“Church Going”

When we visited St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, the priest mentioned that Norwich had more medieval churches than it needed: “Feel free to take one home with you, if you like” was his humorous comment.

Although we are 12 miles from Norwich, this small area called Ditchingham also abounds in medieval churches. Within easy walking distance is the church of All Hallows’ Convent, St. Mary’s Ditchingham, and the church I walked to today, St. Michael’s of Broome.

I saw St. Michael’s peering over the horizon the other day when I walked down a very narrow lane (turns out it’s called “Rectory Road” but there’s no street sign). I decided if there were a day with more than one hour of sunshine before showers, I would walk all the way to the church. Today was the day.

Walking down lanes that are barely big enough for farm equipment is a bit unnerving. I’ve gotten better at jumping into the narrow verges, trying to avoid nettles, when cars or delivery vans (bringing someone an Amazon package no doubt) pass by!

I came to an even more narrow gravel lane that stated it was only for vehicles going to the church. I figured I qualified so I continued towards the church, now in plain view.

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St. Michael’s Church, Broome, parish of Ditchingham

When I got up to the church, a sign plainly stated that the church was open today. There was no one in sight for miles in this open farmland.

I found the south door (always go in the south door…) and lifted the rusty latch to the porch. Crossing the enclosed porch, I managed to turn the knob, probably at least 500 years old, to the nave itself. As I pushed open the door, I held my breath as to what I would find — pigeons roosting? A homeless person camping out? Vermin scuttling across the floor?

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But no, I found a little church, very much cared for, with all the signs of life that every church has: notices of baptisms, marriages, deaths, pleas to give money to keep up the church, and updates from the overseas missionary they support. I prayed in the quiet. As I was leaving, I saw a guestbook. Others had been in the church two days ago, visiting some of the recent graves outside and praying. I signed the guestbook, thanking them for keeping the church open.

Many would call Britain today “post-Christian.” Indeed, one of Britain’s most famous contemporary poets, Philip Larkin, wrote about stopping in one of these small, rural churches, “Church Going.” The poem is sad, cynical and yet ends by calling the church “a serious house on serious earth” and a place “which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in.” Compare this to T.S. Eliot’s homage to the church at Little Gidding: “…You are not here to verify, /Instruct yourself, or inform curiousity /Or carry report. You are here to kneel /Where prayer has been valid….”

Great Britain is dotted with churches like these which witness to God’s continuing love and faithfulness and the faithful remnant who kneel, pray and care for these old, old buildings.

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