What's this blog about?

Place matters to us. We all have to be somewhere, and often have strong feelings about where "home" is.
During my Sabbatical (properly called “Extended Ministerial Development Leave”), I explored the ways in which communities have celebrated and engaged with the places where they are through the stories they have told of local saints, or the saints they have “localised” by dedicating their churches to them.
This blog is a rather haphazard and sketchy attempt to indicate some of the trains of thought which left the "station" during this time. I have written it for my own benefit, but if you want to hop on for the ride, you are very welcome!

The reflections on the home page , are not in any sense a formal "essay", but they are designed to be read sequentially, though it probably doesn't matter much if you don't.
If you'd rather just hear about my travels, and see some pictures, click on the tabs below to be taken to the pages about them.

Background image: "The forerunners of Christ with Saints and Angels" probably by Fra Angelico. National Gallery . Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.

Monday, 30 September 2019

A Sense of Place

“The Earth is the Lord’s and everything that is in it”, says the Psalmist (24.1)
The patriarch Jacob, on the run from his family, lying down to sleep in what seems like the middle of nowhere to him, far from his own local territory, has a vision of angels ascending and descending between earth and heaven, and on waking cries out “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28.16)

My starting point for the exploration of the sanctity of place start with the simple observation that the world is full of places; it is made up of locations. Everything that is, is somewhere. It cannot be otherwise. This is an inevitable consequence of materiality, of being made of stuff in a world made of stuff.

Seal village, taken from the tower of Seal Church.
Place is, of course, literally ubiquitous; it is everywhere, but perhaps because of that, we are often scarcely aware of it. We may value special places, a beautiful beach, a glorious view of the hills or a significant building which has personal associations for us, but we often seem to take place as a concept for granted. Clifford Geertz, quoted in John Inge’s  book, The Christian Theology of Place says that it is precisely because of its ubiquity that we do not notice place. “Whoever discovered water, we can be sure it wasn’t a fish”. Since we cannot exist outside of place, it often becomes invisible to us.

Inge suggests that the relative importance of “space” and “place” has varied across time, and has subtly but significantly affected the way people behave. Place is specific – things are in a place and not, therefore, in another place – while space is abstract, implying simply an area of absence or emptiness which could be anywhere. Place is material, while space is intangible. Place is limited, while space is potentially limitless. He suggests that place was the more important concept to Medieval Christians while Post-Reformation and Enlightenment Christian thinkers preferred to focus on space. Words and ideas – abstract things which could be said or thought without regard to their location - replaced the tangible, visible elements of Christian worship, the pictures, statues, candles, beads and relics of medieval Catholicism. The rich, public, outward materiality and sensuality of the medieval spiritual tradition, gave way to the prioritization of the interior and the private, the thoughts and prayers of the individual.

This wasn’t something which happened all at once at the Reformation, or that ever happened completely.  The tension between inner and outer, material and spiritual, public ritual and private intention, has always been a feature of religious discussion but the balance shifts periodically. Since the Reformation, in Protestant majority areas at least, Inge’s contention, which seems to me to have merit, is that there has tended to be a suspicion of materiality in worship.

That does not mean, however, that material things are not important to worship, of any and every tradition, (see below for the tradition of the Salvation Army "Mercy Seat")  but it does mean that they have tended to be looked down on. Whether it is Rosary beads or Promise Boxes, materiality is often regarded rather snobbishly as something for those who don’t have the intellectual capacity or appetite for wordy theology. Things are for simple people; words and ideas for those who are more intellectual. Inge suggests that, in the wider world, this disdain for place has been a contributing factor in the homogenization of our public spaces. Every shopping mall looks and feels essentially the same. While these might seem to be temples to materialism, it is a generalised materialism. It doesn’t matter where you buy your big Mac, so long as you buy it! Current laments about the death of the High Street, with its individually owned small, local shops, displaced by the multi-national, and essentially placeless, big businesses, are often really laments for the sense of community, which those small shops had symbolised ;  these people in this place, giving it a distinctive and comforting sense of “hereness” to those who inhabited it, and an interesting sense of “thereness” to those who visited. 

Place in the Bible

The Bible bears witness to a longstanding tension between materiality and spirituality. Isaiah denounced sacrifices and other outward rituals of faith, if they were not accompanied by a personal, inner sense of commitment to God. (Isaiah 58) Jesus commended a publican who quietly, sincerely prayed his own prayer of confession, over the Pharisee who asserted that he had done everything required of him, in an outward sense. (Luke 18.9-14) Yet it is clear in the Bible that habit-forming ritual practices are also praised and required, whether that is fastening mezuzim on the doorpost, (small boxes containing the words of the Shema )  or setting up altars, or sharing a Passover meal.

Judaism is a profoundly material faith, concerned with what people eat and wear, how they sow, grow and harvest their food, how they treat their bodies, in sickness and in health; circumcision is commanded, tattooing and cutting the forelocks forbidden, for example, and ritual bathing is a vital prelude to worship. It is not surprising that the Creation stories of Genesis emphasise that God made the world of material stuff, and declared it to be good (Genesis 1)

For Christians too, matter matters. In Jesus, the Word became flesh  and dwelt among us(John 1), despite our continual tendency to try to turn him back into words again. Neither Jewish nor Christian faith can be disembodied, a matter solely of thought or ideas.

Place is an inescapable feature of materiality, since everything has to be somewhere, and is limited to the one particular spot it is in. It is not surprising, therefore, that place is of major importance in the Bible. Abraham was led to a new land, Moses led back to a Promised Land, the prophets warned of the loss of land to invading armies, or promised a return to it from exile in Babylon.
The much fought over city of Jerusalem, with the golden Dome of the Rock
on the site of Herod's Temple.  

The New Testament, written around or shortly after the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the expulsion of the Jewish people from Jerusalem, wrestles with the idea of place in a different way, asserting that the kingdom of God now exists not in geographical land, but in the person of Jesus, and in the lives of those who follow him. Place is not abolished, but rather transformed.  The Old Jerusalem which is about to be, or already has been destroyed, is contrasted with the new Jerusalem, which will “come down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21.1) ; it is not contrasted with no Jerusalem at all. There will be “a new heaven and a new earth” not no heaven and no earth. Jesus himself is raised not as an incorporeal spirit, but as a very definite flesh and blood body, and ascends to heaven still bearing the scars of his crucifixion. There was also a profound value put on the care of the neighbour – the word derives from the Old English word “bur”, which means a dwelling (“bower” comes from the same root) ; the neighbour is the one who dwells “nigh” to us, the one who is where we are. In Greek, the same sense is conveyed by the word Jesus uses in his famous story about neighbourliness, the Good Samaritan. The Greek word, plesion, which he uses is actually an adverb meaning “near by”. The neighbour is the “nearby one”, the one who happens to be here where I am, whether I feel any particular affection or kinship with them or not.

While there is certainly a sense in which Christianity sought to transcend boundaries and borders, asserting that there was “no longer Jew or Greek” (Galatians 3.28), perhaps in part a response to their exclusion from the sacred “here” of Jerusalem, the new communities they founded were anything but placeless, giving high priority to gathering together, creating a sacred place by their presence in it, engaging in the physical rituals of baptism and Eucharist. The sanctification of “here” might have taken a different form to that of Judaism, but it was no less important.

Place: Saints and Shrines

The major focus in my sabbatical reflections was the way in which this sense of the sanctity of place, the “here” in which God might be encountered, has been and still is reinforced by the way communities tell the stories of saints to whom they have a particular devotion, especially to their local saints, or to saints which have been “localised”, for example, in the Roman Catholic tendency to dedicate churches to “Our Lady of X or Y” rather than just to St Mary.

Even before the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the religion of the Empire, Christians had begun to regard certain places as particularly holy, especially the places where the martyrs had been buried. There is some debate about the reasons why Christians sometimes worshipped in catacombs, with some suggesting that it was for the sake of secrecy in times of persecution, but it seems also to have been because these were the places where the leaders whom they revered had been buried. Constantine’s championing of Christian faith, however, led to an explosion of interest in pilgrimage to sacred sites. His mother, St Helena, famously went to Jerusalem in search of the locations of the significant places in the story of Jesus death and resurrection and “discovered” the site of the “true cross” deep beneath what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. According to early  legend, local Christians claimed to have had passed down to them the location of the site of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. They may indeed have done so; local memories are often powerful and deep, especially in cultures which value the oral transmission of knowledge. Commanding the spot they indicated to be dug up, she found three crosses, and determined which one Jesus had been crucified on by holding each close to a woman who was dying. Two of them had no effect, but the third caused her to recover. The cross was displayed. Crowds flocked to it. Jerusalem had been put firmly on the map again. In fact it became such a powerful draw for the faithful that it had to be guarded by deacons so that pilgrims did not bite chunks out of it under the guise of kissing it. Eventually, apparently because of this, it was broken up and fragments circulated around the Christian world, rather more fragments, in the end, than seems entirely likely. Martin Luther is said to have commented that that there were so many fragments of it in the world that “it would be possible to build an entire house if we would have it all.”
The Chapel of the "Invention of the Holy Cross
 in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The slab on the right marks the spot where
the "true cross" was found. 

Whether the relics which Christians venerated, and still venerate, are genuine or not, however, for those who venerate them, they serve as tangible reminders of the possibility that God might be at work in the real places in which they live or which they visit, not just in some distant heaven or in a world of incorporeal ideas. This has not just been true of major sites  of Christian pilgrimage like Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostella, or Canterbury,  but also, and perhaps particularly powerfully, of the local shrines which commemorate saints whose lives and stories were only really treasured and known by those who lived there, the saints whose lives, and after-lives as miracle workers and friends in heavenly places, reminded people that God could be at work in their own backyards, in the places they lived and worked, places which might otherwise have seemed entirely ordinary.

The Statue of St Efisio, in its gilded ox cart at the end of the procession.
Local saints, their shrines and festivals, are still very much alive and well in many parts of the world. During a trip to Cagliari, Sardinia, in early May this year, my husband and I witnessed the immense pride the people of Sardinia took in the festival of their local saint, Efisio, an early fourth century Roman soldier martyred there, whose intercession was believed to have averted the plague in the 1660s. The statue of Efisio was borne in a splendidly decorated ox-cart through the streets of the city, along rose-petal strewn streets, and then out to the place of his execution, some 30 km away. The statue was preceded by more ox-carts, thousands of local people from towns and villages across Sardinia, all singing the Rosary in Sardu, hundreds of horsemen and women, and a collection of the great and good of Sardinia. There was, of course, an element of people simply enjoying a good procession and the celebration that went with it, but the excitement and sheer affection which greeted the eventual appearance of the statue of the saint (not even the relics, which are in Pisa) spoke unmistakably of a sense, however unformed and unexplained, that something holy was happening, and had happened, in this place, through the life of this man. We discovered similar attachments in many other places in Sardinia and Sicily. In one hill town in Sicily, a church guide showed us the statue of St Sebastian, and with great pride told us that it took 80 men to carry it, on its float, through the streets. The fact that there were 80 men young enough and strong enough, who wanted – indeed considered it a privilege – to do this, is testimony to the draw of these rituals; young men are a very under-represented group in most church congregations, so perhaps there is something in this to be pondered!

When we visited Sardinia and Sicily in early May, we found that everywhere we turned, churches were either preparing to take “their” saint out on procession, or had just done so, so much so that we dubbed it the “taking-your-saint-for-a-walk” season. It was, of course, a good time of year for such processions – reliably dry and sunny, but not yet unbearably hot – but further research into Processional customs hinted at another possible reason for there being so many processions at this time of year.

Rogationtide processions

“The late ancient world bustled with processions”[i] wrote Nathan J. Ristuccia, in “Christianization and Commonwealth in Early Medieval Europe”; triumphs for returning military leaders, captured enemies paraded through the streets to be humiliated and religious rites often occupied the streets. Early Christians often regarded these pagan events with horror, even going so far as to reject “the devil and all his processions” in early baptismal liturgies, but when Constantine adopted Christianity, they soon began also to find reasons of their own to process. Ristuccia comments that:

“Despite this earlier Christian discomfort,  imperial processions flourished during Late Antiquity. After Constantine’s’ conversion they acquired Christian elements. Moreover, alongside imperial ceremonies like the adventus,  a bevy of ecclesiastical processions developed. Penitential processions were common, but churches also marched for holidays like Candlemas and on certain saint’s days. Processions are a frequent organising devide in Early Christian art; the mosaics of the sixth century basilica  of Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, for example, depict two lines of saints progressing down the nave and converging on the altar.”


Processions became especially common in times of trouble, when plague struck or enemies threatened a city. The traditional story of the origin of Rogationtide, first told by Sidonius Apollinarius (430-489), has its roots in such practices, though Ristuccia argues strongly that this is most likely to be a later fiction. According to tradition, the French town of Vienne had been struck by earthquakes and other disasters around the year 472, when its Bishop, Mamertus, called on its population to observe a series of penitential processions in the days leading up to Ascension Day, to ask God for his forgiveness and protection. Ristuccia questions the historicity of this story, and the later claims that Rogation processions were a Christianization of a pagan procession called the Robigalia, claiming that little evidence for such a procession exists. However they originated, though, Rogation processions became a major feature of the pre-Reformation European Church, and were one of the few elements of popular Catholic practice which survived the Reformation and continued to be practiced, albeit in a rather different form.
The procession of St Gregory,
Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry.
made by the Limbourg brothers
between 1411 and 1416.

Early medieval Rogation processions were explicitly penitential in character, or at least were intended to be, though clergy often complained that those who took part in them often saw it as an outing and a break from work. Taking place over three days, they were supposed to be compulsory. Anyone calling themselves a Christian was supposed to take part in them, though the fact that attendance needed to be mandated rather suggests that many people probably didn’t attend. In their earliest days, at a time when the Christian Roman Empire was being overrun by pagan invaders, Rogationtide processions were also a demonstration of Christian loyalty in the face of this threat to the faith. 

Unlike the later agricultural focus of Rogationtide, they were initially more often urban processions, and rather than “beating the bounds” of a parish – the parish system was not firmly established until well into the 12th century – they took the form of processions from the “mother church” out to the various chapels, shrines or other significant features in the landscape. Relics of the saints, statues, images and so on, would be carried in the procession, establishing in the minds of those who took part, that the land around which they were carried was under the protection of the saint or saints being carried. The processions were a way in which people prayed for blessing on their land (rogare being Latin for “to pray”) but also asked God to drive any evil spirits out of it. Once parish boundaries became established this could lead to local trouble, with neighbouring parishes complaining that demons had been driven out of the next door land onto their land.


Alison N. Alstatt’s research into the Rogationtide Processions of Wilton Abbey uncovers not only the processions that would have taken place in the late Thirteenth Century, but also the music that would have been sung by the nuns and the parishioners as they marched, carrying the relics of St Edith to various churches in the area. They seem, at least in part, to have been consciously making their pilgrimage an echo on a small scale of the pilgrimages to Jerusalem which most of them would never have been able to make, designating a neighbouring hill, the Rollington, as Zion.

From Jerusalem the relics go forth, and salvation from Mount Sion.
Through them, protection will be on this city
and it will be saved by David, her servant, alleluia.

Wilston House, on the site of the old Wilton Abbey.
The hill beyond this ornamental arch is the Rollington, the "Mount Sion" of the Rogationtide processions
The text’s reference to Jerusalem takes on additional meaning when considered within the context of the Paschal liturgy at Wilton, when the abbey was symbolically transformed into the city of Jerusalem. In their exit from the "Jerusalem" of the abbey, the relics—and the nuns— prefigured the Division of the Apostles, which the abbey commemorated ten days later on the Feast of Pentecost in dramatic ritual. If the abbey was the city of Jerusalem, then their destination, the Rollington can be read as the nuns’ Mount Sion.

Rogationtide was not the only time processions happened, of course. Saints days were also celebrated with vigour, often involving dramas, like the mystery plays, telling the story of the saints lives. In some parts of England and France, these might be accompanied by puppet Giants and dragons, some of which still survive, even if their original purpose is somewhat obscured. On a visit to Salisbury museum, I encountered the Giant and Hob Nob, ancient processional figures which have been used almost continually on significant public occasions in the city. The Giant, according to his museum label, is "also sometimes known as St Christopher", and is clearly a survival of the figure which the Tailors' Guild whose patron saint was Christopher, would have carried in procession. It was common to have dragon or monster figures in these processions, symbolising Satan and it may be that Hob Nob is his descendent!

Pre-Reformation Rogation processions, honouring the local saints, were a public demonstration of the recognition of a power beyond that of the secular landowner echoed not only the pre-Christian understanding of the “genius loci”, the spirits of the place, but also the Old Testament teaching that land was the gift of God, given on what might be described as a “leasehold” arrangements to the tribes of Israel with complicated rules to ensure that it could not be permanently sold out of the family to whom it had been allocated. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25.23)

Rules spelled out how the land should be farmed, not reaping to the edges of the field or going back to glean what was missed, not sowing mixed crops etc. This land may have been the communal “property” of Israel, but they were never allowed to forget that it actually belonged to God, who could just as easily take away as give. “You shall keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and observe them, so that the land to which I bring you to settle in may not vomit you out." (Leviticus 20.22)


Post-Reformation Rogationtide processions , which became known as  “Beating the Bounds” tended to become civic processions,  however, with the aim of impressing the civic boundaries of parishes on the local population, a vital measure when the parish was made liable for supporting those in need in its “patch”. This change had begun in the later Middle Ages, but it was very convenient for the Reformers. They had found it hard to abolish Rogationtide, a popular event in local communities, but could conveniently change its emphasis, using the procession instead as a way of underlining that the land belonged to this or that civic community. In eliminating the local saints and their miracle working relics from their processions, however, they also weakened the message that their lives had borne testimony to, that God had been and could still be at work in people's own locality, and that this land was God’s land. Beating the Bounds sent the message instead that this was the land of whichever landowner or secular authority happened to control it, and sanctioned that control. 

Of course, Protestants still believed that “the earth was the Lord’s and everything in it”, but their approach to Rogationtide, at least in the popular mind, may have weakened that message. Whether that distinction was ever really noted at the time is hard to know, but it is one way in which the intrinsic sacredness of the land could potentially have become lost. Did this make it easier for people to exploit the land, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution and the environmental damage which we now see all too clearly? It is hard to prove, but it is a tantalising possibility. Desacralization is perhaps only a short step away from desecration. The twenty-first century revival of Beating the Bounds in the Rogationtide liturgies of Common Worship is a conscious attempt to reassert that fundamental truth of God’s ownership of the land, and our responsibility, therefore to care for and not exploit it. The modern liturgies now provided for these events stress the need for good stewardship, not for building boundaries that exclude others.

[i] Ristuccia p.24

Place and Sacred Architecture : The Mercy Seat

One of the primary ways in which people have affirmed the holiness of their land is through the sacred spaces they have built on that land. The word “temple” comes from the same root as “template”, from the Latin templare, to mark out. Whether it is prehistoric henges, pyramids, burial mounds or churches, people seem to have had an irresistible urge to signal that a particular place is special, a focus for spiritual power, a space in which the divine is somehow made more accessible than elsewhere. Whether one believes that there is anything intrinsically more sacred about one place over another, the structures we erect seem to become sacred with use, and there is often great unease, even among those who profess no particular faith, if they are destroyed. At the very least, they come to enshrine the history of a place. Still today people talk about the “miracle” of  St Paul’s Cathedral avoiding destruction in the Blitz, seeing it as a sign of hope, whether or not they believe that God had anything to do with it. Why so many other churches and cathedrals should not have been similarly spared is not considered, but, interestingly, the reborn Coventry Cathedrals and the symbolic use made of the ruins of the old Cathedral, has made it a focus even in its apparent desecration.

While the significance of sacred buildings to Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians might be taken for granted, we might think that Protestant churches would resist this urge to sacralise their meeting spaces. Certainly the Reformation brought with it a purge on statues, images, stained glass and other decorative elements of church buildings. The emphasis shifted from the visual to the aural, from the pictures of the saints to listening to the Word of God. Pulpits became the focus rather than altars, which were in any case downgraded to being mere tables. Distracting decoration was swept away and walls whitewashed. Pews were installed so that people could sit and listen to lengthy sermons. But even this “Stripping of the Altars” as Eamonn Duffy described it, was a statement about the significance of place. It was just that it was a different significance to that expressed in pre-Reformation Catholicism. The absence within churches, the space that had been created, was as much a statement of their holiness as the decoration had been; it was just a rather different statement. The place was still as special, but in a different way, marking out a space for worship just as certainly as Catholic churches did. Any Protestant or Anglican church leaders can testify to the “sacred” power of the church and its furnishings to those who worship in it. The pews which were once a novelty, for example, have become an essential feature that said “this place is a church” to many people and modern attempts to remove them often meet with howls of protest.

Even the Salvation Army, a denomination which eschews sacraments completely, has its items of sacred furniture. Nigel Bovey in his book, “Revisiting the Mercy Seat”, powerfully reasserts the importance of this key feature of Salvation Army halls.– Mercy Seats are benches set aside for those who feel they need to make some particular prayer, perhaps a prayer of dedication or repentance, or
to receive counselling or prayer ministry. The name is a reference to the seat which covered the Ark of the Covenant in the tabernacle and, later in the Holy of Holies in the Temple; it was the place where God’s glory was thought to dwell. A Salvation Army officer described to me how, in her childhood, they were always roped off with a red cord outside the time of the service, and the beginning of worship was marked by the removal of the rope barrier and the end by its replacement. They might bear a carved or painted message, or be left plain, but the mercy seat is not simply another bench, and many Salvationists find it disrespectful if things are put on the mercy seat which clutter it up, or if it is shunted out of its prominent place. As Bovey says:

“It’s hard to stomach the mercy seat being used as a jumble stall, a bench for the public address system, the repository for  luncheon club cutlery or a quick step up to the platform.”

Bovey describes the Mercy Seat as no having “a straight line family tree,” but rather being a “conduit with many tributaries”. He traces its history through the Scottish Presbyterian “penitent stool” and through the Puritan traditions, taken to the USA by early settlers, where John Wesley encountered its use and repatriated it to England. It was a feature of the Holiness revivalist movements of the 19th century, and William Booth is believed to have adopted it as a characteristic feature of the Salvation Army after hearing the Irish-American revivalist preacher James Caughey in Nottingham in 1846. One might also speculate whether another “tributary” might be from the penitential practices of the early church which set aside specific parts of the church which those seeking reconciliation might sit or stand as they gradually worked through their penance[i] . Variously called the Penitents’ Bench or Form, the Cuttie Stool, the Mourners’ Bench or the Anxious Bench, the traditions which used this piece of furniture would never have seen it as sacred in its own right, but, as Bovey points out,  within the Salvation Army the use of the Mercy Seat is undoubtedly sacramental; it is a means of grace for those who use it.[ii]

Is there a heart o'erbound by sorrow.
Is there a life weighed down by care?
Come to the cross, each burden bearing;
All your anxiety—leave it there.

All your anxiety, all your care,
Bring to the mercy seat, leave it there,
Never a burden He cannot bear,
Never a friend like Jesus!

No other friend so swift to help you,
No other friend so quick to hear,
No other place to leave your burden,
No other one to hear your prayer.

Come then at once; delay no longer!
Heed His entreaty kind and sweet,
You need not fear a disappointment;
You shall find peace at the mercy seat.

Edward Henry Joy, 1871-1941

[i] Martos. J. Doors to the Sacred, SCM press 1981 p.325

[ii] “When a person kneels, however often, at the mercy seat, it is sacramental, in the sense that it is an outward sign of an inner grace – an indication that ‘something’s going on’ in the person’s life.”

Bovey, Nigel. The Mercy Seat Revisited . Shield Books. Kindle Edition. Loc 267

The Hunger for Place

The significance of place is often not articulated as having anything to do with religion. Shrines spring up spontaneously when people are killed in road crashes, or at the sites of murders, as if the place had either been hallowed by the death, or possibly desecrated by it and was in need of re-hallowing. Those who deal professionally with the aftermath of incidents where there have been mass casualties often stress the problems of referring to the tragedy by the name of the place it happened. They comment that those who live in places like in Lockerbie or Aberfan, for example, often long to be able to go back to the time when no one had heard of their town or village, and that the association of it solely with tragedy makes it impossible for communities to move on from their grief.

As any incumbent who has care of a churchyard will know, families, even avowedly atheist ones,  often treat the graves of their loved ones as sacred space, and all hell can break loose if the grass isn’t mown, or is mown in the wrong way, or if their desire to mark their space happens to contravene the Churchyard Regulations (1981). The six by four foot space allocated to their loved one is holy ground, and so is the twelve by eighteen inch space allocated to the interment of cremated remains. In fact, the smaller the space the more intense the feelings about it can be. Clergy with churchyards to administer all have stories to tell about feelings running high when things go wrong with the marking of the space, of squabbles between the families of those buried in neighbouring plots, of strange offerings left on graves – the miniatures of whisky, the Christmas decorations, the birthday cards and notes. The families concerned would no doubt, if asked, say that they knew their loved ones couldn’t read the notes and cards, and couldn’t drink the whisky, but they still leave them, whatever their professed or unprofessed religious beliefs. Those who want the physical remains of their loved ones laid to rest in a churchyard or cemetery are clearly saying that place matters to them, even if the idea of the dead climbing out of their graves on the Last Day means nothing to them. It might be thought that those who prefer to scatter their loved ones’ ashes on a hillside or into the sea are rejecting this, but in fact the places chosen for that scattering are usually immensely significant, a place that was particularly loved or associated with special memories, for example. While some people may say “just put me out with the rubbish when I go”, when the moment comes, families rarely feel they want to do so.
Mozart in London by Philip Le Bas

Secular “holy places” can be places to celebrate as well as to mourn. The blue plaques which mark the home of famous historical characters are a source of pride to local communities, for example, as if the aura of that person still shone from its rooms. The artist, Philip Le Bas (my husband’s late uncle) painted a series of pictures of “blue plaque” homes with their subjects pictured inside them , capturing very well this sense that the previous occupants were in some sense still present in the bricks and mortar, however much had changed since then.

Another example of the importance to communities of marking and “owning” their famous inhabitants was seen in the aftermath of the 2012 Olympic Games, when every gold medal winner had a post box painted gold in their honour in the place they had grown up or lived in. This apparently simple way of honouring an illustrious member of the community had its pitfalls, however, as Royal Mail soon discovered. Where should the post box be if the person had moved in childhood? Who had best claim to the sporting hero in question? Who got to decide? Trouble broke out in some such cases. The Royal Mail painted a box in Restronguet Passage, Cornwall where sailor Ben Ainslie had grown up and learned to sail, but feelings ran so high in Lymington, where he was a resident, that a member of the public vandalised the paintbox there. Royal Mail were going to file a complaint, but relented when they saw how strong local feeling was, and not only relented, but painted the Lymington post box gold as well. There was no softening though, when the Winter Olympics of 2014 were held and communities expected gold post boxes for winners there too. These games although in some sense part of the same “cycle” as 2012 had taken place in Sochi, not in the UK, and so community pleas for gold boxes for their gold medal winners, like Lizzy Yarnold, fell on deaf ears. Place was everything! The afterlife of the gold post boxes has been just as complicated. Initially they were planned to be temporary, but Royal Mail were so deluged with complaints about this that they promised they would remain gold in perpetuity. Some of the boxes have suffered vandalism, however. Andy Murray’s box soon had paint chipped off it by souvenir hunters, an echo of the ancient fate of relics like the True Cross, which was eventually cut up into splinters and distributed around the world, because pilgrims had the deplorable tendency to bit chunks out of it when it was presented to them to kiss.

Many people enjoy tracing their family history, and that often prompts a desire to visit the place where their ancestors lived. In my own case, that has meant trips to obscure villages in Devon, Yorkshire, Faversham and a metaphorical hat tip every time I go through Borough Green and Wrotham Station, where a great-great-grandfather was Station Master, probably the first, during the 1870s and 1880s until, according to a family rumour, a scandal involving herrings (!) caused him to lose his job.   I have traced my family history back in one branch to the 1670s, and a small village between Dartmoor and Exmoor called Witheridge, and though there is absolutely no trace of any family who lived there, it felt important for me to make the “pilgrimage” to see it, taking my daughter with me, to see the church where my oldest traceable ancestors were married. There may be nothing to see, but people seem to feel the need to know where their roots are. The genealogical programme, Who do you think you are?”  could just as well be named Where do you think you come from? because at its heart are always the journeys that the participants make to the places their ancestors came from.

Walking in the footsteps of our ancestors...

The Shadow-side of Place

Picture: David Holt
Much of what I have written celebrates place, but the shadow of place must also be acknowledged. The Chinese American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, comments that “Place-making, by setting up boundaries gives rise to the polarities of ‘in’ and ‘out’, ‘us’ and ‘them’.[i] At the moment in which I am writing this is very evident in the increasingly bitter arguments about Brexit. Where do we belong? Are we European, British, English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish, or citizens of the world, which, ex-PM Theresa May asserted meant being a “citizen of nowhere”? What does it mean to be patriotic, to love the place where you are? Does it inevitably mean wanting to restrict the possibilities for sharing that space.

David Goodhart, in his book “The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics” identifies two tribal identities at the root of some of the strife we currently experience. The Anywheres are people who do not have a prounounced sense of belonging to a particular place, who are happy to move where their lives and jobs take them, and are often enabled to do so because they are wealthy and employable enough to be able to relocate. They are likely to embrace cultural diversity, and to see themselves as part of a wider community – the EU, the world. They may have a very sketchy sense of the places in which they live and work, and little connection to the local community, preferring the virtual networks they are part of. As Edward Relph comments , “Rootedness is only one element in the diverse topographies of sense of place, only one way to connect with the world, and in the present day it is an option rather than a necessity.” [ii] The Somewheres, by contrast, are people who may never have moved far from their birthplace, and do not want to, for whom local identity and history matter very much. They are likely to be less wealthy and less highly educated, and to have more resistance to change and diversity, according to Goodhart. The shrinkage of Britain’s manufacturing industries will have hit them harder – the collapse of ship-building or mining, for example – because those industries often employed large numbers of the local population. Somewheres will also be more aware of immigration because they have a stronger sense of the place they live being “theirs”. Goodhart’s analysis is probably over simplistic, and he acknowledges this himself. In reality, people are on a spectrum, tending more to the Anywhere or Somewhere position, but not entirely defined by it, but it is, nonetheless a useful snapshot which illuminates the tensions currently besetting us, and some appreciation that varying views on geographical “identity” develop for good reason is an important element in finding a meeting point between extremes.

The alternatives to understanding this tension are dark and frightening. Relph comments on the possibility that we can develop a “poisoned sense of place…, which promotes nimbyism, discrimination and resistance to difference,”  and Marc Fried talks about the “pathologies of place attachment”. “Unrestrained rooted place connections can feed the stupidity that stands behind the worst forms of human brutality”, something which was all too evident in the 20th century nationalisms which led to WW2.

Perversely, our love of “our” place can become the reason why other people are denied any sense of place at all, if we close our boundaries to refugees and displaced people. If our rootedness is allowed to become what Fried calls  an “addiction to continuity”, we can condemn others to rootlessness, treating them as what Goodhart might have thought of as a third tribe, the “nowheres”.  In reality, of course, there is no such thing. To exist is to exist in a place. Nobody is “nowhere”, but that is precisely the problem; to be “somewhere” means, if you have no place of your own, that you must, necessarily, share someone else’s space.
A checkpoint in Jerusalem

Perhaps there is no land which demonstrates this more vividly than Israel/Palestine, a place which cannot even be named without layering the name of one nation hard against another. The experience of being there is of communities attempting to do what should logically be impossible (and often, practically and politically is), to exist in the same space as one another, seeing the same geographical locations in entirely different ways, like an anamorphic or holographic picture which changes when you view it from different angles. Jews, Muslims and Christians see the landscape differently, sometimes sharing sites which they regard as sacred or significant for entirely different reasons, like the area of Jerusalem which houses the Dome of the Rock, the last remnants of the Jewish Temple, and the sites associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not surprising that violence sometimes erupts, what is surprising is that it sometimes does not, and people seem to manage to worship and live in their own realities, sliding past each other as they do so.

[i] Yi-Fu Tuan quoted in Malpas p. 183

[ii] Replh in Malpas, p 183

Place and the Reformation: What happened to our sacred saintly places?

Many people in the UK have no idea of the stories of the saints which once would have been celebrated locally, and the sense of sacredness which their veneration lent to the ordinary fields and streets they now inhabit.

Deeply significant figures like St Edith, St Mildred, St Sidwell, St Materiana, and the rest are often no more than names on church noticeboards or hinted at in the names of local features, like St Edith’s Hall in Kemsing.  Unlike the saints of Catholic countries their relics and statues haven’t been carried proudly in procession year after year from the churches dedicated to them, and few feel any sort of personal connection or affection for them. What happened? The short answer is “the Reformation”.
Defaced images of the saints from the rood screen of St Thomas Becket's church in Bridford, Devon. 

There had been criticisms of the abuses of shrines and pilgrimages as long as they had existed. Many people recognised that a local saint was a good marketing opportunity, however – it brought in good business. The Kebab shop on the corner of Church Street in Seal is thought to have been a medieval pilgrims’ hospice originally – a place where pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, perhaps calling in on St Edith’s  shrine on the way, would have stayed. The Church knew that pilgrims would donate to light candles at a shrine, or pay for masses to be said, and that was a good earner too. Indulgences, time off from the suffering of purgatory after death, were also often on offer by going to a shrine, and no doubt some people did sometimes treat them as “holy vending machines” for miracles, rather than contributing to a genuine deepening of faith.  For others a pilgrimage to a holy site was little more than a glorified holiday, a distraction from the issues at home which they should really have been attending to.

This thread of criticism reached its tipping point in the writings of Reformation leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and proved to be the death knell for many of these ancient observances. They eventually discouraged, and even banned pilgrimages and destroyed shrines everywhere that Protestantism took hold. William Lambarde (1536 –  1601) wrote his (highly partisan!) “Perambulations of Kent” shortly after the English Reformation, and was scathing in his condemnation of what he saw, or perhaps was told about, for example, at St Edith’s Shrine in Kemsing. “Some seelie bodie brought a pecke, or two, or a Bushell of Corne to the Church and (after prayers made) offered it to the image of the Saint.” He traced this custom to the Roman worship of a Roman god he called Robigius (despite the fact that no such god has actually ever been found to have existed), and roundly condemned “the whole heap and dunghill of [peoples] filthy and superstitious Idolatries.” In reality, of course, Lambarde was writing at a time when religious polarisation was at its most acute, leading Catholics and Protestants to burn each other at the stake over practices like the veneration of the saints, so we should be careful to read Lambarde’s words for what they are, religious propaganda. It is clear from more measured studies of the period that for many people, the care they took of the shrines they tended bound their communities together. Eamonn Duffy, in his study of one Devonshire village as it went through the Reformation[i], described the way in which, before the Reformation many groups had existed in the village to care for particular shrines within the church building. A group described as the Young Men raised money for the candles that burned before the statue of St George, mostly, it would seem by making and drinking beer. The Maidens, which seem to have included every unmarried woman over about the age of twelve, held an annual celebration of their own to raise the money for the candles for the statue of the Virgin and St Sidwell, Exeter’s patron saint. After the Reformation, there was no need for  these candles to be provided, so the groups disbanded, and parish funds took an immediate hit from which they never really recovered. More significantly, activities which had involved every person in the village in the life of the church were lost. Worshippers had nothing to do now but sit and listen, and many of them, it would seem, did not! The Reformers intention, to empower lay people and free them from what they saw as the power of the priests, can be said to have backfired in this regard. As Duffy comments, “all those tokens of the tenderness and hope which Morebath had invested in its saints were now expressly declared to be unchristian, and placed outside the law.”  Experience over the centuries tells us that matter matters to people, and that , for many people God is often more powerfully experienced through material objects -  the statues, candles and beads -  than through words and ideas. The empty, clean space of a non-Conformist chapel or a Friends Meeting House are, in many ways as “material” as an overstuffed and gilded Baroque Catholic Church. People care about what is in them, how they look and feel.   It is noticeable that in recent decades Protestant churches have begun to embrace material ways of praying, reinventing them to suit themselves, whether that be in a creative “prayer station” or a bowl of water and a pile of glass nuggets. People need “matter” to pray with. As one questioning regular at such a church commented to me, “I can’t quite see why its ok to have banners, but not ok to have icons…”

At the time of the Reformation, however, images and statues, beads and candles became tribal markers, to be thoroughly rejected.  Over the generations which followed the Reformation even the dedications of some churches were lost, as the idea of dedicating a church to a saint fell out of favour. We can’t , therefore, always be sure that the dedications we now know for churches are the same as the original ones. Some definitely changed, like the church at Christow in Devon, originally “Christina’s Town”, where the church was dedicated to Christina of Bolsena, a rather legendary 3rd Century saint. Her name lives on in the name of the village, but the church is now dedicated to St James.
Christow Church, originally dedicated to St Christina of Bolsena, but now St Jame's Church.

Biblical saints like Peter, Paul, Mary, John and so on, were the only saints who survived in the worship of the Protestant churches, and even they were held up simply as examples, rather than the “friends in high places” which the Catholic saints had been. There are official readings and prayers to be used on their feasts in the seventeenth century Book of Common Prayer, but none for the many other saints, like Edith, who would once have been well known and loved. It must have been rather like finding that beloved members of your family had been banished, and it is no wonder that there was some fierce resistance to their removal.

One of the arguments the Reformers used against pilgrimages to shrines was that people shouldn’t feel they needed to travel to special places away from home to find God. They should be finding God in the scriptures and in their own parish church communities; God could be found where they were. Discouraging pilgrimage also had the effect of keeping people where they were, and hard at work – pilgrimages and saints’ feast days were regarded by the Reformers (and many employers) as distractions from the sober working routine, the famous “Protestant Work Ethic”, which was now considered to be the route to godliness. Ironically, however, destroying local shrines and customs associated with them often had the opposite effect to the one the Reformers intended. Local shrines had been an affirmation of God’s work in the local area; destroying them had the effect of “de-sacralising” the landscape. People still had the urge to go to places they felt were special, as they do today, but now had to go further afield – to Jerusalem for example, or to places where they felt nature spoke to them of God, the Lake District, the Alps etc. They lost the sense that their own backyards could be a place where God was at work. The emphasis of faith shifted from an embedded, embodied, material, collective experience to something that was more intellectual, word-based, inward and personal.

It could be argued that it is a short step from de-sacralising the landscape to desecrating it. When the places around us are seen as places where God is at work, holy places, we respect and care for them. When we celebrate communally the stories of “our” places, we affirm and pass on their specialness. If our fields and rivers, our mountains and pastures simply become places of production,  there is a great temptation to feel we can exploit them and use them for their own ends.  Tensions around the world between indigenous cultures which want to preserve the places sacred to them – the Amazon rainforest, Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia, for example – and those who see them as opportunities to maximise income from agriculture or tourism, are perhaps a modern reiteration of the old tensions around the veneration of local saints.

[i] Duffy, Eamonn, Voices from Morebath

Place and Christian Ministry today: Being a Parish Priest

One of the most distinctive features of the Church of England is its parish system. Every inch of England is part of a Church of England parish, giving legal rights – to marriage, baptism and burial – in the parish church to everyone who lives within its boundaries. The parish system developed during the Middle Ages, and at some points those who ran the parish ran not only the religious but also the secular business of their “patch”, organising Poor Relief and the mending of roads, and providing what education and health care they could, funded from the Tithes paid by parishioners. While these functions are long gone, parochialism, in its best sense, is still part of the DNA of the Church of England, and many of its clergy and the communities they serve place a high value  on the sense that the parish church is there for everyone, whether they regularly, or ever, set foot within it.

The Parish system is increasingly under strain however, as small numbers of worshippers are expected to bear the cost and effort of maintaining listed historic buildings out of dwindling funds. There are also, as there have always been, tensions and resentments around the sense that these limited stores of time, energy and money are being spent to keep churches going for the sake of people who are not “members” of the church. Many churches have factions within them who grumble when a baptism takes place for a family who don’t come to church. “Why should we put ourselves out for them, when they will never darken the doors again?” is the cry.

In a society in which people do not necessarily have the same close bond with the land in which they live as they once did, where they may work far from where they live, and where virtual networks have often replaced flesh and blood encounters, it is also tempting to say that the parish has had its day, a quaint remnant of a bygone age. But if we do this, we are playing into the same process of homogenisation of place as McDonalds, “displacing” people, and calling into question the specific holiness of the place where they are, the specific holiness of the matter which surrounds them.

 And yet, for many others, myself included, the parochial system is one of the most attractive things about the Church of England, forcing us to pay attention to the place where we are, and the people we share it with, to declare that, wherever we are, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

The parish system is, in this sense, a direct expression of our faith in an incarnate God, a God who, in becoming flesh and blood, declared afresh that matter mattered, and if matter matters, then place matters too, because matter cannot exist except in place.  In being born in Bethlehem, Jesus did not just declare that Bethlehem was holy, but that all places were holy. Saint Jerome , who lived for many years in a cave adjacent to the traditional site of the nativity, said  “how I admire the Lord, the Creator of the world! He wanted to be born not surrounded by gold and silver, but just on a piece of this earth.”  It was the fact that Bethlehem was a “piece of this earth” which was significant, affirming that any “piece of this earth” could be a place in which God was found.  While there are, of course, many other ways in which ministry can be exercised, parish ministry is a powerful statement of this fundamental belief.