Page 6, 9th January 1998

9th January 1998
Page 6
Page 6, 9th January 1998 — Churches of the nation

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Churches of the nation

BRIAN BRINDLEY on old parish churches and the English countryside

Churches in the Landscsape by Richard Morris, Phoenix Giant £14.99.

The History of the Countryside by Oliver Rackham, Phoenix Giant £12.99.

WE OUGHT TO HAVE OUR Abbey back, you see," said Bishop Blougram (a mask for Wiseman) in Browning's poem; you can imagine Cardinal Hume, or any other member of the Hierarchy, throwing up his hands in horror at the mere thought of taking back responsibility for Westminster Abbey or any of the great English churches. Indeed, from time to time when the Church of England authorities in good faith offer us a "redundant" church, I have the impression that we politely refuse.

Hundreds of churches, built for Catholic worship, have been in Anglican hands since 1560. Let our separated brethren huddle in a few worm-eaten pews while the draughts whistle through the leaded windows, and worry about how to repair the tower or re-hang the bells; we meanwhile will walk confidently over the wall-to-wall blue carpeting to our plastic chair, secure in the knowledge that we have a soundproof creche, and a coffeebar, and w.c.s, and that our church is set in a sea of tarmac, enough to park all the cars for miles around. No matter that the church itself may look like a crematorium chapel Tent for the day to a church furnisher to show off "modern" Stations of the Cross and embroideries.

It is a commonplace of ecumenical discussion that "It is a scandal that there should be two/three/four churches in one village/high street". This argument can be countered by asking "Which one(s) do you propose to close?" We prefer to stick with what we know. But in the next 50 years most churches built during the last 50 years will have to be demolished, through material fatigue, leaking roofs, obsolete technology and that includes many Catholic churches. At the same time if, as seems quite possible, the Church of England collapses into itself, we may find ourselves vindicated in our claim to be the Church of the Nation and charged with the responsibility for rescuing the only interesting building in the place the old parish church.

Churches in the Landscape tells you all that you need to know about old English parish churches: why they were built where they were, why they are called what they are, why parishes are such strange shapes, what they did in the past about redundant churches, why so many were rebuilt on a prodigal scale.

This beautifully-written book has all the answers. It was first published in 1989 and is now reissued in a solid paperback format. All 126 maps and plans are there, as are 49 unpretentious but clear photographs, well chosen to send one straight off to the Notes where they are explained. This is not a book for the antiquarian, but for everyone who takes an interest in his surroundings. For the Catholic it poses some interesting questions that are still relevant and which may, if certain things come to pass, be even more so.

The History of the Countryside is in many ways the same book: a piece of accessible scholarship, heavily illustrated (maps and plans too many to count, and 25 photographs), but on the subject of the English landscape, its flora and fauna. It was first published in 1986 and is reprinted unaltered, so there is n.o reference to the Great Storm, Everyone should read it, for so much is talked lightly of changes to agricultural practice and the depopulation of the countryside; we ought to know what really happened in the past.

Two excellent books, astounding value for money: we should be grateful to the publishers for delving into their catalogues to make them available to a new generation.

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