Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Rural Zoar?

This morning I attended the communion service at St. Bertoline’s, Barthomley, just two or three miles from here.

Barthomley is a small hamlet, little more than a scattering of cottages and farms, with a few fine old buildings and the wonderful White Lion pub – one of the best pubs anywhere, ever.

If you like to drink your beer on oak settles and your services in 1662 BCP, then you’d love it.

Instead of the sung eucharist, it was Common Worship this morning, the Feast of Christ The King – with the famous ‘stir up’ Collect that gave this Sunday its traditional name of ‘Stir-up Sunday.’ People used to stir up the dried fruit for their Christmas cakes and puddings on this Sunday, and my wife did the same, even though she’s been poorly with cold.

St. Bertoline’s is a fine medieval church on an 8th century foundation. St Bertram (or Bertoline) was a hermit hereabouts and famously changed some loaves into stones to thwart the Devil’s temptation for him to break a fast. A neat reversal of the Gospel story of the Temptation of Christ. They still have some boulders there that are said to have once been loaves and the Orthodox church up in Audley managed to get hold of one to keep in a basket alongside their icon screen.

It was also the scene of a notorious massacre during The English Civil War. Some 20 villagers sheltered in the church tower as Royalist troops ransacked the village. The rector's son took a pot shot with his musket and brought one of the horsemen down. Enraged, the others lit fires and smoked the men out of the tower, stripping, bludgeoning and clubbing them as they emerged. The rector's son had his throat slit and perhaps a dozen were killed in all, the others managing to escape. It was one of the war-crimes cited against King Charles I at his trial, even though he was miles away at the time and had nothing to do with the massacre itself. I still shudder at the thought of it, though, whenever I enter this fine old church.

The style is what I’d call ‘rural catholic’, a kind of no-nonsense rustic Anglicanism with some ceremonial but nothing too spikey. The priest wears a cope for communion and faces the altar during the consecration, but there's no smoke and mirrors.

The congregation was larger than I expected, swelled perhaps by children brought along for the ‘Toy Sunday’ part – the donation of toys for The Salvation Army to distribute among the needy. I recognised a number of people, besides those I’ve met before or know from non-church contexts, such as a woman from the Stoke Stanza at The Leopard. Like me, she lives in Alsager and it seems that a number of people have taken refuge at St. Bertoline’s, either, one presumes, to escape from the guitars and waving arms at the lively parishes in the nearby towns or the innovations of the liberal catholic-lite brigade. I know of a number of medieval parish churches hereabouts which attract refugees from the towns. They are drawn by the language of the Book of Common Prayer, by the surpliced choirs and anthems, by a form of Anglicanism that is apparently on the wane in the towns and suburbs.

‘You need that approach if you’re going to attract the young people and families,’ the Stanza lady said philosophically, referring to the evangelical, wannabe-charismatic churchmanship of my local parish. ‘We can’t get the young people here.’

There can’t be many young people in Barthomley itself. I’ve met one or two, friends of my eldest. But there aren’t that many people there all told. The pub attracts people from further afield, of course. On a smaller scale, it looks like the rural Zoar of St. Bertoline’s is doing the same.

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