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All Saints, Litcham
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We came here on a late afternoon in April. It was Holy Week, although you wouldn't have known this from many of the Anglican churches we'd visited during the day. A sombre Eucharist was in progress at Dereham, and there were covered statues at Brisley, with news of evening liturgies at a couple of other churches in that benefice. But generally, it was business as usual, which often meant nothing was happening at all.
Even the village had an air of the past about it. I am not generally a nostalgic person, but Litcham reminded me of the busy, self-contained villages that were common when I was young. A shop, a school, a pub, a post office if you were lucky, and everything focused on a proud, confident village church. An air of activity, of people going about their business, making the village more than a mere dormitory for nearby towns. Today, so many villages are either dead during the day, or are being torn apart by people rushing through on their way to somewhere else.
Someone had written to me a few weeks previously to say that Litcham had the most High Church Rector in Norfolk, and so I didn't quite know what to expect. I wondered if they meant a spiky Anglo-catholic, which seemed a little unlikely, given that Norfolk's spiky hotspots are well-known. But we stepped inside, and I saw that my correspondent had meant something quite different. In here, it was as if time had stood still. The brick floors stretched into the shadows, and the box pews faced the beautiful painted screen, beyond which the chancel had pastel-coloured walls. The lack of a clerestory means that light slants sideways through the nave. Here was a very traditional space, not particularly rural in character, but with a great presence, as if of that certain kind of self-confidence which suggests authority. This was a place to be still and know. The old font sits quietly at the west end, shields set within tracery on each side. The altars were dressed, but otherwise bare. There was a simple crucifix in the south aisle chapel, uncovered. That was all, pretty much. Everything was neat and seemly, plain and ordered.
We looked at the services, and there was a hearty mix of BCP and CW, and it seemed mostly to be choral, and there were introits and canticles. I began to see that this was one of the last refuges of what most of the Church of England used to be like - properly High Church, with ceremony and gravitas and style. This was the Church of England that had been important in most people's lives once, not for being inclusive and comprehensible, but for seeming permanent and essential, of being mystical, something other than that which we would find in our ordinary lives. And I thought how rare this was nowadays.
Each figure has a demi-angel above its head. The first four panels are very indistinct. The first is clearly a nun. Mortlock says that the next is St Cecilia or St Margaret, but she appears to be holding a bow, and I wondered if it is actually St Christina, as at North Elmham. The stance is similar. Mortlock suggests St Dorothy and St Juliana for the other two, but I really couldn't say. The next four are clearer, and can be positively identified as St Agnes with her lamb, St Petronilla with her large key and book as at North Elmham, St Helena with her cross, and a beautiful St Ursula holding arrows while some of her eleven thousand virgins hide in her skirts.
The figures on the doors are very indistinct. It is not really possible to tell if they are male or female, although the sixth figure is holding three money bags suspended on strings, and may well be St Nicholas. The south side of the screen, however, is the clearest, and has several intriguing features. The first four figures are St Gregory in a papal tiara, St Edmund holding three arrows, a figure leading a dragon on a halter that Mortlock identifies as St Armel (curiously, St Juliana on the screen at North Elmham does the same thing) and St Geron with his falcon as at North Tuddenham.
The last four figures are the most interesting of all. Firstly, St Walstan, Norfolk's farmworker Saint, in what I think is his best medieval representation of all. He wears a crown and holds a sceptre, but he has a doleful expression and carries his scythe in the other hand. Beside him is St Hubert, an extraordinary representation; the stag with the crucifix in its horns approaches from behind, and St Hubert stands with his back to us, his face in profile, to meet it. The third figure in this set is St William of Norwich, a boy martyr whose cult is usually taken as evidence of medieval anti-semitism, although the representation here is less bloodthirsty than at Loddon. Lastly, St Louis of France with his three thorns.
I wandered around, sensing ghosts of my own past. I had been a choirboy in a church just like this, not in a quiet Norfolk village but in the busy working class suburbs of north Cambridge. The church had been at the centre of our lives - we played football for the choir team, we played hide and seek in the graveyard, we helped out at jumble sales, we went to fetes in the walled gardens of the huge Georgian Vicarage. Most of our parents were blue collar workers, apart from the occasional teacher or office worker. Many mums worked on the production lines of the Pye Telecom factory. Blocks of flats shadowed the Vicarage walls. There was even a squire, of sorts; Lord Thorneycroft had a house in the parish, and was often there, sitting alone at evensong. We blessed him and his relations, and kept in our proper stations. Some of the boys in the choir were not even Anglicans, but from Catholic or non-conformist families, or even from families of no faith at all.
The parish church was at the centre of all our lives, the touchstone that ordered them. It had a sense of the eternal about it - but this was nonsense, of course. The robed choir and intoned services were Victorian inventions, based on what was thought traditional Cathedral worship. They were a mid-19th century response to the teachings of the Oxford Movement. Like Christmas, the High Church CofE was an invented tradition. But it was a comforting one. It wasn't even religion really.
Simon Knott, May 2006
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