The story of our churches is the story of England, says Harry Mount. So why do some clergy show them so little respect?
The memorial service for Anthony Powell was held on May 4 2000 at the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. This pretty little yellow-brick church with a Tuscan porch was built in 1731 for Sir Richard Grosvenor, ancestor of the current Duke of Westminster, who still owns the surrounding Grosvenor Estate.
Hugh Massingberd, the late presiding genius of the architectural history world who died last Christmas, gave the address.
"Welcome. my brethren, to the Eisteddfod," he began, with a nod to Franke Howerd, who began his shows in the same way.
Massingberd went on to tell Powell's story of a Norfolk parson who arrived early to officiate at a funeral in a church he hadn't been to before. A keen antiquarian, the vicar took down an iron helmet from the tomb of a knight killed at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Unable to control his curiosity, he donned the helmet to see how heavy it was. only to find he couldn't take it off.
As the mourners filed into the church behind the coffin, they were, in Powell's words, "surprised to be received by a cleric wearing a knight's bascinet". The priest proceeded to carry out the burial service in this kit.
"I wonder what he went for visor up or down?" Powell asked Massingberd.
I don't think this incident could have happened anywhere else in the world.
The comic combination — of death, punctilious nomenclature (I like that "bascinet" — a type of medieval helmet) and the juxtaposition of Frankie Howerd with the Battle of Bosworth — is uniquely British.
What is also very British is the presence of bascinets in churches.
Churches in Britain are more cluttered than in any other country on earth. stuffed with statues, wall tombs and plaques, lined with tombstones inside and out. We have more brass monuments than the rest of the world put together. No one rubs brasses on the scale we do.
Even before the Reformation there were secular monuments to the rich and grand, the first effigies appearing in the 13th century. After the Reformation, there was a tide of memorials — they got really megalomaniac from the late 16th century onwards. Then throw in the funeral hatchments — those big lozenges with coats of arms. hung on the nave wall after they were carried before a funeral procession — and you see why European Catholics often think the churches of Britain are more godless museums than holy shrines.
Many English clergymen share that point of view. A keen church crawler, I have regularly been refused access to British churches by priests. In one in north London, a purple-faced priest took any delight in closing the Norman door on me, saying: "This is a church. not a museum."
This attitude, as well as being un-Christian, unfriendly and philistine, also strikes me as being plain stupid: if you've got a beautiful old spiritual building full of interesting things, what's wrong with being a church and a museum?
It is an attitude shared by those bishops threatening to close a series of Catholic churches — St Marie's in Widnes, designed by Edward Welby Pugin, and another seven in Pontefract and Wakefield. It is all too late for SS Peter and Paul, New Brighton, which had its final Mass last month.
The Bishop of Shrewsbury's fanfare for SS Peter and Paul "Look beyond buildings to your becoming more fully that which they signify — namely. the living presence of the Church in this area" — sums up that philistine attitude pretty well.
What could sum up the living presence of the Church better than an extraordinarily beautiful building full of beautiful things, a building that also happens to be bigger than any other buildings in the area?
I recently went to Clitheroe. Lancashire, to write about a chapel painted by Lowry that is now being turned into a mosque. In the Lowry picture, it is that 19th-century Mount Zion Methodist chapel that dominates the scene.
Clitheroe may still remain overwhelmingly Christian by population; going on appearances, though, with the Islamification of that chapel, Christianity is on the retreat. On my way back to London from Clitheroe. I stopped off in Preston. Wherever I looked, the spire of St Walburge's — the third tallest in the country. and also under threat of deconsecration — ruled the skyline.
To be fair, the bishops have a point: for those with a strong faith. the beauty of the building they worship in is secondary to that faith.
But to those with a wavering faith — or without any faith at all the dominance and beauty of churches has a tremendously strong buttressing effect on that faith, or the chances of developing one.
Even today, any child growing up in a near secular society like ours, has a church in the backdrop of their lives. They may never go inside it, but it has an elemental effect all the same — the big, pretty. old building which must be shown some reverence at least. I've noticed in rough areas how graffiti artists like to attack public property first — bus stops, walls by the railways, parks. They rarely go for private houses, and churches, empty and unprotected, are usually the last to get attacked.
That air of seriousness and reverence that hangs around a church is a fine recruiting sergeant for Christianity. As is the beauty of a church. How lucky churches are that, for thousands of years, those presiding over them were the opposite of today's philistines; they were determined that their churches should be exceptional buildings with exceptional art in them.
Churches are the best guide to Britain's architecture from the end of the Dark Ages to the Reformation, that is, from AD 1000 to the 1530s. For most of that time the Church was more significant than the King and his barons; and Church architecture was more significant than secular architecture, royal or noble. Only after the Reformation — with the collapse in Church power — was there a boom in secular masterpieces.
Ninety-nine per cent of surviving pre-Reformation buildings are churches, cathedrals or monasteries; 0.9 per cent are castles; and domestic buildings account for the other 0.1 per cent — the cottages we think of as ancient are rarely more than 300 years old.
The emotion evoked by the ancientness and extreme beauty of churches is hitched to the religious feeling they produce; and both sensations are increased by the presence of each other.
Sir John Betjeman said that the churches of the architect Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960) should bring an agnostic like me to my knees — and they often do.
T S Eliot said the same of the Hawksmooresque pocket church of Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire: You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid. And Prayer is more Than an order of words... So, while the light fails On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel History is now and England.
—"Little Gidding", 1942 Only churches can be at one and the same time deeply religious, patriotic places like T S Eliot's St John's, Little Gidding, and places rich in comedy like Hugh Massingberd's Grosvenor Chapel. It would be perverse to wilfully reject such resilient treasure chests of beauty and faith.
Ham' Mount's A Lust for Window Sills — a lover's guide to British buildings from portcullis to pebble-dash is published this week by little, Brown (02.99)