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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

All Saints, North Runcton

a gloomy morning in North Runcton

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a gloomy morning in North Runcton chancel

    All Saints, North Runcton

It was a gloomy morning, and the parish of North Runcton was not about to lighten the mood. The church is one of East Anglia's few 18th Century rebuilds, necessarily so because, after long years of post-Reformation neglect, the tower fell and crashed into the nave in 1701. The replacement was built in a leisurely manner over a period of about ten years, the architect being Henry Bell, who, as Pevsner points out, rather conveniently lived in the parish. Perhaps he worked on it in his spare time. The exterior looks like what an early 18th Century idea of a replacement medieval church would look like, I suppose - the rebuilt nave and chancel are planned conventionally, although the nave is rendered in grey cement in the manner of stucco, with pedimented projections to north and south which would be quite at home in the City of London. The south extension from the chancel, which matches it very well, was in fact an addition of the 1890s to accomodate an organ.

Pevsner makes the building sound quite interesting inside, but I'm afraid that I wouldn't know. The church is set beside a polite, pretty village green with houses for company. There is no reason on God's earth why the church can't be open during the day, except that this is part of the Middlewinch benefice of churches, for some of whom welcoming the stranger within the gate, or giving hospitality to pilgrims thereby entertaining angels unawares, appears to be just something that some bloke talked about in the Bible.

There isn't a keyholder notice, but there is one of those efficient lists of telephone numbers churches put up nowadays in case of a gas leak or an earthquake or the like, so John and I stood in the rain ringing them, one by one. Eventually a posh lady answered. Yes, she was the keyholder. No, she couldn't bring the key to the church, and the reason for this was quite extraordinary. It was because I was a man. They didn't bring the key to the church if a man rang unless they were accompanied by someone, and as she was on her own she couldn't do that. She suggested I ring another number, a man, the churchwarden.

His wife answered. She was much less pompous than the first keyholder, but her husband was out, he wouldn't be back till that evening, and no she couldn't bring the key to the church because...

Our route during the day took us northwards and then back down towards Downham Market in a long loop. By mid-afternoon we were approaching North Runcton again, so I gave the churchwarden another ring, just in case he'd returned home early. No such luck. So I made one final, desperate attempt to convince the first keyholder.

She didn't seem terribly happy that I'd rung back, and went through the same formulation as before. So I suggested that we might come to her house and borrow the key. Well, she actually scoffed. She made it very clear that churches do NOT give out their keys to strangers whom they know nothing about. This was news to me, as less than an hour or so previously a kind man at Roydon, who I'd never met before and who didn't know me from Adam, had entrusted me with the key to his church. Indeed, I've borrowed hundreds of keys over the years to see inside churches.

You'd almost think they didn't really want us inside. And yet, as I have observed many times to the point of tedium, hardly anyone is going to make their first visit to a village church to attend a service. They are far more likely to wander in on their own during the week, testing the water so to speak, or perhaps to unburden themselves of a great grief or guilt, or simply to feel a sense of the eternal. They may not come back on Sunday - though, of course, they might - but the church has been there in their hour of need, to lift them up and carry them on.

And then there are those who love the feel of a church without really knowing why, without thinking there is any spiritual dimension to their yearning. Perhaps it is because the church is a touchstone down the long parish generations, back to the ploughboy and the horseman, the swineherd and the miller. In a changing world, stepping into an empty church can give a feeling of the unchanging - no, not that exactly, more of the permanent ground around which time moves, the still point of the turning world, the place where our compulsions meet, are recognised and robed as destinies. And of course those people may come back on Sunday too.

Now, it may well be that North Runcton is a thriving parish, and this church is packed to the gunwales three times every Sunday. Indeed, perhaps they have no room to welcome the tax collectors and sinners who might respond to the sense of the numinous they'd find by wandering into this building on their own, on a weekday. Perhaps they actually don't need to be open as an act of witness to strangers, pilgrims and those with a thirst for a sense of the spiritual. Perhaps they actually do need to keep us people out.

But I suspect that this isn't so. The great majority of Norfolk's old churches are open to visitors every day. The Church of England knows the power of an open church, knows that it is its greatest act of witness, and in any case works very hard in this county ministering to all its people, churchgoers or not. But there are still pockets of Norfolk where the buildings are kept locked from one end of the week to the next, where the risk of Faith that an open door represents is not taken.

Instead, such benefices open their churches only for the slightly smug activities of the Sunday club, while the graveyard is left to the pagan cult of the dead, the bereaved worshipping their recent ancestors with propitiatory flowers, unable to combine this with a prayer said inside a sacred building, increasingly unaware even that this might be an appropriate thing to do.

As the years go by, the congregation gets smaller, and older, and less welcoming to strangers, hanging on to the rituals that comfort them but which otherwise serve no community devotional purpose, and are no means for sharing the faith and love and life of the parish. The building is used less and less often, eventually being abandoned altogether by people who, no doubt, bemoan the decline and fall of their congregation and shake their heads gravely at the immorality of the young of today, their lack of respect and belief.

And yet, they have not even once taken the risk of letting themselves be found by us, the strangers wondering at the God-shaped hole within ourselves, surprising a hunger to be more serious, and gravitating with it to this ground.

I may well yet be told that the parish of North Runcton is not at all like this. But I expect that it probably is. I am in my fifties now, but when I come to places like North Runcton I feel that I will live to see the last days of the Church of England.


Simon Knott, July 2016

draped and garlanded urn flanked by leafwork two cherubs in a draped medallion anguished skull

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk