The practice of visiting historic churches (especially of taking, say, two busses out to a remote village to do so) is not a fashionable one. It is something to be filed alongside clingfilm-encrusted egg salad sandwiches, lukewarm pints of Hobgoblin, inveterate curtain-twitching and an unhealthy obsession with the genetic make-up of the Anglo-Saxons. Historic churches, increasingly shorn of their original purpose, are gradually being absorbed by The Heritage Industry, to be melted down into raw Heritage and reconstituted as easily consumable chunks of National Story. Anyone under thirty visiting a church – especially one outside of a city – is likely, if anyone is about, to be met with dark looks and an unspoken What are you doing here?
In spite of all that, there are very few things I would rather do with an idle afternoon than tuck a Pevsner under my arm and spend a couple of hours peering at a chancel arch. It is a fixation I don’t think I can really help – churches, and all their architectural elements, are objects of endless mystery and fascination to me. As a relatively young person, as a socialist, and as someone who is (I like to flatter myself) on some level engaged with, and not completely pessimistic about, modernity and contemporary culture, I have often struggled to reconcile this fixation with the small-though-often-big-C conservatism of the average church-snooper. I don’t generally like Philip Larkin (at all) but I think he had it about right when, in his poem “Church Going”, he singled out the “ruin-bibber randy for antique”. I love churches (not to mention canals, real ale, folk music and the South Downs) but I don’t recognise myself in these people.
It was (surprise!) William Morris who, for me, pointed towards a way out. Morris – himself ironically at serious risk of being absorbed wholesale into the tea towel industry – was both a committed socialist and what might today be called a serious anorak when it came to churches. Successor in part of the (mostly) backward-looking High Tory radicalism of figures like Pugin, Ruskin and Carlyle, Morris rejected their conservatism to develop a view of Gothic architecture which pointed towards the possibility of a method of working which was exuberant, unfettered and free of alienation. His utopian vision consisted of this Gothic method of working spread amongst society as a whole, manifesting itself not in a Merrie England of jovial peasants and pleasant cottages (as is often erroneously assumed) but in a boundless proliferation of as-yet-unknowable artistic forms.
I don’t want to go on too much about Morris because a) I think everyone should go and read him for themselves and b) that’s not really the purpose of this short blog post, which is essentially to justify my weird hobby (and maybe to insist on its reclamation from the ruin-bibbers). My opinions on churches certainly derive from my reading of Morris, but they are, I think, mine nonetheless, and I want to try and work them out here. For me, historic churches – especially those built in the Gothic style – are structures radically free from the grim architectural triumvirate of dull utilitarianism, thoughtless extravagance and slavish imitation (they have this in common with the best works of Modernism). Gothic builders adapt, negotiate, synthesise and create – the basic structural forms are all of a type (pointed arch, vaulted ceiling, roll moulding, nave, chancel, transepts and so on), but the way those forms are used – their dimensions, their placement, their decoration – is wonderfully elastic. Gothic architecture flowers into a dense foliage capital, flies off into a rib vault, thuds back to earth in a heavy column, flits about in a web of tracery, whispers fervent prayers high up in the clerestory, laughs in a gloomy corner with a leering grotesque. Scattered about, meanwhile, are lurid wall-paintings, serene brasses, morbid tombs, little carved figures. The little figures especially seem to reveal themselves at random, dancing, drinking wine, sinning, repenting, doing good works, farting.
The best historic churches, then, point to something outside of the flattened, cynical parts of our contemporary moment, the horizons of which seem sometimes to be irrevocably shrinking. Whether crudely or masterfully done – and Gothic architecture can, wonderfully, accommodate both – they gesture towards a latent capacity in people to think, feel and labour in a way which is by turns urgent, curious, tranquil, thrilling, profound, active, irreverent, bizarre, loving and fearful, and moreover to embody these emotional capacities in a collective sense, in the work that they do and the places where they gather. Historic churches are, more than most buildings, the work of innumerable and unknowable hands, often reaching across centuries to embrace one another, and in this they are works of empathy as much as works of masonry. This (I like to think) is not to indulge in nostalgia – I don’t think we should all jack it in and become stonemasons. Churches are, like everything historical, objects of our most remote futures as much as they are of our murky past. They are the tangible crystallisations of hidden potentialities which are at once strangely outside of us and irrevocably tied to us.
The custodians of the Heritage Industry will try and tell you that churches stand for Something Quintessentially English, or that they represent the value of tradition, or piety, or even “the countryside” in some horrible fossilised sense. They are wrong. Churches are living works of art, as much as any work of art can be said to be the product of living brains and limbs, and the things they have to tell us are far stranger, and far more revolutionary.