Friday, August 11, 2017

In and Out of Churches in England and Wales

St. Andrew's Church, Mells
I spent my first night overseas in a room over the White Horse Pub in Clun, a small market town in the Shropshire Hills.  If the bucolic English countryside is what appeals to you, then mark off an area encompassing 20 miles on both sides of the borders between Powys, Shropshire, and Herefordshire--basically the old Welsh Marches.  You will not find any prettier.

My itinerary the first day was not straight-forward; first north to Oswestry, then falling back into old Radnorshire on the Powys/Herefordshire border, before ending my day in the Black Mountains.  I chose Oswestry for three reasons:  first, the Holy Well of St. Oswald; second, the memorial to Wilfred Owen; and third, a small shop that sells icons of the British saints.  This last named did not disappoint and I quickly picked out a few for myself and gifts for others.  And, I had no problem finding the holy well (of which more later.)
At the Wilfred Owen Memorial, Oswestry

Wilfred Owen is a literary figure that I wanted to tag in this particular journey.  He is considered perhaps the preeminent “war poet” of The Great War.  Owen was already a budding poet when the conflict began.  He enlisted early and fought throughout most of the war. After suffering from shell-shock and other injuries, however, he returned to England for convalescence.  Here, he made the acquaintance of Siegfried Sassoon, also recuperating.  The latter had already made a name for himself as a writer and poet.  Owen’s background was lower--or possibly middling--middle class.  Sassoon moved in higher circles and he introduced the younger poet to a world he could have only imagined before.  Like Sassoon, Owen was homosexual, and he became infatuated with his new mentor.  But more importantly, through Sassoon’s influence, Owen came into his own as a poet and his work soon surpassed the older poet’s.  Owen determined to return to the front, and Sassoon threatened to shoot him in the foot if he insisted on that course.  Consequently, the younger man left secretly, leaving a note for Sassoon.  Wilfred Owen died in battle in November 1918, in the very last week of the war, and lies buried in France. "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." A memorial to Owen exists on the grounds of St. Oswald’s Church in Oswestry, his birthplace.
Health Club/Cafe/Shoe Store

I found a Sainsbury parking lot and then headed off for St. Oswald’s Church.  Along the way, I passed a Victorian-era church which may well be indicative of the current state of Christianity in the U.K.  I’m not sure what the name of the church once was, but it now houses Body Tech Health Club, Scotty’s Cafe, and Shoes by Camilla.  Now I admit, this may be low-hanging fruit, but I think it may be fairly representative.  The U.K. has lots of church buildings, probably too many by half even before the purpose for them faded away.  From a 1865 letter from young poet Digby Mackworth Dolben to Robert Bridges:

What can be the reason that Protestants build Cathedrals...since they have absolutely no use for them.  I saw Chapel after Chapel which are never entered from one year’s end to another.  I saw the anointed Altar-stones put as paving-stones near the doors that all might tread on them; the ruins of shrines innumerable in honour of Saints whose relics were thrown away by order of Henry VIII.  On the whole a visit to an English Cathedral is not a pleasure.

And that was in 1865.  So, I’m not at all sure what they’re going to do with all of them.  Even at best they often seem more like museums, mausoleums and/or memorials that are periodically used for religious observances.  Renting them for particular venues seems popular.  Some have opened for “glamping.”  And some are just locked up.

Truth be told, unless they contain the bits and pieces of a shrine, or a Saxon foundation, or an intricately carved rood-screen, or perhaps some recently uncovered wall paintings, then they are not of that much interest to me.  The soaring Gothic ceilings, and the cold stone pillars and walls leave me unmoved.  I am used to smaller, more intimate Orthodox worship spaces.   

I suppose this is the post-Christian landscape that so many social conservatives write about.  If so, a few general observations:
  1. A departure from Christian belief does not necessarily imply a return to barbarism.  The people I met along the way were the nicest and most courteous people one could ever hope to find.  In the long declension of Christian belief, the Faith apparently eventually came to stand for little more than being nice.  And that stuck, it seems.
  2. This is not necessarily our future.  We like to think that Great Britain is just a step or two ahead of us in social trends.  From the very beginning, however, our country has been infused with a religiosity that was already fading from the U.K. even then.
  3. My unscientific observation is that the small chapels, in out of the way places such as Capel-y-ffyn, St. Brendan’s in Brendan, St. Beuno’s in Culbane, St. Issui’s in Patricio, may be holding on better than larger churches in towns and villages.  Many of these churches share ministers and meet only twice a month.  But the statistics they post are their boards speak of an ongoing parish life that is appropriate for the size of their churches.
  4. Nonconformists seem to have fared no better than the Church of England, if not worse.
  5. For the vast majority of British citizens, the Church is simply not a factor one way or the other; and hasn’t been for several generations now.  Of course, I have my own ideas about how this came to be.  I hold to Eamon Duffy’s characterization of the English Reformation cutting a deep ditch between the English and their history.  You might say that between Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, then Black Bess, and finally the English Revolution and the latter Cromwell, that the heart was torn out of the English church.  The edifice was so majestic, however, that it took a couple of centuries for the hollowness to become apparent.  You are welcome to think otherwise.

When I reached St. Oswald’s Church, a service was just ending.  The vicar was standing in the doorway, chatting with the last of the elderly handful of parishioners.  This is nothing to make a judgment upon, for maybe their church is full of young parishioners who just happened to be at their jobs this morning.  But somehow, I think not.  They instructed me as to the location of the Wilfred Owen Memorial and I went and paid my respects.

Late July and early August is the season for the traditional English church “fete,” just like you read about in “All About Lucia,” listen to on “The Archers,” and watch on “Keeping Up Appearances.”  During these “fetes” the nave is commandeered for musical recitals, theatrical productions, and arts and crafts exhibits.  I encountered three of them:  at the Church of St. Nonna in Altarnon, the Church of St. Endellion in the village of the same name, and the Church of St. Nectan at Stoke, all more or less in Cornwall.  I was actually stopping in Altarnon to see the Holy Well of St. Nonna (since I had neglected to do so when close to her well in St. David’s).  There was no evidence of it anywhere in the vicinity of the churchyard, so I did give the inside of the church a peek, as well as the art show in the Hall.  The interior of the church was a bit unusual; three aisles, more or less equal in size.  The distinctive thing about the church was the carved pew ends, but nothing much else caught my eye.  I purchased a small pamphlet on St. Nonna and left.  I was more purposeful in my seeking out of St. Endellion, named after a 6th-century sa
St. Beuno's, Culbane
int, daughter of Brychan of Brecon and sister to St. Nectan and St. Morwenna, among many others.  My interest here was two-fold:  the base of St. Endellion’s shrine was still intact, though the relics were scattered like all the others in the English Reformation; and this was the home parish of Nicholas Rosscarrock (1548-1634).  The Rosscarrocks were the leading family in the area, occupying a modest manor house nearby since just after the Conquest.  During the English Reformation, they refused to go along with Henry’s “reforms,” becoming recusants.  As I understand it, in the reign of Black Bess, attendance at Anglican services was required at least once a month.  Nicholas steadfastly refused and was eventually jailed in the Tower of London for four years, during which time he was tortured on the rack.  He was eventually released and a benefactor scurried him off to Yorkshire, where he spent the rest of his long life.  Roscarrock compiled an 800-page hagiography of the early British saints.  While the work was not original, it represented a remarkable feat of compilation.  Though never published in its entirety (now safely housed at Cambridge), selections have been reprinted.  The folks at St.  Endellion were keen enough of Roscarrock's significance to have several items for sale pertaining to his life and work.  The “fete” was underway at St. Endellion when I arrived.  The pews had been pushed back a bit and a small orchestra, or ensemble was playing.  Twice, a singer went up to the podium and warbled out a song or something (not to my taste).  A few spectators watched and listened, if a bit listlessly.  The one thing I particularly wanted to see was the shrine to St. Endellion.  Surely it would be too big to miss, I thought.  I finally found it, nearly hidden.  A bunch of chairs had been pushed up against it, and the musical cases had been piled around and atop it.  I didn't linger as it was clear it was of no special import to the good St. Endellionians. I chose St. Nectan’s more for its adjacent holy well, rather than for the church itself.  But the church is of some historical significance, so I wandered inside.  The stained glass windows were more appealing to me than most, and it contained a unique painted ceiling, but beyond that, it was another mass of cold, gray stone (the huge, empty interior being far in excess of any actual need, ever.) In one corner, someone had painted them an Orthodox icon of St. Nectan. I've seen that in quite a few Anglican churches. I'm not at all sure they know what to do with it, however.  The fete was ongoing and the sanctuary of the church had been converted to an art gallery and pottery show.  I found a nice little pitcher with a peacock motif, the perfect gift to carry home to my wife.
Shrine of St. David of Wales

St. David's Cathedral

I visited two cathedrals along the way, St. David’s Cathedral in St. David’s, and Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff.  My visit to St. David’s was late in the day and a bit hurried.  The cathedral has restored the shrine of St. David, and one can pray at the shrine and light a candle, which I did.  I saw the impressive tombs of Rhys ap Guffydd and Gerald of Wales.  And the stonework inside was not to be dismissed.  But at the end of the day, the big empty space was as cold as most the others.  The choir was practicing while I was there.  I heard the director tell them to liven it up, and when they broke out in song again it was certainly peppy.  If you are looking for an antonym of reverent, I believe a good one would be “lively,” or “peppy.”  I ventured into the Cardiff area primarily to the wall murals on the Church of St. Teilo near St. Fagan’s on the outskirts of the city.  The church is now within the confines of the National Museum of Wales which would have necessitated five quid to park and whatever entrance fee was required for the compound.  I opted out.  I found a number of things to interest me in Llandaff Cathedral, however.  The place was all abuzz with vacuum cleaners running and flowers being arranged.  On the following day, their new bishop was being installed.  The docent breathlessly informed me that her name was June.  I checked out the Rossetti triptych, the Burnes-Jones tiles in the St. Dyfrig Chapel, as well as the relics and shrine of St. Teilo.  In the center of the nave, a huge four-pronged concrete platform supported a modernistic depiction of the Ascension.  I’ve seen worse.  The Germans bombed the cathedral during the Second World War, so the ceiling dates from the immediate postwar era.  When I left, it was, of course, raining again, so I made my way back towards Llanthony.

Before the English Reformation, British churches were an altogether different thing than what one sees today. They would have been largely without pew or pulpit. The side aisles would be lined with shrines dedicated to particular saints, maintained by the various local guilds. Wall paintings in rich colors, somewhat similar but not as stylized as Eastern iconography, would have covered the walls. Candles would flicker throughout. In short, the worship space would have been very familiar and comforting to an Orthodox believer of any era. But all of that went away--the shrines were ripped out and the relics dumped; pulpits were installed, followed by pews so that they parishioners could now be lectured to. And the wall paintings were covered with whitewash.
"Death," St. Issui's Church, Patricio

In recent years, a few have been uncovered and preserved, though many were lost during Victorian "restorations." I sought out several last year, and found a couple on this trip as well. The first was the small church of St. Issui in Patricio. This was the most remote active church I have ever visited, until I walked to the Church of St. Beuno at Culbane a few days later. Maybe somewhat perversely, my favorite iconographic depiction is of the Last Judgment. In the East, the format is fairly uniform: Christ and the angels above, the scales of judgment, the angels protecting and ushering the redeemed into Heaven and the demons pulling the unrepentant into the Jaws of Hell. Almost invariably, these depictions are on the west walls, visible as the parishioners leave a church. St. Issui is a small chapel, without much room for extensive wall paintings. But they have uncovered and abbreviated reminder of the Last Judgment on the west wall. It is of a skeleton, holding an hourglass in one hand, a scythe in the other, with a shovel draped over his arm. That gets right to the point of the matter. The other church was the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Chardon, a semi-rural village inside the M25. They have uncovered a more elaborate depiction of the Last Judgment, complete with sin-specific punishments for dishonest tradesmen.
Last Judgment, Chardon

My favorite churches were the small chapels I mentioned earlier.  But two other churches were particularly intriguing:  St. Andrews in Mells and the Watts Chapel outside of Guilford.  I found my way to Mells primarily because it is just up the road from The Chantry, the long-time home of Anthony Powell.  The late author was, in his words, “non-croyant,” so there is no tomb to visit.  I believe his ashes were scattered on a pond or something.  The best I could do was to take a picture of the gatehouse at the entrance to his estate.  Between The Chantry and Mells, I passed a large quarry, which probably served as the model for the one depicted at the beginning and end of Powell’s twelve volume magnum opus, “A Dance to the Music of Time.”
Gatehouse to The Chantry (I think)
 I wanted to visit St. Andrew’s for two reasons; first, the churchyard contains the graves of Ronald A. Knox   and Siegfried Sassoon (to be subjects of a later post), and second, the church is the repository of several interesting works of art.  It’s hard to avoid the Horner family here, whose manor house is hard alongside the churchyard.  There’s a large tapestry depicting a Pre-Raphaelite angel.  Lady Frances Graham Horner wove it based on a design by Edward Burne-Jones for whom she had modeled before her marriage. At the rear of the church is a stunning relief carving of a peacock, carved by Burne-Jones in honor of Laura Lyttleton.  This is another appropriate place to play Six Degrees of Separation.  Laura Lyttleton was one of the noted Tennant sisters.  Another was Margot Asquith, whose step-son Raymond Asquith married Katherine Horner, daughter of the aforementioned Frances Graham Horner.  Raymond Asquith was killed in the Great War, along with his brother-in-law Edward Horner.  The Horner estate then passed to Lady Katherine Asquith.  She was a patron of Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, and after the war converted with her family to Roman Catholicism.  For good measure, Raymond Asquith’s sister, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, grandmother of actress Helena Bonham Carter, is also buried at St. Andrews.  But back to the art; the nave of the church is dominated by a large equestrian statue of Edward Horner, mentioned earlier.  I know that Orthodox churches often incorporated the donors into the iconography somehow, but some of these English churches can become little more than warehouses for the memorials to the local squireocracy.  I found, nevertheless, the setting, the church itself, and the surrounding churchyard to be altogether of interest to me.
Statue of Edward Horner inside St. Andrew's Church, Mells

The Watts Chapel is not really a church at all--though there is an altar of sorts within.  The famous artist George Frederick Watts lived on this property and had his art studio in his home.  He and his wife created a cemetery on part of the property and both are buried there.  After his death, she designed this quirky Celtic-Norse-Byzantine-Art Deco temple as a funerary chapel on the cemetery grounds.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.  Queen Marie of Romania’s private apartment in Pelisor Castle comes as close as anything I’ve seen.  Also of interest is the grave of Aldous Huxley, just outside the chapel.
Interior of Watts Chapel
Watts Chapel

In my travels, I also found two Orthodox churches; the Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea in Shrewsbury, and the Church of the Three Hierarchs and Saint Cybi in Lampeter.  The Orthodox found an abandoned medieval 900 square foot chapel stuck off in the corner of a field and purchased it for 50 quid in 1994.  They repaired the roof and made it into a proper worship space.  Some medieval wall paintings depicting Thomas a’ Becket were discovered under the whitewash.  Aidan Hart painted the iconography over the altar and on the iconostasis.  A tiny loft area holds the choir, the library and who knows what else.  A housing estate is now crowding in around the church, but Fr. Stephen welcomes the new neighbors.  I asked him about attendance and he replied that they normally numbered about 60.  He went on to add that there were 400 parishioners associated with the parish but many of them lived great distances away.  We have parishioners who drive eighty miles for Liturgy, but that type of distance is an altogether different thing in the U.K.
Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea, Shrewsbury

Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea

Saxon font fashioned from Roman column

Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers of Nicea

I was pleased to learn that their youth organization was known as the Varangian Guard.  How neat is that?  The parish is a mix of a number of ethnicities, with a healthy percentage of “renegade former Anglicans,” as one of them so described himself.  I believe that where Christianity continues on the island, it will be incubated in small chapels such as this, and not necessarily in lofty cathedrals.  Later in my journey, I attended Divine Liturgy at the church in Lampeter, a small college town in central Wales.  A Victorian Methodist Church had, in better days, built a Hall annex at right angles to the rear of their main building.  They are no longer much in need of even the main chapel, much less the annex, so the Orthodox use the back portion of the church.  They have converted it into a warm and inviting Orthodox church.  I had a chance to visit with Fr. Tim and the altar servers and others during Coffee Hour.  We were only a small number--15--but I think that was perhaps a reflection of it being in the summer with most of the students and professors away.  There were hardly more in the adjacent Methodist chapel.  Fr. Tim gave me better directions to St. Cybi’s Well (subject of a later post) and the ruins of the old abbey at Strata Florida, an important site in Welsh history.  There, I visited the grave of the medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwlym, under the ancient yew tree in the adjoining graveyard (below).  Dafydd died young, and apparently frustrated if the following poem displayed at the abbey is any measure:

“I bend before this passion:
A plague on the village girls!,
Since, o force of my longing,
I have never had one of them!
Not one sweet and hoped-for maiden,
Not one young girl, or hag, nor wife,
What recoil, what maiicious thoughts,
What omission make them not want me?
What harm is it to a thick-browed girl,
To have me in the dark, dense wood?
It would not be shameful for her
To see me in a den of leaves.”

1 comment:

elizabeth said...

enjoyed reading this! Sent it to my husband also who will enjoy it! We did a pilgrimage to the Low Country Saints in Holland and a bit in Echternacht ... one of the many things I/we hope to do is write this up one day!