In November last year, Stuart and I paid a visit to one of our old haunts. The church of St Nicholas at Great Kimble, with its enigmatic Lady chapel by Ninian Comper, had played a pivotal role in our adventures and we had both been ‘prodded’ to return there. We had arrived to find the place in disarray with work about to start on remodelling the interior of the twelfth century church.
We took one look inside, horrified at the devastation and the loud pop music that disturbed the ancient peace and fled. We were reduced to going back over old pictures from previous visits and noticing just how much we had missed back then, as well as how much we had learned in the intervening years. We also realised how significant some of the details were… a fact we had overlooked originally.
A few weeks ago, when he was down in the south again, we were both prompted to go back and see how the work was progressing. We were lucky… the church had not officially re-opened, but some of the parishioners were there, preparing the church for the Easter service, the first in many months. We asked if they would mind if we came in, and while they seemed eager to proudly show us the new interior, we entered with some trepidation, having seen these modernisations before and knowing that they can be done sympathetically…or not.
The first thing that strikes you is the light. New fittings have been installed that illuminate every quiet corner with efficient brightness. The dark wooden pews, which were far from original, have been replaced with light wood that matches the new floor, replacing the old tiles. Discrete heating has been installed… but the kitchen in the nave had not yet been created, for which I was thankful. That’s where the mixed feelings really come in.
This eight hundred year old church has seen much remodelling over the centuries, including the inevitable Victorian ‘improvements’ that give so many of our old churches their accustomed character. Their penchant for dark, polished oak and mahogany gives a strange sense of silent intimacy to these old buildings, yet, it has to be admitted that the ancient interiors are seldom practical for modern needs.
The upkeep of these churches costs an extortionate amount and, with dwindling congregations, it is a constant struggle to maintain them. Many of the churches are still the focal point of the village and often, the only large space available for use. At Great Kimble, for example, the village school has no hall in which the children can congregate to share in activities. The remodelling of the church will given them that space, as well as providing a communal space for the village and surrounding area.
I understand all that and I am always torn between being glad that the church and its history is being preserved and kept alive, serving the community and being part of the life of the village… and the loss of the historic interior, its serene beauty and with it, much of its symbolism. The font, for example, is still within the church. It is as old as the church and quite spectacular, still bearing the traces of ancient paint. It has been used to baptise the local population for the last eight hundred years and that sense of continuity adds something indefinable to the atmosphere and sense of place.
It is one of the few fonts we have seen that still stood in the centre of the nave… most have been moved to the side of the church over the centuries, thus opening the aisle. The original point of entry to a church was always through the West Door, so that you entered facing the altar in the east. Symbolically, this was significant…and between the worshipper and the altar stood the baptismal font, signifying the dedication and purification that was required by any who sought to reach the holy of holies.
These days, most churches have the later addition of a porch in the south through which the congregation enters and, usually, the font is close to this door. The font at Great Kimble has been moved to a more practical location, out of the way, near neither door, thus losing much of its presence and all of its symbolic significance. It will be next to the new kitchen, when it is built…and somehow, that strikes a sour note with me.
But no faith, no religion, is about its buildings, after all, though they may reflect both its history and its mission, as well as that of the community it serves. The job of any faith is to serve the life and the soul of a community, and guide its adherents towards a better future, in this life and the next. Over the millennia, mankind has seen countless religions come into being, rise to prominence and die, leaving only echoes in the halls of history. Perhaps they fade when the buildings and other expressions of the outer form of faith become more important than its essence and inner spirit.
The new lighting is too harsh for my taste, but it does allow details hidden in the shadows for centuries to be clearly seen and appreciated. It may not be conducive to quiet contemplation, but it will be perfect for community activities. As a lover of history, I do not like these improvements… and will like them even less with a microwave in the nave. But as a lover of life, I can see how much the changes mean to the parishioners and how useful they will be for the life of the village and its children. I hold opposing views within myself, but, as each can understand and accept the other, that is okay… and perhaps a lesson in itself.