I spent some time in East Anglia earlier this week. On Sunday morning I visited Long Melford, a charming village on the Essex-Suffolk border, famous for its perpendicular church. The church, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, is a wool church, built upon a hill overlooking the village situated in a rather rich champaign of fair fields and trees astride the Stour river. I went up to the church during the parish Eucharist, at around 11am. I walked round the church to the east side and noticed quite a number of white doves perched among the parapets. I went round again from the north side and noticed a plump, tanned woman sitting in the porch. She told me she was from California and had traveled to complete her genealogical studies with her husband – she claimed to be a descendant through many generations from one of the benefactors of the church. I wished her all the best in her study and opened the door. She then laughed and told me that her husband, who by now had come in, had tried but failed to do just that. We all went in and sat down at the back. The sermon, halfway through I guess by the time I sat down, seemed to be about the enduring, irreversible decline of the Church of England. I could scarcely hear it because the rector was using a poor quality microphone that kept “skipping,” which, given the impressive acoustic of the church, seemed hardly needed. He ended his sermon on a positive note, saying that with prayer they might attract more young people. According to the rector, who cited a recent poll, only 4% of people aged 18-24 have anything to do with the Church of England. Well, I’m not going to consider that in detail but I do think that even if the ineluctable decline in the Church of England could be reversed it wouldn’t be worth it anyway.
At 29, I was the youngest person present. We can allow for the demographics of a country village but still…
After saying his bit, the rector actually approached us late-comers and rather generously invited us to communion, or to receive a blessing. He was a young, enthusiastic man who seemed wasted in Anglican ministry. Possibly an homosexual, the polyester cassock alb and unshapely green chasuble he wore were at odds with his otherwise well-groomed appearance, and the church itself come to think of it! He would have looked much more at home in some urban, Pymly church than the bucolic idyll of Long Melford. When the rector went back to the chancel my companion and I decided, having no appetite for the worship of the place, that we would return for the tourist opening hours at 12:30. We drove back into the town to have a cup of tea, all the while thinking that we might be very happy in such a place in some time long past. Presently we returned, to find the rector (still in his vestments) speaking to the Californian lady and her husband. He then came to me and shook my hand and made such small talk as seemed fitting. I asked him about the church and made some shrewd observations about the architecture vis-à-vis liturgy of the kind long extinct in these old islands. His reply was: “I expect you know much more about the terminology than me,” so to save him more embarrassment, and seeing that he was in haste to be gone anyway, I let him go. Our interaction reminded me of many occasions I expected to be on the same wave length as a priest, only to be let down.
Mediaeval stained glass.
Before he left, the rector referred me to a “little purple book” about the history of the church which I bought eagerly. The book, entitled Five Centuries of an English Parish Church, contains a poignant account of the church as it was during the reign of Queen Mary by the churchwarden Roger Martyn (1526-1615), who, writing during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, hoped that his heirs would one day repair and restore much that he had stored in his house (in defiance of Elizabeth’s injunction of 1559 that “no person keep in their houses any abused images of feigned miracles and idolatry and superstition”). Here is a sample:
“Memorandum. At the back of the high altar in the said church, there was a goodly mount made of one great tree, and set up to the foot of the window there, carved very artificially with the story of Christ’s Passion, representing the horsemen with their speares, and the footmen, &c, as they used Christ on the mount of Calvary, all being fair gilt, & lively and beautifully set forth. To cover and keep clean all the which there were very good fair painted boards, made to shut too, which were opened upon high and solemn dayes, which then was a very beautiful shew. Which painted boards were there set up again in Queen Mary’s time. And at the north end of the same altar, there was a goodly gilt tabernacle reaching up to the roofe of the chancell, in the which there was one fair large gilt image of the Holy Trinity, being patron of the church, besides other fair images. The like tabernacle was at the south end.
“There was also in my ile \called Jesus Ile/ at the back of the altar a table with a crucifix in it, with the two thieves hanging on every side one, which is in my house decayed, and the same I hope my heires will repaire and restore again one day. And there was two fair gilt tabernacles from the ground up to the roofe; with a fair image of Jesus in the tabernacle at the north end of the altar holding a round bawle or bowle in his hand signifying, I think, that he containeth the whole round world; and in the tabernacle at the south end there was a fair image of Our Blessed Lady having the afflicted body of her dear son, as he was taken down from the cross lying along in her happ, and the teares as it were running down pittyfully upon her beautifull cheekes, as it seemed bedewing the said sweet body of her son, and therefore named the image of Our Lady of Pitty.
“Memorandum. There was a fair roodloft, with the rood & Mary & John of every side one, with a fair pair of organs standing thereby, which loft extended all the bredth of the church. And on Goode-Fryday a priest there standing by the rood sang the Passion. The side thereof towards the body of the church in 12 partitions in boards was fair painted the images of the 12 apostles. All the roof of the church was beautified with fair gilt stars. Finally, in the vestry – where there was many rich copes & shutes of vestments, there was a fair press with fair large doores to shut too, wherein there were made devises to hang on all the copes without folding or frumpling of them, with a convenient distance the one from the other.”
The Lady Chapel, looking east. Then (1969).
He goes on in like manner, recalling with pride and regret the custom of his church throughout the year before the iconoclasts had their way. I have seldom read an account so sad. How could Roger Martyn conceive that four hundred years after his death another Englishman would go into his church and feel the same regret, and observe that the congregation there now followed a totally different religion, as destroyers and usurpers? I suppose the difference is that Martyn had been there for years, as had his father and grandfather before him, and wrote as one who had devoted his life to the ritual there, and enhanced and enriched it himself out of his own pocket. I, on the other hand, went as someone who felt no regret so singular or personal but as one born out of time. I can only dimly guess the grandeur of Holy Trinity at Long Melford in the days of its rising, and as I stood looking down the nave to the high altar I imagined spectral figures, grey with the passing years, processing with willows on Palm Sunday, or going out to meet the Sacrament chanting ecce Rex tuus venit as an echo out of the earth. They are gone, and who remembers them? Parts of the church, such as the design of the Clopton tomb (Easter Sepulchre) and a jut of the north aisle (used on Palm Sunday), were built with the liturgy in mind. Who uses them now? Now the church is just a nave and a chancel, spaces commodious for the elderly and the middle aged where they can sing hymns new and newer, and all else just quaint pieces of history, not even understood by the rector. It’s a sad place. I often wonder what the next fifty years have in store for such churches. Holy Trinity was only completed in 1497. Its builders and benefactors must have thought their religion so antient and so imperishable. Already it has seen reformation, and iconoclasm and a spasm of ill-conceived imitation of modern Rome in the last century; dwindling numbers, aging congregants. I imagine the people will just die off one by one and the church will become a museum of local history. It’s a cruel end to what must once have been a very lively place, the House of God in a Christian community.
The Lady Chapel, looking east. Now.