North-easterly: Sunday best…

We were right about the church; St Mary’s, Sledmere, was well worth a look, though not for our usual reasons. We normally visit the older places of worship by choice, seeking within their hallowed walls the stories and symbolism that helps us to understand an area, its people and history and, if we are lucky, the mysteries of the spiritual journey shared by every living soul. It matters little whether or not we share the beliefs and faith of the people who worship there… we share the journey, even if our paths differ.

The path to the church is bordered by yews through which the squirrels run. The trees look ancient, but are unlisted as such and are therefore unlikely to be more than a few hundred years old at the most. They hide the church from view until you are almost upon it and then the impression is rather strange.

At first glance the building seems relatively simple, although the height of the tower makes an immediate impression as you emerge from the shadows beneath the trees. The clean, sharp lines of the stones proclaim it to be a ‘new’ church… and  yet, in the best tradition of Gothic church-building, it is covered in grotesques, gargoyles and carvings, giving the lie to any notion of simplicity.

Not only are there any number of people and vaguely recognisable animals, there are flowers, foliate beings, heraldic and symbolic designs scattered amongst creatures that can only be the product of a fevered imagination. I spent a fair while photographing many of them, but it would have taken hours to get them all!

If we had, by some chance, failed to notice these carvings, the porch would have given a clue as to what we might find inside. Ornately carved niches above the door hold statues, with the face of the central depiction of the Virgin looking rather strange and almost childlike in its execution. The small blocks of carving above the statues were far more interesting, each one containing a Christian symbol replete with meaning, though it took me a while to realise that the boar’s head on the right was actually a dove…

The ornately carved door stood open beneath a richly carved ceiling and we entered a building that stands as a testament to the Victorian passion for Gothic architecture.

The original church here was built eight hundred years ago, though only fragments of the tower now remain. In the eighteenth century, the old church was replaced by a new one, built by Richard Sykes, but this was, in its turn, demolished and replaced by the current building in the late nineteenth century.

Sir Tatton Sykes was an inveterate church builder and there are many examples of his passion in this part of Yorkshire. Sledmere, though, is the largest of the churches he built and one of the last. It stand in the grounds of his home at Sledmere House, which perhaps explains its magnificence. After seeing the ‘Eleanor Cross’ in the village, it was no surprise to learn that the church too had been designed by the architect Temple Moore, who had learned his trade with Sir George Gilbert Scott, the man responsible for giving a Gothic Revival facelift to so many English churches.

Like the exterior, the interior is deceptively ornate, beautifully proportioned and wholly elegant. It is not the type of parish church we are used to visiting and, I have to say, that on a personal level, and in spite of its undoubted splendour, fabulous windows and fittings, it felt more like a mausoleum than a place where faith brings joy.

There was none of the higgledy-piggledy evolution we see in churches that have adapted and grown into their communities. The only preservation of the past is a handful of memorials to the Sykes family. If I had to try to describe the ‘feel’ of the place, I would think back to childhood and say it is the difference between wearing the clothes in which you are comfortable and in which you are free to play, and being forced to wear your starched Sunday best with the implicit command not to get them creased or dirty.

In a word, I would apply an epithet that has gained its own meaning on our travels. I would call it ‘corporate’. And whenever I think that about a church, I know that I am being completely unfair. The building is just a building. It is not in the stones of any sacred site, ancient or modern, that its true beauty may be found.

The people who worship here may be part of a tight-knit community. The clerics who work here may be tireless in their support of their congregation. The faith of all, when they come together in this place, may be a thing of strength and beauty. But, to an outsider, it seems built for show, not community.

The chancel is kept locked too… and that never sits well with me, though thankfully, we see it very seldom and outside of the cities, the majority of rural churches still stand open to all comers. There is, appallingly, a case for locking the churches, in whole or in part. We often find the family chapels gated, and there is an undoubted need for protecting monuments and art from grubby or acquisitive fingers and the depredations of disrespect. But to bar the altar, keeping the hoi polloi at bay by using iron bars to say, ‘this far and no farther’, smacks of a spiritual elitism and runs contrary to the teachings of the Man who consorted with the lowliest in society and who is reported as saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

In spiritual terms, and regardless of what faith, if any, that we follow, we are all ‘little children’, with much to learn of life and the essence of humanity. As a species, we are relatively young… little more than spoiled and fractious teenagers. Given time, we may grow enough to realise that what we choose to call divinity can be felt anywhere, without name, rite or permission, and that we can see It reflecting back at us from every leaf and star, and in every eye we meet. But for many, that first touch is felt in a place hallowed by time and the prayers of those who have gone before. An altar should be open to all who are drawn to approach.

St Mary’s was to be our last stop on this trip. The long road home still lay ahead, the sites we would have liked to visit on the way would have to wait for another opportunity. We had shared a great weekend with friends, the weather had, for the most part, been very kind and we had touched the heartbeat of some amazing places. And, if I came back another year older than when I left, what better way could there be to start the next phase of the adventure?

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About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
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10 Responses to North-easterly: Sunday best…

  1. buffalopound says:

    Excellent read, Sue. Thanks.

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  2. Mary Smith says:

    More and more of our churches are kept locked now, Sue. Often the key is held by someone living in the vicinity with a notice on the church saying where to collect the key – the church where the wonderful Ruthwell Cross is one example. Some, like St Michael’s in Dumfries, have volunteers who keep it open – but when they aren’t about, it’s locked.

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  3. It certainly is a beautiful and ornate church, Sue. I love the gargoyles and carvings. From your photos, I don’t get that feeling of “corporate” or “elitism” but I understand the feeling, especially when places are locked against us – the implication that we don’t belong or can’t be trusted without someone there to keep an eye on us.

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    • Sue Vincent says:

      I won’t deny its beauty, and I too love the figures and would have liked more time to study them. I think, apart from the locked chancel, it is the tidiness that got to me. No sign of the community using the church, no feeling of warmth or welcome.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I want to comment on a few things I thought of during this wonderful writing about this particular church. First, I noted that the figures carved above the door – the one on the right, bears the cross up-side down. Do you know what that might signify?
    Secondly, when you wrote about part of the church being locked, I felt rather the same way. But I suppose these days (and I honestly don’t know how such things are in England) there is so much vandalism in churches (here in the U.S. for sure) and hate crimes, they have to keep them locked. But I felt clearly the same way.
    Our churches here in the U.S. are very unwelcoming in the end result if you get right down to it. My significant other, Richard, and his way back when lady, were told not to come back to a church here in this area because he is a mixed race, and also because they were not married. Wow! This speaks of the times of the witch trials, etc., and hardly anything I could ever relate to as Christianity. In our area, I would say there is so much hypocrisy that I could not think of ever being a Christian, at least not in this part of the world.
    I like you, believe that we should be welcome to visit any church any time, and no one should be excluded ever. And I also believe that every person cannot be expected to believe the same things in the same ways, and so there should be tolerance for differing thoughts on the topic. As a child I was told not to say I loved Jesus in church because to the pastor it sounded like I loved him in a physical way, and that was not right. And I was kicked out of a Bible Summer School because I wanted to color Joseph and Mary the way I perceived them. I wanted Joseph’s hair to be red, and the teacher told me that it had to be brown because that was the color of his hair. How could she possibly know that? I sat and waited for her to go to answer a phone call in another room, and then colored it orange and also I taught the other children how to cut off their eyebrows when I did it, so of course I got kicked out, and that was a true miracle!!! I still thank the Gods that be for that favor!!!

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    • Sue Vincent says:

      The upside cross is the Cross of St Peter. In a story recorded very early in Christian history, it is told how when Simon Peter was to be crucified, he begged to be allowed to be paced upside down on the cross, as he was unworthy to die as Jesus had died. This symbol, as well as the Keys of Heaven, has been associated with him ever since.

      As to the risk of vandalism and theft, it is a sad fact of our lives. That alone says a great deal about how a society loses awareness of the sacred. Even if one doesn’t follow a particular religion, it can still be respected as the Light behind all faith is the same.

      I have never approved of exclusion or indoctrination. Teach the children about faith and respect, but don’t force conformity. Religion imposes a set of teachings, faith opens the heart to find its own.

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  5. In my next professional incarnation, I want to be a gargoyle designer.

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