Our excellent Vicar Ruth pointed out in her sermon last Sunday that Jesus was giving his teaching not on the Mount but on the Plain. He had come down to where the people were.
I was inevitably reminded of the story of the Transfiguration, where Jesus also has to come down and help his disciples out in their ministry at ground level – famously captured by Raphael.
And I am reminded too of George Lings’ succinct analysis that whereas in the days of Christendom the prevailing culture meant that people would roll down into church naturally as it were, now they will roll away.
So what does it mean for a church y to be on a roll? Most of us have been brought up to assume it means folk flocking in. But perhaps now it must mean folk flocking out, to where the people are, trusting that Jesus is there too.
It’s not an easy thing to give up our image of a church on a roll, but “I believe in God” is our creed, long before the church gets a mention, and God is there waiting for us in the world he loves so much.
A beautiful and favourite Psalm, also used as a morning canticle. Written from a very different context of course, but somehow resonating with the retirement mix of both rediscovering encounters with God without the trappings, but feeling the gap they leave too. To pray and ponder.
As the deer longs for the water brooks, ♦ so longs my soul for you, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God; ♦ when shall I come before the presence of God?
My tears have been my bread day and night, ♦ while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is now your God?’
Now when I think on these things, I pour out my soul: ♦ how I went with the multitude and led the procession to the house of God,
With the voice of praise and thanksgiving, ♦ among those who kept holy day.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, ♦ and why are you so disquieted within me?
O put your trust in God; ♦ for I will yet give him thanks, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
Castle Frome is a little hamlet just off the Worcester-Hereford road: you could easily miss it as you drove by, and most do. Which is remarkable, because it has the best font in England. (Discuss! Nearby Eardisley is another candidate, as is the one at my old parish of Bridekirk in Cumbria…) Pevsner called it ‘one of the masterworks of Romanesque sculpture in England. It would arrest attention in any country.’ We wree glad to be introduced by old friends George and Jane Howe who live nearby, and share these church crawls sometimes.
The thing about actually visiting is that you can really get into the detail, and at Castle Frome I mean get into, as the undercutting is amazing, especially if it was done without a chisel. But look too at the flowing, flying feet of the St Matthew winged man, and the drama of his face. There too is the cheekier Kilpeck-like caricature of St Matthew’s ox. And that is before we look at the main event which depicts the Baptism of Christ (photo: Michael Garlick). And of course the pedestal figures, perhaps shackled and representing the Old Man in us, captive and burdened by sin, to be set free by the waters of baptism.
There are other treasures too, the tomb of William and Margery Unett, Cavaliers before it all went so horribly wrong, asleep in the chancel with the lustrous green of their bedlinen still showing well; and green though not with anything original, a rare original (Norman) sundial hiding above the north door (the porch is later work). I wonder who used it and why?
Hymns A&M was the brainchild of Herefordshire Vicar Henry Williams Baker (see my blog on Monkland). It proved a very useful book, but did of course involve editorial choices. One was to omit a verse from Charles Wesley’s “Forth in thy name I go” that gives us pause for the thought – both the verse and the decision to omit it:
Today we commemorate Alfred the Great – our only ruler to have been given that epithet. His was no quick-fix campaign. He survived refuge in the dank Somerset levels to defeat his enemies, secure his territory, found burghs, encourage learning and support church reform.
Here is the collect for his day: look out for the phrase “inwardly love” which speaks of the inner faith and strength that kept him going:
God, our maker and redeemer, we pray you of your great mercy and by the power of your holy cross to guide us by your will and to shield us from our foes: that, after the example of your servant Alfred, we may inwardly love you above all things; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I also caught up with the latest British Library Blog which bewails the paucity of surviving West Country manuscripts and records the presence of many “fragments”, some legitimate recovered pieces used in later bindings, some I fear clipped out leaving the donor MS to die. Herefordshire presumably counts as West, and among the fragments is part of an MS containing texts by “Alfred the Englishman”. Not The Great though, but Shareshill, an important 13th century West Midland scientist, who helped develop the tradition of learning within which Grosseteste stood. The image from Harley MS 5414, f. 72 shows part of a treatise on plants which uses Aristotelian material.
We nearly didn’t visit – and what a miss that would have been. We were warmly welcomed with a personal preview of what to look out for, very helpful in this typically-for-Portland slightly weird museum created by Marie Stopes of all people (who was of course also an excellent scientist and amateur archaeologist).
We engaged in the usual spot-the-relative game and found this Beechey (father in law of J’s 3-greats aunt) portrait of John Penn (grandson of the founder of the colony who was given land on Portland and built Pennsylvania Castle there when the colony was lost).
Now for the matrimonial insights. In 1818, still a bachelor at 58, Penn founded the Matrimonial Society, soon renamed the Outinian Society to encourage young men and women to marry. He looks across the room at Marie Stopes, here pictured in a scene of family bliss as befits the author of the best-selling “Family Love”
but actually after divorcing her first husband for non-consummation and later to more or less abandon this one when she tired of him, or so the museum’s boards tell us.
And next to her are memorabilia of Thomas Hardy whose last novel “The Well-Beloved” is partly inspired by Avice’s cottage, one of those that make up the museum, and chronicles the affairs of its hero with a woman, her daughter and her grand-daughter (all called Avice) in turn.
I am pleased to report that J and I are still rubbing along well together and looking forward to a meal out tonight at “The Boat That Rocks”.
By the 1760’s Portland was in need of a new and larger parish church, so the unsurprisingly-dedicated St George’s rose as what Pevsner calls, “The most impressive eighteenth century church in Dorset,” even if cattily goes on to comment, “partly owing to its singular – and by no means faultless architecture.”
The interior, now in the care of the CCCC as time has rendered St George’s once again inadequate, is indeed a party piece of its era, marked by the twin castellations of pulpit and reading desk; and to leave no doubt as to which activity was paramount, they are set amidships with the for’ard pews facing backwards towards them.
Even more memorable for me, though, is the vast and packed graveyard, a cross between a quarry and henge, where islanders and Kimberlins* alike lie slowly turning into stone like the ancestors at Avebury.
* The Portland term for incomers. Etymology unknown but ? just comers-in with a bit of a burr?