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St Martin, South Raynham
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Martin, South Raynham
St Martin has the feel of a proper rural church. Here, there are no outstanding treasures, but there is much of interest, and an atmosphere which speaks of the long generations who have seen it as the heart of their community. It is a touchstone.
Perhaps the most outstanding feature is the surviving mensa, or altar stone, now in place back on the altar. For many years, it served as a step into the chancel. The pattern on the edge is older than the building in which you see it. Pevsner thought it might be 12th century, but it may be older, and is certainly at the end of the Norman period, if not earlier. This makes it the oldest surviving mensa in East Anglia, and one of the oldest in England.
This is a rustic estate church, without the memorials to famous names which you find across the fields at East Raynham. Here, it is easy to imagine the blacksmith and the plowboy sitting uncomfortably for the afternoon sermon, and even further back in Catholic days the village women at their private devotions. I stood in the silence, the birdsong from outside a counterpoint to the sunshine falling through the windows. I thought of Eliot: If you came this way, taking any route, starting from anywhere, at any time or at any season, it would always be the same: you would have to put off sense and notion. You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid.
One of the delights of this part of Norfolk is that, apart from the jarring exception of the two aptly-named Weasenham churches, virtually all the churches around here are open and welcoming. It feels like a privilege to come into one and sit in its silence for a while, a reminder that the old buildings are the greatest act of witness which the Church of England has got. I wonder how many people who slake their thirst for a sense of the numinous, and fill the God-shaped hole within themselves, do so by starting with a visit to a place like this?
It has been eight years since I began the websites for the Churches of East Anglia, and throughout that time I have promoted the cause of open churches, seeing it as one of the primary reasons for the existence of these buildings. I am proud that many more churches are open in Suffolk than were a decade ago, and although I think there are several reasons for this, I am pleased when people tell me that my websites may be one of them.
However, in the last year or so that I have begun to have some small doubts - not about the need for open churches, of course, but about what I have begun to see as a rather horrible militant anti-religious feeling in this country, fed by the cynicism of celebrity culture, a poorly educated understanding of Islam and Catholicism in particular, and the often articulate champions of the neo-fascist television philosopher Richard Dawkins. What forms might this anti-Christian sentiment begin to take?
Simon Knott, October 2007
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