It’s really not unusual these days to hear, either in a newspaper article, on the radio or even over a pint, that the general opinion is that the church is dead. That the Church of England has had it. That congregations are dwindling, churches falling into decline and that, in reality, it’s only a matter of a few years before parish churches will be closing their doors for the last time. Well, I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the case with some churches. There are East Anglian church buildings out there that have a congregation of two or three, are used for services only once every few months and remain locked and desolate for the rest of the time. However, they simply aren’t the norm. The Church of England that I come across tends to be vibrant, enthusiastic and pretty pro-active for much of the time (a little too pro-active when it comes to lime-wash upon occasion). Many of the churches that I visit are full of book sales, coffee mornings and children’s activity corners – where colouring and neighbourliness are as important as prayer and ritual. They are, in short, full of life.
This isn’t the result of any great groundswell of belief within the East Anglian church, but is simply down to one thing – the people. It’s the result of local vicars that care about their buildings, young mums who want a safe place for their kids to meet, retired people wanting a place to chat and drink coffee. Above all, it’s down to the churchwardens. Those individuals who give up hours of their time to look after these buildings, ensure that they are open, welcoming and as clean of bat droppings as is humanly possible. Doing what I do I have come across many dozens of these selfless and dedicated individuals. They may be a little reserved when we first turn up (“You won’t find any graffiti in our church”), but are soon enthusiastic supporters of the project that will do just about anything to help. They’ll turn up late in the evening to open a church for a night survey, go and borrow a ladder from a neighbour or simply turn up on a cold morning with a flask of coffee. They are the real treasures of the Church of England.
And then I met the churchwarden from hell….
It happened a few weeks ago when I was spending a day scoping churches in south Norfolk. All this really entails is me wandering vaguely around half a dozen or so churches, torch and camera in hand, carrying out an initial inspection to try and determine where all the good graffiti might be found. If a church comes up without any graffiti (a rarity) then it can get crossed off the list. If there is a bit present then it can be scheduled for a quick few hours one afternoon. If, as often happens, you find a church packed with early graffiti – then you just know that you aren’t going to make it to the pub for a few weeks.
It had been a good day really. A couple of churches I had visited had been real gems. The doors flung open, books for sale in the porch, happy ladies arranging flowers for a wedding, teenagers snogging and smoking behind the war memorial where they thought nobody could see them – and there had been a few good bits of graffiti too. Then I headed south to a church that I had been looking forward to visiting for some time. A big and often referred to Gothic structure slap bang in the middle of a big village south of Swaffham. The church is in all the guidebooks, famous for its medieval glass, magnificent tower and stunning memorial brasses, and from the photographs I’d seen the piers looked as though they could be hiding some really good graffiti. In short, it had potential. I arrived to find it magnificently situated in the middle of the village, rising like a great stone dragon above the surrounding houses, grabbed my survey bag and headed for the porch.
Then I saw it. As I entered the porch the main door was secured by a thick iron chain, held firmly in place with a padlock about the size of small melon. It really wouldn’t have been out of place securing the gates to a top secret military installation, scrap metal dealers yard or investment bankers pension fund. It was, whichever way you looked at it, a little excessive. Houdini had escaped from lesser fetters. This was certainly unusual as far as I was concerned. Most of the churches in Norfolk these days tend to be open and welcoming, particularly ones situated in the middle of villages, where dozen of local eyes can keep a wary lookout in case someone tries to run off with the hymn books. However, closer inspection revealed a polite notice stating that, if I should wish to gain access all I had to do was ring one of the churchwardens. All was not lost!
So I rang the first number on the list and, despite it being a weekday afternoon, the phone was answered almost immediately by a well spoken gentleman. I asked politely if it was possible to get access to the church that afternoon? I was answered by what can only be described as an extended version of the children’s game 20 questions. Who was I? Where was I from? Why did I want to visit the church? Had I made an appointment? Did I come from a good family? What was my favourite cheese? And I hadn’t parked on the grass had I? Assuming that I was talking to the churchwarden I went into some detail concerning my intentions towards his church (all entirely honourable – unless there was a particularly sexy rood screen) and outlined the aims of the graffiti survey. After about ten minutes of this he seemed satisfied that, as a grammar school boy and former blackboard monitor, I could be trusted to proceed further with the vetting process. “I’ll see if I can find the churchwarden for you then”.
He, apparently, wasn’t actually the churchwarden after all. I have to assume he was married to said churchwarden, and began to wonder if he always referred to his wife in such a manner (“Mrs churchwarden and I made it to the Maldives last Summer, don’t yer know. Lovely local natives, but damn all in the way of decent Anglican churches!”) - unless of course he was part of some hitherto un-encountered churchwarden security system being trialed in south west Norfolk. These things I pondered as I heard him stomping along through the house in search of the elusive Mrs Churchwarden. Indeed, it was taking so long I was beginning to wonder if he did indeed have her stashed in the attic, or in some remote outbuilding on a distant part of his estate. Finally, I heard him talking again, hand obviously muffling the receiver in the hope of not being heard, “Some chap wants to look around the church”, he said, “Not really convenient is it”.
Finally I was passed across to the elusive Mrs Churchwarden. The long and the short of it was that we had to go through the whole 20 questions thing again (“Favourite cheese – a good stilton”, “No, I hadn’t parked on the grass”, “I drive a Renault”, “Yes I am aware that it’s not a British car – but the Aston Martin is being serviced”, etc, etc). “The church”, explained Mrs C. eventually, “had recently been subject to an attempted break in, hence the need for the massive chains and padlock. In fact”, she went on, “they really didn’t like to encourage people to just turn up and view the church, and would far rather make it by appointment only. Today was all rather inconvenient actually and it would be far better if I went away and made an appointment”. Could I make an appointment I asked? “Not today”, was the reply, “as it was rather inconvenient”.
It was at this point that I made my fatal mistake…
Being a little stupid at the best of times, I made the mistake of pointing out to Mrs C, ever so politely, that locked churches tended to suffer more heritage crime than open ones. It is, after all, an established fact. Open churches have people keeping an eye on them, popping in and out all day, generally caring for them. Closed churches are the places where thieves can pretty much guarantee that they won’t be disturbed. That did it! I was then informed that Mrs C. really didn’t welcome preachers at her church. Indeed, she had decided some time ago that “they weren’t going to open the church at all except for services”. Visitors simply weren’t convenient.
As I subsequently learnt, the padlock and chain has been in place since at least as far back as 2008. Visitors are firmly discouraged. Rumour has it that they might enjoy themselves a little too much and lighten the air of desolation that surrounds the locked and barred church.
So, here’s the thing Mrs C. You have taken one of the most beautiful things in Norfolk and locked and chained it against all those who would care for it. You have taken a place that could be full of people, laughter, happiness and joy and turned it into something that is cold, dark and empty. Your church, Mrs C, is broken – and I don’t just mean the lock. I do not doubt that you truly love your church. However, sometimes we all make the wrong decision, even if for the right reasons. Your church is surrounded by people, in the middle of the village, and yet you apparently have alienated even the neighbours – to the extent that they won’t (or haven’t been allowed) take an active role in securing it for the future – and themselves. If you really do love something, then you must also be prepared to let it go. Mrs C, it really is time to hand on the keys - to someone who can heal what has been broken, make better that which is failing and give life back to the place that has been the centre of your community for nearly a thousand years. If you love something – let it go. Sometimes it's for its own good.
Obviously, I'd never be crass enough to mention the village by name - but do keep an eye out if travelling through the villages to the south east of Swaffham. As it is, the graffiti survey will now be surveying 649 churches in Norfolk rather than 650…