As is the habit of my tribe, as Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees said when queried about attending Trinity College Chapel, to the village church on a warm December day, the valley lazily misted, the cars parked in the adjoining field sufficient to judge the size of the congregation: a village affair, with no visiting musicians. The Saxon way up the valley has known settlements since the Iron Ages, with the hill fort of Castle Ditches visible on the Northern horizon. The Knights Hospitaller started building in 1211, forming a Commandery with a Preceptor, two Knights, a Chaplain, three minor clerics, an Esquire and six servants. Fast forward to 1898 and the first Vicar appointed after the Reformation, Quartus Bacon, served for 38 years. Now there is one visiting vicar, who circulates round the remaining village congregations, and tours of priestly duty seem to last no more than 3 years. The church was completed in 1230, speedy work, because that was 25 years sooner than the completion of Salisbury cathedral, which had lately moved from Sarum, though admittedly that is a somewhat larger building. A fishpond provided carp, a useful innovation for an ancient settlement. Change can bring advantages.
The Hospice was also an advantage, tending pilgrims on their way through the Forest of Selwood to the Abbey of Shaftesbury, a Saxon redoubt, and giving them a night’s food and lodging in exchange for hearing their news. Such were the high costs of wanting to keep in touch in an age when knowledge traveled slowly by foot. These were the real tales which Chaucer picked up and embellished a century and a half later, and wrote down in a book, another innovation.
By common agreement, after the difficulties of last Christmas, the carols had been chosen to be familiar, and within the range of the average singer. As a consequence, the finer points of theology were cast aside, and the emphasis was on the words being well-connected to the music. A congregation is a frail thing in these parts, apt to be embarrassed and easily browbeaten into bemused silence by novel rhythms, strained tonal ranges, and complex compositions of any sort. Religion is seen as a quietly personal matter, best addressed by avoiding church on all but high occasions, at which times the familiar Christmas numbers are to be belted out, in expiation of general laxity, and in propitiation of such gods as may be listening.
In contrast, the lessons were in the flat tones of the required modern everyday English, and not the King James version, which is the real bible for most Anglo-Saxons, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that Jesus spoke English that way, as any decent person should. God’s secretaries, as the King James version scholars were later called, made sure their prose was read out loud, choosing language which was already archaic, on the basis that, when talking about olden times, the best time-transporter was olden language itself. Anything that did not stir the soul on being read out was dropped for something more sonorous. It was very meet, right and their bounden duty so to do.
Was it because of the bland words of ordinary language that the birth story being recounted to us became thoroughly perplexing? It sounded like an overheard conversation on a bus: A woman of advancing age finds herself pregnant and her husband, doubtful as to how this transpired, is about to eject her. She is said to be a virgin, but (hard to be sure, because some text seems to be missing here) another woman of her age who was said to be barren is now well advanced in her own pregnancy, so this must be borne in mind. After a dream, all is resolved, because the woman is especially favoured.
Perhaps the story, shorn of the beauty and authority of the King James Bible, had become more English and had even ascended to being Very English, thus: somewhere in the provinces something odd had been going on with an old couple’s sexual relationships, and it was best not to ask too many questions, but just to celebrate their good fortune in having a child. Least said, soonest mended.
The manifest improbability of the account, and the surviving text’s clear doubts about the whole convoluted matter, plus the assorted search for exonerating circumstances, and the undoubted but hardly relevant fact that some elderly mothers go on to confound those who have told them they cannot bear children, seemed a slim basis for the spectacular claims attached to the midwinter event. In psychological terms, these absurdities are a great advantage. Anyone crude enough to speculate that the elderly woman had consorted with a young assistant carpenter behind her husband’s back could be told off for their lack of understanding. Indeed, anyone pointing out that the story was odd could be silenced by condemnation and ostracism. “Just you dare to give the obvious explanation” the lessons seemed to threaten. It reminded me of another topic: the faux innocent demand to explain why different people have different successes in life, but asked in a way which strongly suggests that it would be improper to suggest it is because they differ in ability and character.
One feature of religious and political conviction is to set tests of belief as selection devices, the odder the better. Improbable creation myths, promises about the facilities available in the after-life, and miracles of one sort or another. The psychological account is that when prophesy fails the doubters leave and the believers are fired up with renewed conviction, if only to assuage lurking doubts, and in order to resolve their internal contradictions they go out to proselytize. If they manage to hook another believer into their church their own doubts are temporarily assuaged. Does anyone believe in cognitive dissonance anymore? I always found Festinger’s theories about self-justification very useful, but am ready to be told that they no longer replicate. Is nothing sacred?
Without the previous year’s influx of unknown parents beaming at their children as they stumbled through the readings, the sole local girl reader mastered the text with aplomb. As usual, the oldest readers did best, the language of their own parents shining through their renditions. “The Messi-ahh”, the male reader enunciated, in received pronunciation, and all was well, as the waters cover the sea. The Vicar, sensing that this fair-weather congregation had come for a sing-song and not a sermon was sparing with her religiosity, but asked us to pray for our Bishops, which she did on a first name basis only, so I cannot tell you who they are, and where each stands on contentious ecumenical matters. They sounded as if they were men, but of unknown provenance.
In contrast, on the wall by the entrance the surnames were painted on a commemorative wooden scroll. A mere century ago the young men of the village went off to the first of the world wars, and many of the families still survive in the locality today: Alford, Bailey, Baker, Brain, Butt, Clarke, Cox, Edwards, Feltham, Gray, Gurd, Jay, Jenkins, Kerley, Lever, Macey, Moxham, Mounty, Munday, Parsons, Pike, Randell, Rixon, Shepherd, Stainer, Tucker. 9 died out of the 44 who signed up, a death rate of 20%. The overall death rate for British troops was 10% so they either bravely volunteered for front line operations or just had very bad luck.
Incidentally, perhaps one should not get too wrapped up in history. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols dates back to only 1918, when it was hoped it would bring in a more imaginative approach to worship. In terms of English Christianity, it is a recent innovation.
At the end the Vicar paused, beamed at us, and prepared to give us our Christmas blessing, at which point the organist launched into the cheerful tunes of dismissal. I commiserated with her over a drink later. “I was only going to say Merry Christmas” she lamented. I assured her that her intentions had been sensed by the congregation, but that our services moved in a mysterious way.
In terms of demographics, the congregation of about 45 souls had the one young girl who read the lesson, her 19 year old brother, one 30 year old, but was otherwise skewed in the 45 to 93 years old direction, with a peak towards the latter years. There was one farming couple, one neighbour whose grandfather served in the Great War, but few of the rest had been born in the Parish. All congregants were Anglo-Saxon.
Leaving the church, a celebrant said it felt as if this was one of the last village services, and the end of an age.
In Church Going Philip Larkin worried:
A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was.
Larkin well understood that he should make sure that “nothing was going on inside” before entering any church, furtive and hatless, and removing his bicycle clips in reverence. However, he wrote his gloomy reflections in 1954, so the candle of Christianity in the British Isles has taken its time in flickering out, and illuminates still.
At the very end of the Carol Service, Hark the Herald Angels Sing was given such a lusty rendition that it must have blasted through the oak door, across the carp pond and then up the valley. The confidence of the music banished theological doubts, and for an instant on that misty Sunday the congregation was fixed in the spirit of place, and in history.