Feral macaws screeched over the church in the little Dales town of Kirkby Stephen. My companion had found a way into the church, even if the christening that was going on inside hadn’t yet found its way out. It was to be a raid then… we haven’t done a raid for a while. We have been invited in to look around while the vicar rehearsed the groom awaiting his bride. I have quietly inspected a side chapel during a funeral, but this would be our first christening.
The side door led into a quiet chapel at the east end of the church, where a fourteenth century knight lay carved in stone and light streamed in through the windows above the simple altar.
Across the church, a Tudor knight and his wives also sleeps behind the more modern organ. It was immediately apparent that this was an oddly eclectic church somehow, though you couldn’t quite put your finger on ‘why’. It is known as St Stephen’s, being in Kirkby Stephen… and a kirk being a church… but there is no documentation of an official nominal.
Yet there has been a church here since the days of the Saxons. The old church was demolished to make way for a Norman one a thousand years ago, but the present church is far more modern, being built in AD 1240, with 19th century renovations and ‘improvements’.
Although this is the Anglican Parish Church, it has also been the home of the Roman Catholic congregation for the past twenty-five years. They listen to the sermon preached from a marble pulpit provided by the Freemasons and carved with Masonic symbols. The divisions of the Church are erased as the two congregations come together to share a place of worship dedicated to the same God in a small, Cumbrian town.
It is far from the first church we have come across to share their place of worship with other denominations, particularly in the north. While it is probably initially a question of economics in these small town with dwindling congregations, I always see this as a sign of hope and healing. It may not seem much, but wars have been fought over these divided interpretations of a single faith.
Medieval paintings still adorn the arches and fragments of Scripture linger from the days of the Reformation when the glorious old murals were painted over and lost. We gradually began to work our way down the nave, discretely. The christening was over, yet the guests and clergy still lingered. We don’t wish to intrude. The font, as is usual, is in the west end of the nave… but so far, we have seen no sign of the stone we had come to see.
We take a little time to contemplate the stained glass, of which there are some fine examples both Victorian and more modern. The party around the font was finally beginning to break up as I spotted something less colourful but far more interesting.
A jumble of stone against the wall turned out to be an ancient stone coffin. And from here I could see more fragments of masonry, in cases and on shelves, creating a small museum at the west end of the aisle. I sidled over quietly and grinned at my companion.
Two beautiful, 12thC carved capitals took pride of place, but it was the one beside them that had caught my attention. Not the Loki stone, but something equally intriguing. Two ox-bodied beasts with strange feet and heads either attacking or guarding a torso-less humanoid figure. It reminded me of the corbels at Kilpeck… a trip that seems like years ago, yet was only in summer. Time seems to have a mind of its own lately.
In the cabinets there were other stones… though, frustratingly, there was no sign of the one we wanted. A lovely old encircled cross-head harked back to the Anglo-Danish era, a thousand years ago.
A hogback gravestone reminded us of our trip through the north to Scotland last winter… and a strange stone carved with sinuous, horse-like beasts could not help but recall Uffington, where our adventures had first begun.
The vicar came over, divesting herself of her vestments, to chat about the stones. Beaming and radiating joy, she spoke of how wonderful it was to have them, reminders that this spot had been a place of Christian worship for well over a thousand years. I had to wonder what had stood here before the ‘new’ religion had taken hold in these parts… I had finally spotted the stone, right in front of the main door where, had we entered that way, we could not have failed to see it. And it certainly isn’t a Christian god that greets you.
The Viking stone, around three feet tall, is well over a thousand years old, dating back to sometime in the 900s. It is believed to be a depiction of the shape-shifting Norse god, Loki, who was, for his actions, bound beneath the dripping venom of a snake. Here he is shown horned and bound with the entrails of his wolf-son. In myth, he is an ambivalent figure, assisting or opposing the gods… an Enabler, perhaps, akin to the Egyptian Set… that force of necessary evil that allows us to choose and to act. A catalyst of free will, allowing us to shape our own future. From the pagan god at the door to the Masonic pulpit and shared altar… there is something about this little church that shines a small, flickering light of peaceful acceptance across the ages from past to present…to perhaps shed a little light on the future of the world we can create.
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