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The Charm of Old Churches


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There is a place for reason in the scheme of things. Let us be liberal and admit that there may be a place even for rationalism. But neither reason nor rationalism has anything to utter in the grey shadow of an old church, or in the light of the martyrs' dyed robes, in the window above the altar.

Not long ago a distinguished man of science showed that we should all be much healthier if we were treated exactly as horses are treated in a racing-stable: food, drink, exercise all strictly measured and ordered. This is reason; and yet how few of us would gladly yield to it. Again, it is certain that many of us have not enough food to eat; it is demonstrable that the demolition of S. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey and the sale of the sites would produce funds which, properly invested, woiald feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and clothe the naked. Yet the proposal that this should be done would provoke a storm of hatred and derision.

Rationalism, it is true, will now and then break through; we have destroyed a vast deal of what we are pleased to call beauty to smooth the way for tramcars and motor-cars and chemical works, and big stores, but we cannot be rational on the great scale or carry out our principles to a logical conclusion. Else, neither S. Paul's nor the Abbey would be standing now; nor could we admire as noble poetry such lines as:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes.

which is, simply, untrue. The bones of drowned men do not turn into coral, nor do their eyes become pearls.

It may be that mankind which, in its heart and in spite of all defections, loves great poetry, and great painting and great building, is mad for doing so. I believe, on the contrary, that in the love of all these things lies the supreme sanity of man. You agree; very well. But in that case you must not tell me that the religious spirit is irrational, or if you use the word, you must not imply by it any shade of condemnation. You must be ready to see in religion a spirit which is congruous with all the arts, which is, indeed, the foundation from which all the arts spring. And that is the mood which is required if we are to appreciate the charm of our old English churches. We are to regard them as manifestations of that wonder which is at the root of all religion and all art. The Stone Age man who etched the likeness of the reindeer on the beast's bone, had perceived the wonder of the reindeer; the men who built our old churches had perceived the wonder of the universe, and had felt the awe and adoration to be accorded to the mysterious Power in the universe and beyond it: immanent and transcendent.

Concerning the building of these English churches, and, indeed, the churches of all Europe, there is a fable which was credited by so weighty a man as Hallam the historian, a writer not much given to indulging in that sense of wonder of which we have been speaking, still less inclined to believe in a picturesque tale because it was picturesque. Yet Hallam seems to have credited the tale of the Freemasons and the churches of Western Christendom.

Briefly, the story is that the Freemasons, a secret body possessed of craft secrets, cosmopolitan like their successors of to-day, wandered all over Europe, building churches as they went on their journeys from place to place. It is a picturesque tale enough, and it would be pleasant if it were true; but it is demonstrably false. It is only necessary to look at a few plates, to glance at a picture of an Italian church, a German church, a Spanish church, and an English church to see that while there are certain features common to all there are also vast differences and distinctions. The Italian Gothic may admit a dome; it will certainly show traces of the classic spirit.

The English medieval church of the same period will certainly have nothing classic about it, either in detail or general design. The east end of the French church is almost always apsidal or curvilinear; the east end of the English church is almost always square or rectilinear. In England, as the Gothic spirit began to die down, the tracery of the windows became, as it were, frozen. The curving lines of the fourteenth-century, or Decorated, Gothic became the rectilinear mullions and transoms of the fifteenth century. Hence the name Perpendicular. In France, on the other hand, as Gothic died, the window tracery multiplied and elaborated its curves till the lines seem to flicker like flames; and hence the name Flamboyant.

So with the Gothic of every country in Europe: each land has its own distinctive manner; so a thirteenth-century church in France differs greatly from a thirteenth-century church in Germany, both from a thirteenth-century church in Italy or Spain; while Salisbury Cathedral, though built at the same period, is readily distinguished as of a different spirit from any of the four. So much for the fable of the wandering masonic guilds.

Individual craftsmen, no doubt, travelled and did work here and there; but the churches of a country are as a general rule, the work of the men of that country; and, to go farther, the church of a parish was, as a general rule, the work of the parishioners. The village mason built the walls, the village carpenter carved the rood screen and the figures on it; and the village blacksmith was responsible for the metal work of the church.

It has been said that our old churches seem rather a natural growth of the soil than buildings artificially imposed on it; and in a sense they are indeed a growth of the soil, proceeding as they do from the hearts of our fathers who lived on that soil and were nourished by it; who quarried the rock on the hillside for the walls and made the beams and the rood screen, and the statues of the saints, out of the great oaks in the wood, and carved on the capitals of the pillars the growth of the field and the hedgerow, and dreamed of God in all that they did.

It is not strange that these old churches have a charm about them. For they are, indeed, charms; incantations in stone and wood; works of high magic -to use a word which is far too good to be abandoned to civilized conjurers and savage medicine men.

It is to the greatest magic of all that the old churches bear witness. Carlyle found it a strange marvel that in the midst of the rationalising eighteenth century Samuel Johnson could veritably hold communion with the Highest in the church of S. Clement Danes; in spite of languid, dull, moralising sermons, of the verbose and dreary "singing Psalms," and of a service which was rather calculated to quench devotion than to kindle it. This was indeed a marvel; but if we think of it, it is a marvel that is repeated and has been repeated through long ages in every one of the grey old churches of England; most of them, it is true, more fit for the mysteries and more eloquent of the mysteries than the church which looks down Fleet Street. They minister in various fashions.

Sometimes they are set fronting the market place of a little country town. There may be two or three fifteenth-century houses, gabled and half-timbered; other houses which tried to modernise themselves two hundred, a hundred years ago, and have coated their noble oak beams with smug plaster and paint. Then you may have the rectory, with a rich green garden and lawns and a high wall of mellow brick about it; and purple clematis blossoming over the dim green paint of the veranda.

The lawyer's house is grave Queen Anne, with a classic portico; the doctor lives in Georgian red-brick. There is an inn with a big yard, from which you walk directly into the open country, an inn with half a dozen roofs, each one of them, apparently, of independent construction, and made without the smallest reference to its neighbour, an inn with the oddest corners, angles, passages, queerly shaped rooms in it, and little windows opening from one room into another, and penthouses without any apparent justification for their existence.

And I fear that in that market place there is a drill hall in blatant brick, dating from 1870, and a row of grim little cottages in whitey-grey brick built in the 'forties of the last century. The market cross-the paces and the shaft, at least-may still stand; or it may be that a dreadful clock celebrates the First Jubilee of Queen Victoria. And fronting all this beauty and peace, all this homeliness and cheerfulness and ugliness is the magistral beauty of the parish church. The fifteenth-century tower, mighty at its base, gradually tapering to its battlements, surges up magnificently, a mark on clear days over twenty miles of wood and verdant meadow.

The Norman doorway was fretted with strange imagery eight hundred years ago; the Lady Chapel with the three fine lancets and the far lifted roof is of the thirteenth century. High on the walls strange monsters cluster, spouting gurgling torrents from gaping mouths in wild wet weather: and here grave angels bear up shields carved with holy symbols of the faith The northern porch, storied with the blazonry of the donor, is rich with the last splendour of the dying Gothic; and all the church stands as a witness to that other world of wonder and enchantment: which makes the world of our common life enchanted and wonderful.

On market days the pigs and geese and fowls and sheep and men and women mingle their queer voices all together; hissings and bleatings and callings and gruntings and loud asseverations all going up together to the grinning gargoyles on the battlement: and high in the tower the bells sound clear, and a deep, reverberating tone rings out the hour. And the bells sound on the night of the fair ringing above the jangle of the merry-go-rounds and the beating of drums and the songs and the laughter and the shouts of the people: and above all the rushing flames and flares the steadfast tower rises high and is lifted up against the stars. And there are the churches of the solitude. Long ago, I remember walking half a day among the mountains of the Welsh borderland, and finding at last, in the beyond and beyond (as it seemed), the little church called Partrishw, grey, and old, and far beyond all knowledge of our days and our world and our thoughts, in a world of its own of heather slopes and wild heights, and grey rocks and drifting mists. It stood beside a deep winding lane that must have been rather made by winter rains and breaking wells than by man; there was a cottage near it, out of it came an old tottering man who unlocked the door.

We asked him if he knew what the name Partrishw meant, and he murmured something about "the old people did talk of St. Ishw's well." Within, there stood the rood screen, and age had turned the oak to an ashen, silvery grey. On each side of the central door of the screen was a stone altar. The Reformation had hardly mounted to this old church in the heart of the wild hills. The great Prayer Book on the priest's desk was in Black Letter, I think of the time of Charles I. There were the ruins of paintings on the walls: grim and dim. So far as I know the sexton's cottage was the only house in sight.

But it was a wild day in autumn, and the rain marched in giant columns before the mountain winds, so that it was only possible to see that broken country through the shaking veils of rain.

Such was the charm of the old church of the solitude; so the mountains as well as the market-place have their witness to the quickening mysteries which continually confront us.

And there is another church of old memories of mine which, if not deep in the heart of the mountains, is yet, one may say, built at the approaches and portals of the mountains. Again, it is long ago; and again, it is autumn, but later in the year, and the leaves are falling very fast before the boisterous winds of October.

I am on a solitary walk one dull afternoon, and somehow drift on and on by the path under the larch wood, and by wandering brooks, over a hill of reeking meadows where rivulets unknown in summer are rushing red under the hedgerows. I go on and on, like the people in the fairy tales, like the knights in the romances, and find myself climbing slowly up a deep, rough lane. The footway that is not mud is solid rock, and the banks are so high that all the lands on either side are hidden. I climb in the growing darkness of the sad autumn day, and feel that I am adventuring into an unknown world.

At last the lane climbs no more; it opens on to a road that runs from north to south on this high ridge of land to which I have attained. Below are hills and valleys, wave on wave, deep woods, hollow valleys, ways that lead into concealed places; far in the east a forest-covered height, and beyond that a faint glint of yellow sea. But behind is the long, mighty wall of the mountain, rising to a rounded prehistoric tumulus-this, perhaps, the church of a most ancient faith-a watch-tower also above that wild steep, all bracken-covered; and the night comes dark on the mountain-side.

And here on this ridge on which I stand, apart from the hamlet of four or five cottages, is the grey, humble old church, untouched, unrestored-in those far-off days, at any rate. The east window, square arid low, of late fifteenth-century work, with cusps rudely carved-there was neither much money nor much skill in building on the mountain-side-is of plain glass, leaded; and the boughs of an ancient yew beat upon it as the boisterous wind comes down from the mountain wall.

The churchyard is full of queer old gravestones of a hundred, a hundred and fifty, two hundred years ago; strangely overgrown, some of them, with patches of golden lichen, so that the names of the men of old, buried beneath, are no longer to be read. But here and there deeply-cut letters are clear and legible. Many of these are in Welsh, and I still remember that one of them, cut into a little, old, leaning stone, began:

Dyma gareg deg.
I forget the rest of the Welsh-the phrase means, "Here's a fine stone" - but I believe the sense of the verse was somewhat thus:

Here's a rare stone - of death.
Beneath it lies
A rarer dust, that shall arise
By heavenly breath alone; and climb the skies-
We trust.

There was a pale gleam of light as the sun sank behind the tumulus on the mountain, and the night came down as I turned away from the old church on that high, lonely ridge of land.

Lonely or in the market-place, little more than cells of old saints, or almost cathedrals; bare and rude or rich in admirable imagery; they all discourse, these old churches, of the hidden mysteries and of a secret peace. The noise of the world grows louder and louder; "wireless" has filled the very air with voices, some of them confused enough. But the grey churches witness for the secrets that are behind all life, and sometimes with most significant symbolism. I know a church where nave and chancel are parted by a massive wall of stone. This, in later times, became the rood screen, through the tracery of which the people in the nave could see the officiating priest, the altar, and all the solemn and orderly service that was done there.

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Pictures for The Charm of Old Churches

S. Katherine Cree, Leadenhall Street: all Halloes, Barking
S. Katherine Cree, Leadenhall Street: all Halloes, Barking >>>>
The Norman Grandeur of S. Bartholomews Church
The Norman Grandeur of S. Bartholomews Church >>>>
The Temple Church of the Crusaders
The Temple Church of the Crusaders >>>>
Interior of the Temple Church: looking towards the Organ
Interior of the Temple Church: looking towards the Organ >>>>
Bradwell-on-Sea: Church of S. Peter-at-the-Wall
Bradwell-on-Sea: Church of S. Peter-at-the-Wall >>>>
The pre-Norman Church at Worth, Sussex
The pre-Norman Church at Worth, Sussex >>>>
Adel Church and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge: ancient Shrines at Eyam and Iffley
Adel Church and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge: ancient Shrines at Eyam and Iffley >>>>
S. Giles in Cripplegate, the Resting Place of Milton
S. Giles in Cripplegate, the Resting Place of Milton >>>>
Greek Church of Hagia Sophia, Bayswater
Greek Church of Hagia Sophia, Bayswater >>>>

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