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Church heritage

Space for the soul

Peace and tranquillity. When did that become such a novel experience?

I’m old enough to recall sitting as a child with my mum at a neighbour’s house when they weren’t afraid of sitting in silence and all you could hear was the gentle tock ….tock  ….of the clock on the wall.

Traditionally, rural folk didn’t feel the need to fill the space with chatter but we’ve come full circle. Gone is the quiet companionship round a pub table with the odd grunt of acknowledgement. Now we’re quiet for another reason – to stare intently at our smartphones.  

English Heritage is now encouraging us to silence those phones, finish our conversations and “enjoy England’s abbeys and priories in contemplative quiet”. There are 16 properties participating and apparently the peace will descend in the last hour of each day of each site’s opening.

Talking and texting

The monks who inhabited these sites would know all about contemplation. But will it catch on in our relentlessly frantic world? Keeping up with overflowing news feeds, tweets, texts and other alerts can be compulsive. And who hasn’t been in the company of someone­­­­ who talks incessantly about nothing in particular?

English Heritage senior historian Michael Carter reckons there are many misconceptions about monks, not least that they took a vow of silence. 

“Monks took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and also stability – that’s not to leave the monastery without the permission of their superior. That’s not to say silence wasn’t very important to them.”

It seems the most frowned upon noise was unnecessary conversation, especially gossip. Penalties included corporal punishment before the entire community, the reciting of penitential prayers and a diet of bread and water.

Heritage for sale?

English Heritage sites participating in the quiet hour are few and far between. Fortunately, there’s a way of finding solitude and a quiet space nearer to home. In Suffolk, for example, there are over 400 ancient church buildings and, in Norfolk, way over 650. Not all are open but many are, among them beautiful and tranquil buildings with blissfully quiet churchyards.

Will this always be the case? Some fear that the new vision strategy from the Church of England with its talk of “new forms of church”  and “varied expressions of mission” could threaten the traditional parish with a centuries old church building at its heart.

Does the CofE corporate-speak of “big strategic questions” indicate a willingness to sell off ancient church buildings? Does it amount to the same thing that retired vicar David Keighley described as “museums gathering dust”?

Our spaces

As Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins points out, it can make sense to turn buildings from a “towering liability to a community asset” that will benefit everyone. It is quite another to write off the value of church buildings in enriching people’s lives with their centuries of history and the spectacular quiet spaces they offer.

Author Jonathan Glancey speaks of churches offering refuge and solace and I couldn’t put it better than his inspirational blog post on empty churches:

“Here are traces and echoes of hundreds of years of hands and feet and voices of artists, craftsmen, children, of nesting birds and wildflowers. Here are memories of christenings, weddings and funerals. And memories, too, of those who have died in war.”

Let’s cherish them.

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