16 JANUARY 1948, Page 12



WHEN I was a boy we always, all of us, went to church on Sundays. If we were in London, my parents would put on their stiffest clothes and we would walk in procession along echoing pavements each clasping a prayer-book of red or violet leather in his hand. When the service was over we would, for forty-five minutes, take a stroll in Hyde Park, looking and feeling extremely anglican. If we were in the country, then all but the more decrepit members of the family would go to church on foot, returning there- after across the fields. And if we were abroad, we would attend the local English services, at which the varied and often hostile British colony would, for a space of time, achieve a sense of parochial unity. How different and yet how uniform were those Sunday gatherings of English men and women in foreign towns ! Some- times the services would be held in some hotel dining-room, with the bottles of Evian water stacked together in a corner under a cloth ; sometimes, in the south, there would be the smell of mimosa and narcissus on Christmas day ; sometimes, in the north, the snow-flakes would drift one after the other outside the bare window and a strong smell of anthracite would mingle with our hymns. It seems strange to me, when I recall that remote period, that we should have regarded going to church as something permanent and natural, and should have supposed that, generation after generation, other English families would troop along the pavements or across the fields on Sundays, carrying their prayer-books in their hands. We took the whole procedure for granted. My parents sometimes would discuss the sermon on their return ; they might even criticise the vicar or the chaplain ; but the ceremony itself appeared to us as immutable and as preordained as the passage of the seasons or the slow white movements of the moon. It did not strike us as odd that the simple village people at home, the governesses or retired civil servants on the Continent (who, in the privacy of their own homes could not have whistled a bar of Rule Britannia), should without self-consciousness yell psalms aloud.

• * * * I have been reading this week the loth Report of the Central Council for the Care of Churches. It has aroused nostalgic feelings. It may be true, as Archdeacon Evans admits in his introductory paper, that the country parishioner today takes little notice of his church, hardly attends its services, and is prepared to see it remain unkempt and in disrepair. Yet it is also true, as he says, that the parish church has always formed the natural centre of a village ; it is in it that the villagers have been christened and in the shadow of it that they will be buried. It is true that all country folk regard • the church spire as the first sign and symbol of returning home. It is true that the village church " is part of that indefinable sense of place which is the root of the true love of country." Yet although we all have an affection for our village churches, we seldom give a thought to their maintenance and repair. I had not realised until I read this report how numerous are the enemies which assail these soft grey monuments of our country life. There were the bombs and the blast ; there were the doodle-bugs, which, with the un- deviating concentration of an electric hare, gurgled and .plunged into the churches of Kent and Sussex. There is dry rot and wet rot ; there is the Xestobiufn Rufovillosum or death-watch beetle ; there is water and fire. There are also accidents. A beech tree crashed upon the church at Hailey, that at Tichfield was damaged by a whirlwind ; and the tower of Crowhurst Church was gutted by a fire caused by a lunatic. Assuredly, the Central Council has much work to do.

• * * * Apart from giving advice upon the repair and maintenance of damaged or dilapidated churches, the Central Council attempts; and with infinite tact, to raise the standard of taste in furnishing and decoration. As a layman, I have always been surprised and saddened by the fact that ecclesiastical furniture should for so long have main- tained its traditions of standardised ugliness. In Protestant churches and cathedrals the eye is not offended by the endless bric-a-brac, the absurd simpering figurines, the stucco dolls, with which the Catholic Church allows even its finest edifices to be defaced. It is always to me a matter of amazement that the Catholic Church, with its superb traditions in ornament and decoration, should since the eighteenth century have become blind to the tawdriness which is encouraged. Yet even in our calmer shrines we have fallen into the habit of admitting to the House of God objects which even the most tasteless parson would dislike in his own home. I agree with Archdeacon Evans that it is not always easy to reject, without causing deep offence, the memorial windows and tablets which a bereaved family desires to impose upon the local church. But I also agree with him that the Diocesan Advisory CommitteA should be more firm in the execution of their responsibilities and should realise that the works of the local monumental mason are seldom "harmless " and can seldom offer a line of compromise between the incompetent and the well-designed. Nor should those who are responsible for the decoration of our churches surrender too readily to the Church Furnishers' catalogues. Those bad brass birds, those bad brass rails, those pews of carpenter's gothic, do not suggest a living Church, but only a habit which has dawdled on since 1840.

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It is quite possible, if taste be present and knowledge invoked, to give a touch of modernity even to our oldest churches. The memorial chapel to Edward Horner in the church at Mells is an example of how skilfully the modern can be harmonised with the ancient. Mr. Graham Sutherland's Crucifixion, and Mr.g Henry Moore's Madonna and Child, at St. Matthew's, Northampton, are courageous experiments in introducing a living art into a fusty tradition. Intelligent innovations of this character should encourage the ecclesiastical authorities to get away from the Church Furnishers' catalogues, and to use the knowledge and taste of modern architects and artists to bring a greater vitality into this ancient heritage. And if the incumbent fears the responsibility, there is always the Central Council to give him encouragement and support. We no longer live in the age when, as Mr. Randoll Blacking writes in this report, " it was felt that an altar was not an altar at all unless it was provided with an orphried frontal and frontlet, with fringes, ' gothic ' brass cross and candlesticks, a brass book desk, and other etceteras selected from the Church Furnishers' catalogue." The font, for instance, offers many possibilities for imaginative treatment. Too often, as Mr. Blacking points out, it is regarded as a needless adjunct and pushed away into a dark corner by the door. Yet of all our liturgical furniture, the font is one of the most significant ; it lends itself, with its combination of stone and water, of the lasting and the lustral, to infinite combinations of decoration and design. The photograph reproduced in the report of the new font cover in York Minster suggests that a font need not be treated as a wash-basin but can achieve the beauty and dignity of a decorative symbol. It should be rendered symbolic. * * * * The men of the Reformation, in their desire to replace superstition by reason, removed from our churches all vain objects which might make an emotional appeal. These lovely, almost indigenous, build-, ings were stripped of their finery and colour. In our more scientific and mechanical age the reasoning faculties of the individual have become sceptical, critical and cold. In destroying all superstitious response the reformers destroyed all aesthetic response. I am old enough to remember the forgotten ritualistic controversies and the bitterness which they aroused. Yet there is no reason at all why protestantism, while remaining reasonable, should insist upon being ugly. In our dreary world, the artist and the architect are given slight scope for their inventions ; it is for them to give to 8ur churches an interest Which shall be, not archaeological or nostalgic only, but also alive. I trust that the brave example set by St. • Matthew's, Northampton, will encourage other experiments. And the Central Council is always present to stimulate, to suggest, to innovate and to preserve.