I have recently discovered the treasure trove that is the BBC archives on iPlayer. Of particular interest recently was A Passion for Churches, produced, written and presented by Sir John Betjeman in 1974. It is a personal and poetic tribute by the former Poet Laureate as he shared his lifetime love of East Anglian churches.
Acclaimed at the time, the programme gives a fascinating glimpse into a past age of teas on the rectory lawn, elderly ladies cycling to church, bells ringing across the meadow, choirboys singing in ruffs and clergy confidently wearing brown corduroy or cassock, while speaking in painfully outdated voices.
The whole thing is beautifully interspersed with Betjeman’s singular prose, portraying a world in which religion had an assured (if understated) place in the order of the mainly rural communities he visited. The production concludes with Betjeman’s words, “and though for church we may not seem to care, / It’s deeply part of us. Thank God it’s there.”
This wonderful slice of nostalgia not only explores Anglican churches, but it also gives an insight into how life, and the place of Christianity, was so different a relatively short time ago. I am sure that if Catholic parishes had been featured, the gulf between 1974 and now would have been equally evident.
The programme made me think of my own small rural parish and how its history has been described to me by some of the older parishioners. It is easy to lament what has been lost and become nostalgic for an age that we never knew (I wasn’t even alive in 1974). It is much more constructive to acknowledge the shift that has taken place, accept the reality that for many people faith no longer impinges on their lives, and reflect on what it means to go forward in the pursuit of the Gospel.
In a much more secular society it would be easy for churches to retreat, reinforcing the narrative of irrelevance and decline that the world seems to wish to project. But we could do far more to assert the place of Christ and the Church in our nation.
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