Books

Faith healing: How churches offer reassurance in tough times

A post-lockdown journey around the churches of Britain reaffirmed Peter Ross's faith in humanity

Steeple Chasing: Around Britain By Church by Peter Ross is out now (Headline, £22). Illustration: Matthew Green

On a cold London day, in that strange interval between the Queen’s funeral and King’s coronation, I attended Westminster Abbey for evensong. Seated behind the choristers in their white surplices and stiff ruffs, I looked up from the order of service to the choir stalls opposite. There sat an old man with silver hair worn longish, Beatle-ish, with a bright orange scarf draped, rather like a stole, around his shoulders. Oh, I thought, is that Tom Courtenay?

It was. The actor was there to attend a wreath-laying at the memorial to Philip Larkin and to read a poem, An Arundel Tomb: ‘What will survive of us is love.’

This was a happy chance. I had been thinking a lot about Larkin. I had come to realise that his work had somehow got inside mine. Two poems in particular seemed to be at the heart of a book I had written, Steeple Chasing: Around Britain By Church.

The first is Church Going, perhaps Larkin’s best-known poem, in which he – drawn into the building despite his scepticism – finds it “a serious house on serious earth”, a place made serious by the long years during which people came to marry, baptise and bury those they loved.

This is my feeling about old churches: that the stones have absorbed the love and grief, sorrow and joy of many generations, so that what we sense when we enter, especially if alone, is not just the smell of dust and damp but the accumulated ache of centuries of human experience.

I felt this again and again as I travelled the country, this connection between present and past. In the village of North Grimston, Yorkshire, a little girl called Clemmie was baptised in a font that had been carved in the early years of the Norman conquest. The people who had made this object were in many ways very different from us – they spoke a different language for a start – and yet they would have experienced the same emotions, the same heart-clutching hope and pride, when their children were baptised as Clemmie’s mum and dad felt as they lifted her to the font and settled her by stroking her hair.

In Herefordshire, where I was inspecting another wonderful font, the churchwarden pointed to wooden wallboards listing the names of rectors through the centuries. She drew my attention to the plague years – 1349 and 1603 – and the times of war, civil and global.

The church had stood through all of that, she said, and here we were in our own time of sickness and strife, and it was still standing. What an old church offers, I think, is a tremendous sense of continuity and resilience. More than that: solidarity and reassurance, something neighbourly. It is an arm around the shoulder, a word in the ear: everything is going to be alright. You don’t need religious belief to
feel that.

This brings me to the second Larkin poem. Myxomatosis describes a rabbit suffering from that awful disease, which it experiences as being caught in an invisible trap. “You may have thought that things would come right again,” Larkin wrote, “if you could only keep quite still and wait.”

I have felt, in recent years, rather like that rabbit. I bet many of you have, too. The sensation of helplessness, of being a small creature at the mercy of forces beyond my control – political, economic and especially environmental – is what it feels like to live now. We can thrash around, we can keep still and wait, but it makes no odds.

I wrote Steeple Chasing because I wanted to feel something else. I wanted to delve into the deep past, to be buttressed and braced by history. A close examination of churches and the customs associated with them offered, it seemed, a chance to reconnect with who were, rediscover who we are, and reconsider who we might yet be. The world, I thought, would look better through stained-glass eyes.

And so it proved. Steeple Chasing describes a journey around Britain made between midwinter 2020 and midsummer 2022, a journey from darkness to light both literal and metaphorical. Making that journey, and then trying to get it down on the page, brought me a feeling of solace. Not because of the promise of a better world to come – why wait for that? – but because of the people I encountered along the way. Their kindness and humour, their interest in and affection for the churches of their villages and town, their strength and capacity for love – all of it helped me to feel a little more faith in humanity than I had for some time.

I hope, reading it, you will feel the same: free of the snare, breathing blent air, and inspired to chase a few steeples of your own.

Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church by Peter Ross is out now (Headline, £22). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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