Well the dog has to be walked, so we trudge up the road past Holy Trinity church. Bucket starts to pull in and I begin to wonder if she’s had some kind of canine epiphany. Actually no, she just likes Holy Trinity because the daughter, who’s pretty dog-walk averse, brings her here when instructed: ‘For god’s sake it’s your turn to walk the damn dog’ and it’s the shortest distance she can get away with. Bucket likes to retrace her steps to see if there are any new doggy smells. Holy Trinity, surrounded by a patch of grass, is a vast old Victorian hulk, not a pretty church and surely far too massive for the spiritual requirements of the godless citizens of South Woodford.
Last Sunday I went to visit the folks. They still insist on remaining dead and have done so since the early seventies. My wife and I sought them out at their grave in Ravensthorpe, a village, just outside Northampton. The Church is St Denys and frankly I’d never heard of a Saint called Dennis, so I’ve just looked him up.
Apparently, he was born in Italy around 210AD. He became a priest and in 245 Pope Fabian consecrated him and six others as missionary bishops to work in France, where the locals had been giving god-fearing Christians all kinds of hell. Unfortunately, they didn’t take kindly to Denys’ evangelical zeal and he too got it in the neck, quite literally as they chopped off his head. Legend has it that after martyrdom Den carried his head for six miles to the place where he was to be buried. Saved someone else the grisly task, I guess.
The church that bears his name is around 800 years old and is made from beautiful, deep copper, Northampton stone. In the churchyard old Yew trees creak in the wind. It’s a peaceful place.
There you have two Anglican churches, one in the suburbs of Essex the other in the rolling Northamptonshire countryside. One beautiful and one ugly, both almost entirely unused. St Denys has a communion service every second Sunday. Holy Trinity, as you can see from the sign, holds three services on the Sabbath. On all other occasions both churches are shuttered. Understandably they are locked to prevent burglary, but you do have to ask if the dear old Church of England needs quite so much religious real estate.
I suppose I’d better come clean. I’m not a praying guy. I was brought up a Christian and while the faith has lapsed, I still see myself as a cultural Christian. I love church architecture, well some of it. If anything bad were to happen to St Denys I’d be mortified and not just because the parents are residents. It is clearly a beautiful place and the residents of Ravensthorpe deserve some beauty in their lives. I still love some of the old hymns I used to sing at school and the King James bible is stuffed with poetry. I’m not some atheist zealot, but what are we to do with all the Churches that scatter the land sitting there empty, waiting for a purpose?
I visit the folks perhaps twice a year and I’ve never once been able to get into the church, which is just as charming on the inside.
Obviously, many churches are deconsecrated and turned into housing, which seems all to the good. But what about the ones with architectural merit that are locked up pretty much 24/7? Can they be repurposed in some way so that they once again become central to the community they serve? Despite the Church of England’s inherited wealth, I worry that some will just slide into disrepair.
In the UK we have a haul of beautiful churches, there needs to be a national debate as to what to do with them. Anyone got a clue?