Monday, 27 June 2011

The whitewashed Protestant icebox

When I was very small I attended the church of No Saints, not particularly near Little Dullsville, in a very isolated part of the West Country – extremely reluctantly, I might add. The church had originally been built as a private chapel near a manor house, the latter subsequently demolished. It had been miles from the nearest villages so now in the absence of the house it stood alone on the north side of a granite hill with a few sheep chewing at the scrubby grass.

The building was tiny, and the coldest place on earth, as far as I could tell, even though I lived in a freezing house and have never met anyone else in my generation who managed to get chilblains in winter. It was somehow more freezing inside than out even in February. I don’t think there was any heating at all. There was electric light in winter so there must have been some kind of generator but there was no kitchen, water supply etc. These people didn’t do after-service tea, coffee mornings or Sunday school.

The walls were plain white, the furnishings completely unadorned wooden pews, box pews down one side and open pews in the main body of the church. Everyone, the whole congregation of maybe fifteen, sat in the same pews decade after decade. (I thought they might go home between Sundays but with some of them you couldn’t prove it.) On the south wall was the only decoration in the place, a giant sculpted marble tomb to one of the defunct manor family's Stuart ancestors, dwarfing the plain pulpit and table.

This was in the days before Alternative Service Books and any other newfangled modern language, and the Parish Eucharist movement had not penetrated the wilds of the moors, so the main service was Morning Prayer three Sundays out of four with Communion on the remaining Sunday. Most of my memories of the service are of sitting on a kneeler on the floor, reading the hymn books or prayer books by myself when I had lost the thread of the preacher droning on. I can’t remember much about what he wore or where he stood or any of the other distinguishing features of different types of Protestantism. My best guess would be a cassock, surplice and stole, and I think he presided from the north end of a plain wooden table at the communion services, but I may be mixing up this “padre,” as he was called, with later ministers at the church school.

There was one other child present most weeks, but she was the organist’s daughter and sat near her mother on one of the benches that had once been choir stalls. The only music I heard anywhere until I started school was the sound of the hymns, taken from the inevitable Ancient and Modern book, modern apparently referring to 1869 not 1969.

The church was miles away, past about half a dozen other Church of England places, but the family had chosen this church when they lived in their previous home and it suited their purposes. They hadn’t lived any nearer before the move, but had decamped there from their previous village church after a dispute with a new rector who removed names from pews and insisted visitors should be allowed to sit where they liked. Somehow they found the remotest, coldest church in the middle of nowhere, and the fact that there was no real community there suited them just fine.

Any sense of God that I had came more from the reading on the church floor than anything that was explained to me. I can’t say, either, that I particularly connected the wet countryside with any sense of awe or natural theology. At home I had an Authorised Version of the Bible that I attempted to plough my way through. I more or less abandoned this attempt when I realised no one would answer my questions. In the line-up to shake the vicar’s hand after the service, one day I asked him where God came from, and he told me I was too young to be told that.

I also hated communion, having to kneel on the carpeted altar step next to my parents and watch them being given communion whilst I was only allowed a pat on the head. I think I'd say now that it made me feel like a second class citizen - I didn't really have that concept at four, but I could see it was yet another way in which children didn't count.

No comments: