Ancient church a house fit For God
My earliest memory of St. Michael and All Angels is its splendid medieval spire pointing to the sky like hands pressed together in prayer. When Dan and I settled in Langtoft, our first evening walk took us past the ancient stone wall surrounding the church. We unlatched the wooden gate and strolled through the tombstones in the churchyard. Most of the names and dates had worn away. There were no flowers growing to extol the glories of an English spring, but lively green, thickset ivy gripped the rugged stones. The contrast of life and death gave voice to the church’s rich history.
We marveled at the idea of attending services at a "Church of England" built in the Middle Ages, a time when society was divided into kings and commoners, lords and serfs. In its 750-year history of worship, our church, like others throughout England, has survived wars, famines, floods and plagues, and has also been blessed with peace and prosperity.
I’ll never forget the first Sunday we walked through the massive arched door, with a keyhole the size of my fist. We received a friendly welcome, then slid into a pew near the front. Ancient hymns spilled from hearts as streams of sunlight poured through the windows. We did our best to join in, all the while gazing in awe at the clustered pillars, elaborate window patterns and exposed timbers on the ceiling. What fascinated me most were the rows of graceful arches along the nave, adorned with life-like little faces of medieval men, carved centuries ago and seemingly gazing at me in awe!
Our vicar, Rev. Janet Beadle, climbed the winding steps to the 17th century pulpit and kept our ears perked while sprinkling bits of humor into one of the most inspiring sermons we'd heard. After the service, the congregation gathered for coffee, tea and biscuits. We were asked to stay, an invitation that was like a heartfelt hug inviting us into the fold and its colorful personalities.
One Sunday, Janet painted a vivid picture of the villagers who built our church, a haven of faith and hope, stone by stone. These peasants were owned by feudal lords and lived in single-room, wattle and daub homes with thatched roofs. If they were lucky, they shared their dwellings with a few animals and had a little garden. When they weren’t toiling in fields for the lords, their energy was spent helping stonemasons at the church site. Although their bones were weakened by rickets, they quarried colossal stones and brought them by oxcart to the site. “Not much was made of stone in those days, but they chose to put it into the church, so God could have a house fit for Him,” Janet said.
Today, when so many comforts and conveniences are taken for granted, it’s hard to imagine such backbreaking dedication. The church was built at a time when villagers couldn’t read or write. They depended solely on priests to teach them the Word of God. More often than not, they were taught to fear God, and dark superstitions were often mixed with religion. So perhaps building a church was like the glory of salvation itself, right at their doorstep.
Since attending the Church of England, Dan and I have learned so much about the country’s history because there’s rarely been a line between church and crown. Janet explained, “One of the biggest differences from American churches is that we are the established church in England and the Queen is our supreme governor. Every vicar swears an oath of allegiance to the Queen, and it’s our legal duty to serve everyone within the boundaries of our parishes.”
Our village friends are eager to share their country's history, which isn’t always pretty. It’s surprising how often the religious persecution and bloody turmoil of years past still come up in conversation. When a new king or queen came to power, people were often forced to change religions or face death. Although it’s a history we’ve studied as youngsters, it all comes to life here in England. We’ve grown to appreciate, even more, the religious freedom we’ve always known in America.
People still talk about the turbulence that climaxed during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-47), the notorious king who shaped the England we know today. And they can remember places and dates as easily as yesterday’s weather. Although the infamous King Henry gets the blame (or credit) for the country’s break from Rome, a revolution was already simmering. One day when talking to Janet, I learned that people were growing weary of the immense wealth and corruption of the Catholic Church. The simmer turned into a full boil when the Pope refused to grant the king a divorce from Catherine of Aragon simply because she failed to give him a male heir. So he simply broke away from Rome, established the Church of England, appointed himself supreme head, and granted himself a divorce. While many were sympathetic toward Catherine, who was greatly revered, they welcomed the opportunity for a Protestant Reformation.
During a visit to nearby Peterborough Cathedral, where Catherine was buried, I was surprised to see that people still make pilgrimages to place holy cards, sympathetic notes and fresh flowers on her tomb. It’s the stories about King Henry and his ruthless treatment of six wives, two of whom he had beheaded, that have stuck in my mind since childhood. But I didn’t realize, until recently, that it was King Henry who initiated the first English translation of the Bible so all Christians could have access to the Word of God. Until his reign, Papal domination stunted the growth of common folks. Only those in authority could read and interpret God’s Word. Janet emphasized, "If people could have made their own interpretations, it would have been political dynamite.”
The translation took several years, and one of Langtoft’s vicars was involved in the process. Local historian Richard Platt said, “In the early 1600s, on the accession of King James I, Rev. Robert Gregge was called to London to help translate the King James I Bible. It’s my understanding that he translated the battle of Joshua at Jericho.” Thumbing through the old records, he emphasized that our church is relatively new compared to the evidence the village has seen of settlement since the Bronze Age – 4500 years ago!
Today, the Church of England continues to share catholic and apostolic beliefs, but focuses more on prayer than statuary and ceremony. Church attendance has steadily dwindled over the centuries in all denominations. Only about 8 percent of the country’s population attends church regularly, compared to nearly 100 percent in the 12th century. Of course back then, going to church was compulsory or people were fined. In earlier times, parishes often had as many as three priests. Now, it’s not unusual for three parishes to share one vicar. Janet also serves as vicar for two nearby parishes, along with our curate, Rev. Euan McKerrell.
Our friend Michael Howard explained that many factors contribute to today’s poor church attendance. “In earlier times, religion was crucially important. People died for it in vast numbers and in nasty ways. By the 1900s, it wasn’t less important, but people were going to church against their wills. There was a lot of social pressure from landowners and employers. So they went because it was a matter of duty.” Then, during World War I, soldiers witnessed the bishop’s blessing of battleships and cannons. “It didn’t change the fact that all their friends were still dead and it cut right through their beliefs,” he said.
But the greatest change took place following World War II, according to Michael. He said, “People came home with different political ideas, and there was a big social revolution. They felt liberated and were no longer willing to touch or tug their forelock when masters passed by. They stopped feeling a sense of obligation to go to church. Though they no longer needed conformity, they didn’t lose their sense of religion.” As a result, many children in England don’t understand basic Christianity, he said. “To my mind, England is a missionary field. A vast number of kids are three generations away from church going.”
A few dozen members, sometimes more, worship each Sunday at St. Michael and All Angels. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago the church was in such an appalling state that its doors nearly closed. Janet said, “People in the village would have been heartbroken. Even those who don’t attend service regularly want its presence in the village for baptisms, marriages and funerals. And when its closure was threatened, everyone was generous with fundraisers and donations.”
During Sunday service, in the humble surroundings of a medieval church, Dan and I sometimes close our eyes and imagine the peasants bowing their heads in prayer in the house they built for God. When the congregation sings How Great Though Art, our hearts flutter in “awesome wonder” because at that moment we all become one heart, past and present, beating in praise to God. It’s beyond belief at times to know that our own voices are blending into the church’s rich history.
Walking by the church in a quiet afternoon drizzle, if you listen closely, you can almost hear the faint whisper of its brooding past. You can see a glint of hope in its future as its magnificent spire looks across the fens and points to the sky like hands pressed together in prayer.
This feature first appeared in The Daily Journal, Accent on Travel, Kankakee, IL, 2003
To read more about England's medieval churches, see "Chubbing, from church to pub."