Introduction for talk on Michaelstow Church provided by Cllr. A ffrench Blake
Pope Francis speaking last week to an enormous audience in S America said that: “You do not have to believe in God to be a good person, nor do you need to follow an established religion to be a spiritual person. Many people find spiritual comfort and inspiration from nature”.
The philosopher Roger Scruton made some delightful observations about our country churches, which I am drawing on now to explain something of the appeal of our church to those who may not believe in God or only rather vaguely as is quite acceptable in the Anglican tradition.
For 800 years our church has stood at the centre of the community keeping patient vigil over the countryside. It stands as a monument to the language and culture of the English people, an affirmation of the land and a guardian of the dead who lie there. Of course it is also a Christian church, with a message of redemption. But it couches that message in an idiom of homecoming and safety: “we are the sheep of his pasture … and we have erred and strayed from his ways like lost sheep”. The thought and language is pastoral. That is why country churches have such appeal to the modern traveller, who steps from the car, creaks open the heavy wooden door and sniffs that curious smell of dried flowers and polish which is the smell of God at home in England.
English churches tell of a people who preferred seriousness to doctrine, and routine to enthusiasm. The walls display discreet memorials, placing the dead at the same convenient distance that they occupied when living. The pews are hard, uncomfortable, designed not for lingering but for moments of penitence and doubt. The architecture is noble but bare and quiet, without the lofty aspirations of the French Gothic or the devotional intimacy of an Italian chapel. More prominent than the altar are the pulpit and the lectern. For this is a place of singing and speaking, in which Biblical English passes the lips of people who have believed that holy thoughts need holy words, words somehow removed from the business of the world, like gems lifted from a jewel box and then quickly returned to the dark.
Over the centuries the power and prosperity of the hierarchy of the Anglican Church has gradually weakened and its religious message has been losing appeal, to the extent that the diocese can no longer provide parishes with Vicars or play any useful role in the upkeep of parish churches and graveyards. So it is up to us to see that our church continues to keep vigil over our community and provides for those who may, even occasionally, need in it the comfort of religion- a religion that mutters in the background, demanding neither passionate belief nor strenuous observance, but in some mysterious way consecrating the land.
To return to Pope Francis’ theme: you do not need to believe in God to value the place of our church in the community, to understand the historical and spiritual importance of it and want to help maintain it for future generations.