, actually, one of them: the public appeal was successful, and the church is now maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. (4)

Churches, Hymns, and the People: A Shared Heritage

As part of his desire to share his interests with as large an audience as possible, Betjeman wrote and presented the BBC film A Passion for Churches, which was broadcast on 7 December 1974. In doing so, he highlighted the beauty of church architecture and, simultaneously, reminded his audience that a church was not simply something to "see" but was also a spiritual community at work in the modern world. The churches of Norfolk (where the film was set) represented "centuries of faith, in flint and stone," but they were not simply objects for study; they were the meeting points for living parishes, where "the rector types the parish magazine" as the community works to maintain the church building:
 If it isn't the tower, it's the transept or the North Porch
 And the answer is usually a fete
 To raise another few pounds
 We can rely on the parish to rally round. (Coming 505)


Betjeman identifies a vital source of continuity and cohesion in the life of the parish, very much in keeping with his own involvement in the parishes where he worshipped, from the Berkshire village of Uffington, where he was a bellringer and coordinator of the youth fellowship at St. Mary's, to St. Bartholomew the Great in London, where he served on the Parochial Church Council and belonged to the team devoted to visiting those in hospital. He was committed, in Gardner's words, "not just to Christianity but to the Church of England," to the institution and community of believers that maintained in a presence in the world around them (Gardner, "Anglicanism" 362). In a 1947 letter to Evelyn Waugh, he described how he and his wife, Penelope, were effectively the only regular parishioners at the church of All Saints, Farnborough, but that "it is just because it is so disheartening ... that we must keep this Christian witness going" (Wilson 162). If this is true for the parishioners, it is even more relevant for the minister, in whose care the parish resides. Introducing a clip of the vicar of Flordon in Norfolk in his film, Betjeman adds that "every Anglican priest promises to say / Morning and Evening prayer, daily" for his congregation, whether there is anyone there with him or not.
 It doesn't matter that there's no one there
 It doesn't matter when they do not come
 The villagers know the parson is praying for them in their church.
 (Coming 516) (5)


The routine of prayer is a bond between a group of individuals and the church as a building, a surviving reminder of a level of life beyond the limits of the everyday:
 Still the faith of centuries is seen
 In those who walk to church across the green.
 The faith of centuries is in the sound
 Of Easter bells, that ring all Norfolk round
 And though for church we may not seem to care,
 It's deeply part of us. Thank God it's there. (Coming 521)


Although he delighted in the architecture of the church building, Betjeman asserts here that the true value of a church resides in the life of its members. He never lost his taste for what the seventeenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, had referred to as "the beauty of holiness" in his vision of a church, but when the Church as an institution in society was at risk of being declared irrelevant, Betjeman was quick to move from that aestheticism to affirm the importance of the communal life of the church as a witness to others and as an enduring testament to God's love in the world.

It was fitting, perhaps, that Betjeman's last series of radio broadcasts should have been dedicated to the hymns of the church and the rich heritage of belief that they represent. The BBC series Sweet Songs of Zion first aired in the summer of 1975 and was well received by listeners, with a second series commissioned a year later and a third in 1978. Although these talks were confined to the "God Slot" of Sunday evening broadcasting on BBC Radio 4 and received hardly any publicity prior to transmission or critical attention afterwards, they proved very popular with listeners.

When one reads these talks in textual form, their importance for their author, prone to depression and recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, becomes apparent, for in them Betjeman, discussing the work of hymn writers like Isaac Watts, John and Charles Wesley, or William Cowper, explores the growth of the hymn as an expression of personal and communal faith, forged in the intensity of individual experience and translated into shared sentiment through the act of singing. For those prone to doubt, too, Betjeman found solace and support in the thoughts of some of his chosen hymn writers. A communion of believers could be forged not just in acts of praise, but also in those moments when God's power and will were not immediately evident, and when the individual needed to stand fast in his or her attempt to live out God's plan. In his talk on William Cowper, broadcast on 13 July 1975, Betjeman, beset by depression, explored another such figure whose anxieties were sublimated in some of "the most restful, confident hymns in the English language" (Sweet 31). Games detects in these talks "a letting go" on Betjeman's part, "as he immerses himself in the faith of the faithful, the closest he can get to a faith of his own" (Sweet 16). I would suggest, rather, that Betjeman's inclusion of such figures is closely connected to his own problematic faith, the act of stumbling on, "upheld by intermittent hope" that he admitted elsewhere in his poetry and the extent to which hymns that afforded their composers a degree of spiritual assurance often scarce in their own lives may function in a similar way for those who sing them.

It is, indeed, that act of singing that makes the hymns so important for Betjeman. In the opening talk of the series, on the work of Isaac Watts, he opined that hymns are "the poems of the people" (Sweet 21) and as such play a key role in our lives, recasting the doctrines of faith in a form with which we may more fully engage, in music and language. Indeed, even doctrinal differences can be subsumed in the act of hymn singing. "One of the nicest things about hymns" Betjeman told his listeners in 1976, "is that we all sing one another's: Protestants sing hymns by Papists and Roman Catholics sing hymns by Methodists and everybody the whole world over sings hymns by Anglicans" (Sweet 249). In his later years, Betjeman became acutely aware that a Church experiencing a drop in numbers and status could not afford to argue amongst its constituent parts, and he urged church members not to allow debates over "high or low" worship to jeopardize a more fundamental community of belief. For him, hymns have an important role to play in fostering this community and in reaching out to those perhaps inclined to believe but for whom that belief is not yet a key part of life. By the mid-1970s, he could not ignore the fact that the Church, as a collection of beautiful buildings and as a force in English society, was experiencing decline, but in his final broadcasts he countered this trend by locating and admiring a bedrock of shared spiritual heritage that augured something better than the loss of everything he loved about it. Buildings could, with care, be saved and preserved. Faith, expressed in song, action, and community, would surely endure. Such thoughts are woven into his post-war poem "Felixstowe, or The Last of Her Order," in which the sole member of an almost extinct order of nuns reflects on the outward decline of the Church in the world around her, but draws strength from a faith that endures amidst such change.
 "Thou knowest my down sitting and mine uprising"
 Here where the white light burns with steady glow
 Safe from the vain world's silly sympathizing,
 Safe with the Love that I was born to know,
 Safe from the surging of the lonely sea
 My heart finds rest, my heart finds rest in Thee. (222)


The poem stands as a symbol of faith held in the midst of loss, with the nun's devotion representing the condition of the Church itself in an increasingly secular age. In the metre of its lines, however, it not only exhibits Betjeman's own love of hymnology, it could itself be a hymn if it were set to music. It is, therefore, a fitting example of the interplay between personal faith (even if it is beset by doubt) and the enduring presence of the Church in society, in buildings, or in the lives its members lead in a changing world.

Conclusion: Churches and Believers

In the Introduction to his 1958 Guide to English Parish Churches, Betjeman told his readers that there "are nearly twenty thousand churches and well over a thousand years of Christianity" in England, but framed this statistic by saying that they represented the period "between the early paganism of Britain and the present paganism" (2). The word "pagan" may seem an odd choice when describing a post-war Britain starting at long last to recover from the Second World War, but in using it Betjeman reminds us that it could no longer be taken as read that the church was the center of communal life. Post-war surveys increasingly revealed that whilst belief in the tenets of Christianity remained largely constant, regular church attendance was dropping markedly. Although the majority of the population would still claim to be "Church of England" it could not be taken as read that being English entailed being truly Christian. The fate of the nation's churches was an integral part of this issue. Were they simply "sights" to visit, noteworthy for their architectural qualities and sense of the past, or were they still genuine sites of spiritual resonance, embodiments of belief in the midst of an increasingly secular society?

On one level, Betjeman's "church-crawling" was a form of tourism; the desire to see a place and proceed to the next one. He retained, however, something that went beyond the appreciation of the superficial: he saw the church as evidence of the continuity of faith in a changing world, and this was of great value to him. In the Preface to his 1981 collection Church Poems, he summed up both his appreciation of the Church as building and community, and his belief in the importance of both in his own vision of things:
 When Mr Piper and I were doing the Shell Guides we looked in at
 every church, that is to say every parish church, for we are both
 Church of England. Along with the building went the Vicar, the
 Verger and the Parish Magazine, and so our affection for churches
 grew....

 I hope this book will humanise churches a bit for those who
 think of them only in terms of architectural style or rateable
 value. Without a church I think a place lacks its heart and
 identity. (Church Poems 7)


This is not to say that Betjeman was prepared to countenance the loss of old church buildings, or that he was personally willing to find the same scope for faith in newer, more architecturally challenging designs. His faith, as he had said earlier, had evolved out of his love of the fabric of churches, but it had not stopped there. When church buildings were lost, or replaced with less beautiful alternatives, a part of the nation's soul arguably went with them, but Betjeman could still discern enough of a distinction between churches as buildings and churches as spiritual communities within the world to enable him to accept that change with equanimity, even if he did not rejoice in it. The Church, as a building and as a body of believers, had, he knew, survived the challenges of history and, in doing so, retained its capacity to inspire him when his own problematic faith was beset by doubt. His comment on a Norfolk church: "Thank God it's there" (Coming 521) was both an expression of relief on the part of a believer who occasionally needed to find evidence of the faith of others in order to give succor to his own, and a heartfelt expression of thanks to the Creator whose existence in the everyday world gave meaning to everything Betjeman held dear.

WORKS CITED

Betjeman, John. Collected Poems. 1958. London: John Murray, 2006.

--. Church Poems. London: John Murray, 1981.

--. John Betjeman's Guide to English Parish Churches. 1958. London: HarperCollins, 1993.

--. Letters, Volume Two: 1951-1984. Ed. Candida L. Green. London: Methuen, 1995.

--. Coming Home: An Anthology of Prose. Ed. Candida L. Green. London: Vintage, 1998.

--. Trains and Buttered Toast. Ed. Stephen Games. London: John Murray, 2006.

--. Tennis Whites and Teacakes. Ed. Stephen Games. London: John Murray, 2007.

--. Sweet Songs of Zion. Ed. Stephen Games. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007.

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber, 1963.

Gardner, Kevin J. Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman's Religious Verse. London: Continuum, 2005.

--. "Anglicanism and the Poetry of John Betjeman." Christianity and Literature. 53.3 (Spring 2004): 361-83.

Hassan, Salem. Philip Larkin and his Contemporaries. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.

Hillier, Bevis. Betjeman: The Bonus of Laughter. London: John Murray, 2004.

Kynaston, David. Austerity Britain: 1945-51. London: Bloomsbury. 2007.

Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems. London: Faber, 1988.

--. Required Writing. London: Faber, 1983.

--. Further Requirements. London: Faber, 2001.

Wilson, A. N. Betjeman. London: Arrow, 2007.

NOTES

(1) See, for example, the radio talk "Some Comments in Wartime," broadcast on 4 July 1940, where Betjeman tells his audience that "war sorts us all out, and the process is sad and painful.... But it also teaches us new interests. Better still, it teaches us to consider other people and to value a man not according to his income but according to his heart" (Trains 133).

(2) Unless noted otherwise, all quotations of Betjeman's poetry are from his Collected Poems and will subsequently be identified only with page numbers.

(3) Betjeman had spent two years in Dublin, serving as the UK's press attache to Ireland.

(4) For more information, see the Trust's website, http://www.visitchurches.org. uk/content.php?nID=11&region=Oxfordshire&churchID=62/.

(5) In the film, the camera initially focuses upon the Vicar reading the office of Matins and, slowly, pulls back so that the viewer can see that the church is indeed empty, thus accentuating Betjeman's lines.

Peter J. Lowe

The International Study Centre
COPYRIGHT 2008 Conference on Christianity and Literature
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Lowe, Peter J.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Words:9406
Previous Article:Ardors.
Next Article:Skylight.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters