We get a look at Country Living magazine when we visit my beautiful mama, because she has a subscription to it. The Christmas copy always feels delectably festive, so we fork out from the housekeeping to buy our own copy. It’s out now, this last week of October – ‘a little bit previous’, as they say in Yorkshire.
So in between things, over a cup of tea this afternoon, I took a look at it. The Christmas issue always includes a feature on the seasonal celebrations at a country parish church; this year it’s St Beuno’s on Exmoor, apparently the smallest church in England. It is a Saxon church named after a 7th century saint – so, a link with England in the very-far-from-Dark Ages. And the article says: ‘Why it was built in this remote location is a mystery – perhaps to hide from Exmoor’s weather or heathen marauders, but also to serve the spiritual needs of the forest workers who supplied Porlock’s shipyards with timber.’
When I was a child at school the teachers observed a strict classroom policy of ‘no shouting out’. If the teacher asked a question – or if the student had a question – the de rigueur procedure was to raise your hand and wait for the teacher to respond. If the teacher had put the class a question, many students might have a hand raised, in which case the teacher would choose. Or pick on those who had not raised a hand, ignoring all those who had.
Any class of children included a handful, usually boys, desperately eager to be chosen to answer a question. Their raised hands were held as high aloft as the child could strain, jabbing the air with fingers outstretched, as the child in tones of agony uttered a (muted) cry of ‘Sir! Sir! Sir!’ or ‘Miss! Miss! Miss!’ (depending on the gender of the teacher, obviously).
The Hermiones of the educational world.
Mostly, regardless of the question, I have no answers. In my mind questions proliferate and answers are few. To almost any enquiry my mind formulates the response, ‘Well . . . it depends what you mean . . .’
But, now, this business of St Beuno’s church. Why could it possibly have been built, in that remote place?
And for once I've got my hand up: 'Sir! Sir! Sir!'
Could it be that everywhere was remote in England in the Dark Ages, Exmoor no more than anywhere else? Could it be that Saxon settlements were less durable than, say, Roman towns with their villas and aqueducts, and left less trace when long-ago communities had ceased to be? Could it be that – hard to imagine, I know – the holy men who built it were seeking a measure of separation from human society, drawing apart to pray and wait upon God? ‘Abide ye here with the ass; the lad and I will go yonder.’
And for what purpose might that church have been built? Ooh, let me think . . . As a shelter from the weather . . . mmm . . . No. To hide from the benighted heathen? Er . . . probably not. The men who built that church would have been missionaries, not hiding from the heathen. They weren’t shy. They weren’t timid. They weren’t scared. They were men of faith and conviction, the old Celtic saints. Hiding? A thousand times no.
Oh. So, to serve the spiritual needs of persons from Porlock, then? Up to a point, maybe.
Or perhaps St Beuno's was not conceived to be all about human society and community activity.
You know why I think they built that church? Oh, go on – you do. Yes. Call me old-fashioned, call me unimaginative, but I think they built St Beuno's for the worship of God.
Now, here’s the thing. I’m wondering if the time could conceivably be ripe for what one might call a just-go-to-church movement.
Maybe not. Maybe it’s just me.
I do want to go to church – but only to worship God. Then I want to go home.
I don’t mind making friends, in a quiet way. I’m not a total misanthropist. And I don’t mind other people being community-minded. If folk like their churches buzzing with friendliness and social events, well, that’s good isn’t it? I applaud it and admire it – but I don’t want to go there.
I was reading the Country Living article and thinking it looked nice at St Beuno’s until I read the dread words (this was Colin the vicar), ‘I do like to get others involved.’ My italics, not Colin’s.
Oooh, stop it Colin!
What my heart longs for is a little church in a field, the inside simple and plain. Quiet worship, peaceful and traditional. Just an hour long. A thoughtful homily. Prayers for the worldwide human community and the peace of the earth, for the suffering and the dying, the bereaved. Prayers of thanksgiving for God’s loving-kindness, for the wonder and the beauty of being here. The peace passed without chatter or excitement. Our communion made. Quiet greetings and smiles exchanged. And then go home. No questions. No 'involvement'. No Sunday School, no events. Just people and God.
Okay, I apologise. It really is just me, isn’t it? My just-go-to-church movement will be a minority of one.