Friday, 16 September 2011

Betjeman's Best British Churches

Another book review? Oh well... I do love books, and this is my only blog, so here goes...

Betjeman's original book covered twice as many churches (approximately 5000). This new shiny hardback coffee table version is lavishly illustrated, and as a result cuts the number of churches covered in half, at roughly 2,500... still plenty! First I'd like to point out before going any further that I'm not Christian. I am, using A. C. Grayling's pithy phrase, a naturalist and free-thinker. Nonetheless, I, like this country and our culture, am steeped in the ever-evolving Christian tradition (I was brought up Christian, and went to several churches, none of which were deemed beautiful enough for inclusion here!). And the legacy on our landscape, and in our lives, from our language to the sights and sounds we deem typically English, are all bound up with the history of Christianity. And, regardless of all this, some churches are just very beautiful. I've often liked stopping at a random church and wondering around inside, connecting in my own quiet, personal and meditative way, with all that life and history. So this book was a must.

I confess I know little about Betjeman outside this book, except that he was a poet, and indeed poet Laureate for a while. When reading his introductory essay, it struck me that Betjeman chooses to spell the word 'show' using the rather archaic British variant 'shew', which is fittingly antiquarian, but irritates me mildly, as I feel, and indeed my brain is wired, through learning commonplace English, to think that it should be pronounced to rhyme with shrew, stew, brew or few, of for that matter pew: that's how it looks! In light of this I was not initially sure I go with the TLS quote on the cover which effusively describes Betjeman's introductory essay as 'pure gold'. In fact at first I found it more crabbily and fustily conservative (rather like some of the church wardens you may bump into when visiting churches using this book), if very erudite and occasionally quite funny, as for example: "If the path leading... wealthy unbelievers ... key from there." (p23) Well, that's certainly priceless, but not necessarily because it's 'pure gold'!

He also, as well as making some very prescient remarks, says a few things, which, to my mind at least, are a little odd, such as "It must be admitted that spirituality and aesthetics rarely go together." I guess this depends on you how you define spirituality, a nebulous term at the best of times. But many admirers of culture, including eminent scholars of religion, for example Diarmid MCulloch, stress the great contribution religion makes to our aesthetic culture. Quite apart from own mainly Christian heritage ( which has plenty in it that's clearly pagan), one need only think of the incredible non-figurative arts of Islam, the rich iconography of Buddhist mandalas, or the great traditions of religious music, to wonder if perhaps Betjeman has made a mistake with this particular pronouncement. In the context where he makes it, it is more plausible - he's lamenting the restorations and addition to a church that are, by and large "practical and unattractive", and begs that we remember "however much we deplore it ... [these ugly things] have been saved up for by some devout and penurious communicant.' Whilst this sonorous phrasing has an appeal, its rendering of the 'spiritual' is open to debate. And the quote that follows is dour Puritanism, and despite England's break with Rome, I don't think that Christianity, or humanity, for that matter, was suddenly and totally bereft of aesthetic awareness. Indeed, that's more than half the attraction of this book: these churches are frequently very interesting, and often, in part or in whole, quite beautiful. It I'd true, there are some horribly oppressive Christian buildings across these islands, and even some of the churches we've visited using this book belong in that category, but fortunately they're in a minority. however, when he follows his line of thought to the conclusion that "Conservatism is innate in ecclesiastical arrangement" I can't disagree. But perhaps this pinpoints the difference between religion and spirituality?

"Who has heard a muffled peal and remained unmoved?" Well, ironically part of the appeal of hearing church bells to folk like me, nowadays, is the comparative rarity with which you hear the sound. In the times where I've lived close by a regular ringers church what has annoyed me is not that "they are reminders of Eternity" (in the whole I get along well with Eternity and any reminded I get of her), buy that I'm being reminded of a belief which I don't share, and a belief whose omnipresence, and even perhaps omnipotence, is, thankfully, receding.

One little criticism is that the photos which illustrate points being made in the introductory text give only the village/town name, and then the church name, but not the county. This could very easily been included, and would have been very useful in determining if the church shown is within easy reach. So, for example 'EAST SHEFFORD: ST THOMAS', which happens to be on the page I was on when this shortcoming struck me, could so very easily have been 'EAST SHEFFORD: ST THOMAS (Berkshire)'.

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