Crusading Knights at Garway St Michael

Our latest church crawl took us to Garway Church, about half an hour south of Hereford in hidden country between the Monmouth and Abergavenny roads. A round trip could easily include Kilpeck, Grosmont, Kentchurch Gardens and one of several excellent pubs …

But, after Kilpeck, Garway is one of the stars among Herefordshire churches, and one of very few genuine surviving buildings of the Templars (later taken over by the Hospitallers after their suppression). It was a 12th-century foundation with a massive and genuinely defensible tower standing next to (now joined to) what was originally a circular naved church. The nave was squared off by the Hospitallers in the 15th century, but the foundations of the original circular walls are still visible (see bottom left photo above).

The splendid dog-toothed chancel arch with its ferocious cat-capital date from the Templars, while the Hospitallers seem to have enjoyed adding graffiti – see the Maltese cross, still the emblem of the Order of St John and St John Ambulance, and the cross with crosslets which is reminiscent of forms in use in Jerusalem and the East.

Later generations have (hooray) left their mark too: steps to nowhere leading to a lost rood gallery; a full set of splendidly chunky vernacular pews; a delicious little organ case; carved choir stalls – and a splendid tablecloth from a linked Sunday School in Africa, with the names of the children embroidered onto little felt fishes.

It has to be said that finding Garway Church can be a bit of an adventure, but in the end our satnav (HR2 8RJ) took us happily right to the end of the little lane that leads to it, and on which we found safe parking. So be brave, be bold and give it a go.

Aconbury St John the Baptist: from the Sisters of St John of Jerusalem to Diocesan Store

It was time to go south for our third trip out, a quarter of an hour down the Ross road to the delightful hamlet of Aconbury, off just about everyone’s beaten track these days but a great spot for a country spring walk. Park on the hard-standing not the grass though as the local farmer has some pretty big machinery to move around (and some nice grass to keep unspoiled).

Back in the day (in the thirteenth century in fact) the Sister of St John of Jerusalem (Hospitallers) had a priory here – it became an Augustinian house later after a big row – and you can still see the remains of a cloister on the south wall. An early piece of carved columns also hiding in the fifteenth century porch with its fine angels greeting you as you arrive. Not that you can go in now, though, as the building is preserved by virtue of being used a diocesan store. Every diocese needs one…

Before you leave for that country walk remember to look up and see the very picturesque shingled bell-turret added by G.G. Scott who restored the church in the nineteenth century (these Scotts got everywhere, even to the back of beyond like here).

Strawberry Hill in Herefordshire: a return to Shobdon, St John

Our second trip out took us took us north-west from Hereford but a little further this time, to Shobdon, north of Pembridge and in blackcurrant-growing country. (I hope you realised that Herefordshire is top of the tree for these delicious little beauties: look out for Pixley blackcurrant cordial – https://www.pixleyberries.co.uk/home for instance).

Shobdon Church is a big of surprise too: the rural rarity of a full-dress eighteenth century Strawberry Hill Gothic interior, nestled next a faux Early English tower. Why here of all places? The uncle of Viscount Bateman, who built the (now largely lost) pile next door, was a pal of Horace Walpole and a member of his ‘Committee of Taste’ and they fixed it up between them.

As Pevsner says, the interior demands to be kept in a state of high finish to keep its wedding-cake looks, and kudos to the local team who do just that. (And what a setting for a wedding it must be.)

Don’t miss the classic Herefordshire-Style Norman font though or the lion will NOT be happy. And don’t forget to walk up the Arches, more Norman work from before the Gothickers got to work, relocated to make an eye-catching folly. Christ in Majesty still looks down on us from there.

G F Bodley (and beautiful marmalade): Kinnersley St James

Inspired by better weather and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent Radio 3 Essay series on church crawling (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000twbd) Jean and I have taken to the road again, and started to explore more of Herefordshire’s amazing churches.

Our first trip took us to St James’ Church at Kinnersley, a very pleasant half-hour drive or so north-west of the city. The strongly-built fourteenth-century tower with its saddleback roof is what strikes one first: we are next to the site of an old moated castle and security must have been in the builders’ minds. Inside the feeling is open and airy, helped by the north aisle added also in the fourteenth century, but the party pieces of the church are from a later period.

Top of the list is the wonderful Smalman memorial of 1635 with exquisite fluid carving and a flotilla of eight children keeping watch. Then look around and you see the design work of G F Bodley everywhere, executed by the then Vicar Frederick Andrews from 1873. What a task!

Why Bodley? He married Minna Reaveley, the daughter of that castle next door, and is buried in the churchyard himself. It was a family affair.

And oh yes: the local marmalade that was on sale when we visited is VERY good.

Inclusion, exclusion and the COVID revolution

We’ve just enjoyed an excellent online lecture from York by Prof Sarah Rees Jones on how work to open up mediaeval records is giving us great new details, even personal stories, on how the North reacted to the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.

We’ve also enjoyed online church services and valued the way we can join in both local worship and drop in at Taizé and Iona for instance.

But the same revolution that has opened up access to some has restricted it for others: those without the technology; those who find the style of online events unhelpful; those who crave real presence. Many are included, for which I rejoice; some are newly excluded, at which I lament.

What was fascinating in the York talk, among many similarities and differences to these present times, was that Rees Jones pointed up just this same effect in the Black Death years.

As I know from my own research, those years saw English flower again as the language of poetry, instruction, the court and the law. Henry V writes home from Agincourt in English. The middling sort started to keep legal records in the burgeoning guilds for instance. New rights could be established and old ones secured. You could present your case in court in your mother tongue.

But as Rees Jones pointed out, there were losers too. Those who because of poverty, background, disability, poor education and all the rest did not have the chance to join in this new pattern of communication became even more excluded. It was a time when the poor got poorer and the rich richer, and seeds of social division were sown whose harvest we still reap today.

The York project is self-consciously trying to broaden access to old records and open up the learning adventure. Are we?

Worship at Michaelchurch for over a millennium

We continued our COVID church-crawl around our local Churches Conservation Trust properties today with a visit to Michaelchurch (no further dedication needed), quite near Pencoyd, in the hilly country overlooking the Wye off the Hereford-Ross road. It sits low and long, nestled in the hillside, reminding me of similarity remote upland churches in Cumbria, by an ancient man-made pond, hinting at this being a place of worship even before Christianity arrived, as does the Roman altar to the God of the Crossroads now kept in the church after being rediscovered in pieces in the building and nearby. The earliest Christian building is said to have been consecrated by Bishop of Herwald of Llandaff, reminding us that we are in Archenfeld, a former Welsh territory (and indeed in the old Welsh-named parish of Tretire: this must always have been a chapelry).

The surviving structure and strong if rather rustically carved font go back to soon after the Conquest, though the chancel is a thirteenth century addition (when the plaster was beautified with red-lined representation of ashlar) and the spacious porch joined it in the seventeenth (when that was pained over with texts). The screen is perhaps 16th-century, the pulpit 17th, the ceiling 18th, the choir stalls 19th. (wit a rather fine Michael) – and so the church quietly tiptoed through the centuries, acquiring successive plaques to the Fisher family who perhaps paid for it, until it finally fell asleep in the arms of the CCT. Warmest thanks to them and their local volunteers who keep it open and spick and span for us to visit (and for an annual service in the summer). Drop in yourself and share a moment of peace and quiet too.

St Denys Pencoyd, where Sir John Davies once taught the flock

Drive south of Hereford towards Ross, tracking the Wye but in rolling uplands above it, and after a few miles you’ll see Pencoyd signed off to the right. Follow the winding lane and you’ll come to small hamlet with a couple of good houses and barns – and a church, dedicated rather unusually, to St Denys. Nicholson’s 19th-century restoration hides most of its history, but the solid tower and font betray its late Norman origins, perhaps one of the many 13th-century builds and rebuilds that field up the corners of the countryside.

It’s of special interest to me, though, for something that happened there in two hundred years later, when one Sir John Davies was the curate. “Sir” not because he was a knight but because he was a non-graduate priest, and that was the courtesy title they were allowed as “gentlemen unto God”, and curate (as we would call him now) because Pencoyd was a chapelry not a parish church – and Davies himself had probably only been in orders a couple of years.

What’s so interesting is the the book he made to resource himself in his new role of teaching his flock – both the basics of the faith like the Ten Commandments and the Seven Sacraments – and the basics of Latin grammar still survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (now split as MSS Douce 103 and Douce 108). The main items are John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests and Festial, the ideal textbooks for a new cleric, but my object of study was an elementary grammar of Latin in English – one of a raft of them I edited for my doctorate – and here is part of its text in the Herefordshire dialect of the time (the words in bold are dialect markers):

How mony tymes byn there? V. Wych v? The tyme that ys noo, the tyme that ys nott fulliche a-gonne, and the tyme that ys a-gon, the tyme that more then a-goon and the tyme that ys to cum. How knowyst the tyme that ys no? For he betokynth the tyme that ys no, as amo ‘y loue’ . . . How knowyst an interieccyon? For he ys a party of speke vndeclynyd the wych shewt a monnys wyll wt a vnperfytt voyce, as wondur, drede or merwell.

So next time you drop in at Pencoyd, listen for the voices – of God’s whispered word, and the echoes of a priest and people teaching and learning long ago.

Saving Christmas

The Jeremiahs have it… The COVID statistics seem to be making it perfectly clear that things are going to get worse before they get better, and I think the public mood is slowly trying to come to terms with that.

We were desperate that it should not be so. Desperate to get back to life as we liked it. Just life, not this dark pall of deathliness and depression. And I suspect we will also now start to be desperate again, this time to save Christmas.

Not Christmas as a theological purist would have it. That is all about Christmas saving us, not us saving it. That is about real light shining perilously in real darkness, not fairy lights on a tree. But the theologians have a point. Even if warm hearths and family togetherness are what we long for, they are powerful because they speak not just of a kiss under the mistletoe or a blow-out meal but of a deeper sense that winter will not have things all its own way, of unconquerable light. We’ve been celebrating it since Stonehenge, and we want and need to celebrate it now.

But just saying ‘boo’ to the darkness, or indeed the virus, and getting on with the party is going to end in tears. Let me put it starkly. It’s three weeks before Christmas. Blow it, you say, we’re going to have a party. It’s two weeks before Christmas and, blow it you say, let’s go shopping, but some of your friends cry off because they’re feeling a bit poorly. It’s one week before Christmas and you’re feeling a bit poorly yourself; your best mate has just gone into hospital. It’s Christmas, and … well, the shine has well and truly gone off the gingerbread and no-one is feeling much like celebrating any more.

So? What can we do? Is there anything we can do? Let’s go back to those theologians, those keepers of the Christian tradition that Christmas is perhaps all about anyway.

From ancient times Christians kept fasts before they dived into their feasts. They didn’t take the waiting out of wanting: they knew that a bit of waiting, a bit of preparing, a bit of pondering, would make the feast all the more fun.

Cue Advent: not just the Advent of a boozy miniature a day in December, but the Advent that starts 4 Sundays before Christmas and takes us slowly and carefully through the Bible’s story of how we got into this pickle we call life, and how God’s plan to join us in it and raise us from it came to pass. It’s all those readings you’ve heard at a traditional Carol Service, but old school, taken slowly, savoured for all they’re worth. Then at Christmas the Great Twelve Days of Feasting can begin.

So, this year, how about Saving Christmas by Keeping Advent? Look for safe ways to buy the presents and order the food. Give some time to writing some personal cards or messages. Then dust down your Bible and look up the stories for yourself. Light a candle for each Sunday. And enjoy the peace. Peace now, as you give Christmas the best chance it can have of going off well; and the promise of a peace that passes our understanding that can surround us come what may.

Don’t Worry! Pardon…

Sermon preached at the British Guild of Agricultural Journalist‘s Service of Thanksgiving for Harvest 2020

“Don’t worry,” said Jesus. And there’s plenty to worry about. Harvest yields round our way are about a third down on last year, after the wettest February on record that tried hard to turn Hereford into an island, three big storms and the driest Spring since 1961. Stock up with straw now if you can: it’s going to be scarce, which will hit those raising livestock. And all that’s before COVID and all its complications. Or Brexit.

“Don’t worry.” But of course we do, and the agricultural community as much as any, though their famous self-reliance means it can be hard to sense danger, until disaster strikes. The NFU, YFC and chaplaincy here set up a scheme for voluntary labour to support isolating farmers. There was little take-up. But suicide rates in the county’s farming community were already higher than average, and nationally 81% of farmers under 40 believe that mental health is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today.

So how do we help ourselves, and others, not to worry? If ever there was a sermon theme that cuts through the platitudes that has to be it, whether you are a farmer or a journalist, or a bishop in retirement. I’m preaching to myself here too.

“Consider the ravens,” says Jesus. What an odd place to start. Consider how to shoot them, I suppose, if you’re an unreconstructed sheep-farmer. Or break out the Irri-Tape and Terror Eyes if you’ve seen the light. Who thinks up these names? Agricultural journos making a bob or two on the side, I suppose.

But, consider the ravens, consider the lilies – we’re getting onto safer ground now – consider just what an amazing natural world we’re set in. Looking at a canvas like that our own worries, however dark, can become part of a bigger pattern of light and shade, part of a bigger story. And getting perspective, even if you can’t quite bring God into it, is a serious step towards mental health.

As is looking at and giving thanks for the other people around us, even on Zoom. Yes, I know. They’re a dismal bunch. And they’re thinking just the same about you. Except they’re probably not. Most of us succumb to the “grass is greener” syndrome and assume that everyone else is much better than we are, which is sort of depressing until you turn it round and think that by the same token that means that everyone else is rating you as better than them. Touché: and another step towards mental health is taken. Jesus got there first of course: “Of how much more value are you than the birds!” You’re worth it, even if you don’t use l’Oréal.

And then, finally – because I am all that stands between you and a party – what is all that worrying going to do for you anyway? It won’t just fail to add a single hour to your span of life, it’ll probably shorten it. So if by now we can find enough perspective to see beyond those feelings of threat that fry our brains, let’s switch on the little grey cells and do what the Good Lord suggested instead: put some energy into doing the things that build the sort of society that he called the kingdom of God and you can call what you want, but one in which any of us and all of us can find fairness and happiness. And what do you know, we may just find that not only do the beastly worries shrink back into the shadows, but life itself starts to feel worth living again.

Look up, at the world around us in all its beauty; look round, at your family and friends in all their worth; and look out, and help build a better world. It’s got to be worth a go.