God Works in Mysterious Ways

There’s a lot of hot air about the shortness of people’s attention span these days. But a short attention span is no new phenomenon…

Image: Ruined church.

The ruins of faith…

Podcast: download (7mins 34s / 7mb)

I’m often struck as I travel about the country by the sight of old churches, some ruined, some still well maintained, but standing sometimes in the middle of nowhere, green fields all around, few if any houses in sight, let alone nearby, nothing resembling a village within miles. You see them all over the eastern counties especially, a somewhat surprising phenomenon in a country as crowded as Britain.

Old English churches are substantial buildings of stone and oak, lead and copper, requiring foundations that go down beyond doubt if they are expected to stand for hundreds of years, as they do. The cost of labour, even in times when labour was cheap, must have been substantial. Even if the labour were given free by a godly populace hoping to curry favour with the Almighty against the dread day of judgement, the sheer tonnage of materials must have cost someone an arm and a leg.

Why go to so much trouble to build churches where there are not even people to attend them? The answers are, of course, several. Some churches were funded by wealthy local worthies aiming to secure a sort of everlasting minor sainthood. Many were built at a time when there was a local population to man the pews, for although in times past there were many fewer people in the country than today, a far greater proportion of them lived and worked in the fields immediately round about those now abandoned monuments to their (or somebodies) craftsmanship and devotion.

Where did they all go? Apart from the depopulation of the countryside wrought by the industrial revolution, in medieval times England suffered repeated bouts of plague that left whole swathes of countryside empty, a third of the population dead, their land up for grabs, no surviving relatives to claim it. A church built to serve a once thriving, if poor and downtrodden population of serfs and farm workers, might be the only remaining evidence of a whole vanished village.

Image: Lych gate.

The lych gate, often the centre of an English village, designed to shelter a coffin while awaiting the arrival of the pastor in times before things were done to strict clock time.

These thoughts were engendered by my recent visit to the church in the village of my childhood, where my grandparents lie buried. I go there periodically to check that their headstone has not fallen over or been vandalised, and well… just because it’s a lovely English village complete with green, sports pavilion, cricket in the summer, pub and post office and human-scale architecture. It remains to this day a place small enough that everyone can know everyone else, if they’ve a mind to. I accompanied my aged aunt to check up on the family gravestone and look around inside the well-kept church where I once was a choirboy.

Yes, a choirboy I was, for a short time only. I was ten or eleven when my sister, already established in the choir, was privileged with a trip to the seaside complete with fish and chips on the prom. Fish and chips was then (and remains for me now) the food of the gods. I’ll have some of that, I thought, and enthusiastically joined up the very next day.

I fear I was not the choir’s greatest asset. Asked to sing a note by the choirmaster I clammed up in embarrassment. But still that worthy gentleman admitted me to the ranks, where, hopeful of my fish & chips treat I donned cassock and surplice (or maybe it was only one or the other – I don’t really remember) every Sunday along with the other boys and girls to sing the familiar tunes and words of hymns drummed into us every weekday morning at school assembly, for in my youth it was part of the school’s duty to brainwash us into the Christian faith.

On one occasion something went wrong with the motorised supply of wind for the church organ. I was detailed with another boy to man a man-sized wooden lever in the vestry (or somewhere behind the organ) to manually pump the bellows and feed the beast with air. We got through two or three hymns, but then the vicar took flight on some rambling sermon that dragged on… and on… We filled the bellows and checked that the indicator was at the top of its travel, showing the bellows were full. Then we took a break; got bored; forgot the lever; were caught out with no air in the bellows for the fourth (or was it fifth?) hymn. The organist burst into the vestry and berated us roundly for idleness and sloth and heaven knows what-all sins. “Pump, boys!” he bellowed so that God himself might have heard. “Work the lever, you lazy pair of idle ?******’s!”.

Okay, he didn’t actually swear; I made that bit up.

We worked the lever for all we were worth, gaining slowly on the organ’s insatiable demand for wind. But I was incensed at the sheer injustice of the organist’s tirade. The bellows, we concluded, must have been old and leaky so that all our previous efforts had been wasted by the vicar’s sermon, to the organist’s embarrassment when he attempted the opening chords of the next hymn, only to find his instrument, and with it the congregation, wheezing to a confused halt three bars in. If Mr Organist had only warned us about the leaky bellows beforehand we would have known what was required and might have made sure he did not so ignominiously exhaust his supply of air. But maybe he knew no more about the state of the bellows than we did.

I’ll hazard a guess that some such catastrophe has struck many a church service in old England, during the long history of long sermons and bored choirboys. There must be many an ex-choirboy, vicar or organist who can tell a similar tale.


Image: Church spire.

Reaching for heaven. Is it just me, or does that lightning conductor suggest a failure of faith…

Admiring, just the other day with my aunt, the magnificence of the stained glass windows, the carved oak eagle whose half spread wings form the lectern, and the craftsmanship of masons and carpenters who built this iconic English structure, my only surprise was that my presence there did not bring down the wrath of God to strike the place with lightning.

Out of politeness I forbore to mention to the friendly lady and gentleman who were just then doing battle with the church’s recalcitrant heating system and stopped to chat, that I had once been a choirboy there. My tenure only lasted a few months. I never did get my trip to the seaside, nor my fish and chips; a source of good-humoured rancour ever since. Nor did I tell them that my experiences in the choir hammered the final nail into the coffin of my belief in the Lord. I’ve been profoundly atheist ever since.

But heck, no-one’s perfect, right? Not even the organist who forgot to mention that his bellows were so leaky they would not hold air for the time it took the vicar to berate his sinful congregation. I reckon the vicar produced more hot air that day than we boys could ever hope to manage. Maybe the organist should have recruited him to provide the required blast of wind.

Speaking of fish and chips, the best I ever had was at Rothsay in the isle of Bute, Scotland, where the 19th century gents public conveniences also sported the most magnificent mahogany and porcelain thrones I’ve ever seen. But I guess that’s a post for another day…

2 Thoughts on “God Works in Mysterious Ways

  1. N. Johnston on November 18, 2013 at 10:36 pm said:

    Thoroughly enjoyed your write up about Churches, those abandoned and those still in use.

    Although you may have expected lightning to strike because of your presence, no doubt the church you were in has been occupied by much worse sinners than yourself.

    Keep up the entertaining writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Post Navigation