I came late to church-crawling. While my Seventies Catholic upbringing in Liverpool placed a very high premium on what felt like constant attendance at the local parish church, the bland 1960s building itself hardly spoke to me of history or wider context in any obvious way.
Fast forward, though, to a family holiday in north Norfolk in 2006. Within a stone’s throw of where we were staying was the most exquisite 15th-century church. Inside I discovered angels floating on the ceiling, a medieval rood screen was probably the oldest thing I had ever touched, and I encountered my first-ever 500-year-old wine-glass pulpit.
Like the angels, I have since spread my church-crawling wings, and now take any opportunity when away to wander into a local country church to find out what it can tell me — about its history, and that of those who have worshipped there for centuries.
It was the fittings and fixtures that initially kept drawing me back, but soon I found myself also trying to assemble in my head a bigger picture that placed each church and what it contained in a timeline of both ecclesiastical and national history.
St Faith’s at Bacton in Herefordshire, a beautiful but simple 13th-century building, is at first glance as far removed from the turmoil of the Reformation and the royal court blood-letting that accompanied it as can be imagined. Yet it contains a rare and intriguing treasure in the first-known depiction of Elizabeth I as Gloriana, symbol of her nation.
It is part of a monument commissioned for her own eventual burial by the locally born Blanche Parry, chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber to the Queen and her close confidant. Parry composed the epitaph, which includes the words, “with maiden queen a maid did end her life”, suggesting that Elizabeth was indeed a “virgin queen”, a claim not often heard in present historical orthodoxy.
We may no longer be a nation that in practice defines itself in terms of faith, but faith has nonetheless shaped our history, for better or worse. And in the churches where that faith has been practised for hundreds of years is a treasury of real-time history, tangible evidence that sits in our midst, largely unused, often unheralded, in buildings that are ancient and modern, cathedrals and chapels, grand and humble, ruined and thriving.
There is very likely one within a church crawl of you right now. And if it is so long since you’ve been in a church that turning up unannounced feels slightly intimidating, don’t be put off. There are plenty of churches that tell the history of where we come from that are now so little used, or even known, that you will most likely have them all to yourself.
They offer more than a tale of popes and bishops, dogma and ritual. It is a human story, our story, about the how and the where and the why of the faith of the people over two millennia who have used these buildings, and the ways in which the uses of those buildings reflected the lives and the societies to be found beyond their walls.
For example, St Andrew’s (see photo), deep in the Essex countryside at Greensted, is the world’s oldest wooden church dating back to the end of the tenth century, where a peep-hole in the north wall is thought to have been a means of spotting the approach of marauding Vikings, who at the time were coming ashore deep into Essex to plunder and burn.
Small details can tell big stories. Being places that have always opened their doors to (almost) all, churches have a rare power to connect us in a tangible way, even in our secular and sceptical times, to the everyday flow of history, and to ask questions about our future. What, for example, will future generations of church-crawlers go to see, touch and know the story of belief in the 21st century?
It’s too soon to know, obviously, but here’s a thought. What about an outdoor church, something that is not a building at all in the conventional sense. There is a flourishing theological debate around Christianity’s Bible-derived duty to “stewardship of creation” in the age of climate change. Meanwhile, a small but growing number of believers who reject formal institutional ties instead join with other like-minded individuals at informal, open-ended gatherings that seek the sacred in the natural world, via movements like “Forest Church”.
Stranger things have, after all, happened over the past 2,000 years. To learn from them and other less strange aspects of Christian history in the past two millennia is simultaneously to consider where that past has led us to now, as individuals, as congregations or as fairly agnostic but still spiritually curious folk bearing the residual hallmarks of Christianity. And there is no better way of pondering that right now than a church crawl.
Peter Stanford’s book If These Stones Could Talk: The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland through Twenty Buildings is published by Hodder on October 14