Magazine article The Christian Century

Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches

Magazine article The Christian Century

Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches

Article excerpt

Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches

Edited by Kevin J. Gardner

Bloomsbury, 224 pp. 16.99 [pounds sterling]

An elegy is a poetic lament for the dead. It is above all about loss and sorrow. This timely collection of elegies mourns the death of the Church of England. Its editor, Kevin J. Gardner of Baylor University, points out that only 2 percent of the British population currently attend weekly services. In poem after poem by poets such as Geoffrey Hill, Sir John Betjeman, C. Day-Lewis, Philip Larkin, Donald Davie, R. S. Thomas, and Ted Hughes, readers find deserted churches, abbey ruins, overgrown churchyards, lame words from the pulpit, empty vicarages, even 15 churches fallen into the sea--in short, as one poet writes, "resurrection encased in sleep."

This book displays more than the death of church buildings; these elegies are largely about the death of the church and the resultant death of faith. Philip Larkin's prescient poem, "Church Going," is included in this collection and alluded to in several of the poems by other authors. In this poem the speaker, bicycling in the countryside, happens upon a church and steps inside, "once I am sure there's nothing going on." He finds "silence, / Brewed God knows how long." He looks around, steps into the pulpit to say, "Here endeth," and leaves, having found nothing "worth stopping for."

   Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
   And always end much at a loss like this,
   Wondering what to look for; wondering,
      too,

   When churches fall completely out of use
   What we shall turn them into....

"What remains," he asks, when even "disbelief has gone? / Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky." Those images appear and reappear in the poems in this collection along with a longing for the old forms and rituals that put handles on the mysteries of birth, life, and death. One poet writes, "the sanctuary lamp's extinct" and notices that "the rood pales to dust." Another poet, George Barker, laments:

   As I stand by the porch
   I believe that no one has heard
   here in Thurgarton church
   a single veritable word
   save the unspoken No.

Elegies traditionally contain consolation, but it is present less and less in contemporary elegies. Barker's poem, for example, ends,

   I hear the old bone in me cry
   and the dying spirit call:
   I have forfeited all
   and once and for all must die
   and this is all that I know.

   For now in a wild way we
   know that Justice is served
   and that we die in the clay we
   dread, desired, and deserved,
   awaiting no Judgement Day.

But occasionally, as in the poems of Sir John Betjeman, the neglected church shows signs of life--of repentance and relationship with "God who created the present, the chain-smoking millions and me." Herbert Lomas finds grace and sweetness in London's St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and John Heath-Stubbs, standing in the churchyard of Saint Mary Magdalene, Old Milton, where his father is buried, calls upon the patron saint: "Oh, in Death's garden be / Prime witness of the only Resurrection."

Several years ago I stood on a hill above Tintern Abbey, the Welsh ruins of a medieval abbey immortalized by Wordsworth in his poem by the same name. …

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