There used to be a joke, repeated by English tourists in deserted piazzas, that the Italian for church (chiesa) and for closed (chiusa) were almost the same. Whatever the orari on the door, you were always several hours out. And so you would consult your guidebook, admire in miniature the Ghirlandaio, the Lippi, the really very special fresco — and go for a consoling ice cream. The joke was told with the smug Anglo-Saxon certainty that our churches were open to all-comers from before breakfast until after vespers. Not so now. And not during the months we weren’t in lockdown — for all the bishops are protesting about the new one.
But even before the latest lockdown, it was hard to find an open church. Over the summer, my husband and I managed walking weekends in five counties. At every village church, we tried the latch. Chiusa. Chiusa. Chiusa. They were allowed to be open, but weren’t. One noticeboard gave dates and times of services — every third Sunday on rotation — and a sheet saying: ‘Prayers By Appointment Only.’ It might be the saddest sign I’ve ever seen. Our Father, who art in heaven — any chance you’ve got a slot next week?
Even on Sunday mornings, there was no guarantee you’d get in. A friend had the temerity to just turn up. A verger stood guard. ‘You’re not on the list,’ she said. There followed a pantomime of martyrdom about whether my friend could be ‘squeezed in’. The congregation numbered fewer than ten. There must be more Christian ways to keep track of Test and Trace. Now, with Lockdown II and services banned — private prayer is allowed — it’s hard to imagine churches opening their doors all day. If you’re lucky you might get a worshipful window on Tuesdays between half-past noon and two.
When I was eight, I was taken to see Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the cinema. It gave me a romantic notion that in times of direst need, you could cry ‘Sanctuary!’ and seek refuge behind the great rose window. Now it’s sanctuary on sufferance. Even if you haven’t a religious bone in your body, nave haunting is part of our heritage. Poking one’s nose in, taking a pew, taking off one’s bicycle clips in ‘awkward reverence’, as Philip Larkin had it. You might, like Larkin’s hatless visitor in ‘Church Going’, be conscious of your ignorance about whether the roof has been restored or not: ‘Someone would know: I don’t.’ You might ‘Reflect the place was not worth stopping for’. But you ought to stop, the doors ought to be open.
When I scan through friends who became art historians, there is often a porch-botherer in the background. A mother with a mania for stained-glass windows, a father who dragged teenagers to see East Anglian round-towered churches as a half-term ‘treat’. And, yes, I suppose you can still stand in the churchyard and ask yourself: flint or stone? Beakhead or dogstooth? Pointed or perpendicular? But you are nevertheless shut out, spiritually, aesthetically and physically. Art history is my thing, but I wonder how many become organists, bell-ringers, choristers, surveyors, conservators, stonemasons, men and women of the cloth, because the habit of popping in to every likely looking church was instilled in childhood?
Over the nine attempts it took to pass my driving test, one thought kept me going: the freedom of distant places. The country houses and parish churches that railway lines forgot. On practice drives, my dad sat valiant in the passenger seat as I stalled and slammed the brakes on the way over to St Peter and St Paul’s, Swalcliffe or St George’s, Lower Brailes. The Banbury ring road wasn’t worth the agony, but All Saints, Shorthampton was.
Do you remember the scene at the end of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm when Flora, our heroine, takes cousin Judith to a German psychiatrist in London? ‘I make her interested in olt churches,’ says Dr Müdel. ‘Yes, olt churches. There are so many in Europe, and it will take her the rest of her life to see them all.’ Judith’s energies, once turned destructively inward, are turned out on to a curative tour.
My worry is that the olt churches won’t ever fully reopen. Only on Sundays. Only on alternate afternoons. Only at Christmas and Easter. Only never. No children taking brass rubbings. No Pevsners pulled from rucksacks. No wet weather picnics under lychgates. All those fonts unseen.
It’ll be the same everywhere. Will Hampstead Ponds renounce their new Covid-secure system for the former dive-right-in? Will you wander into the Wallace Collection on a whim on your way through the West End? Or will it be prayers by appointment only, for ever and ever. Amen.
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