Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Has your church been clipped today?

Ash Wednesday is tomorrow: a forty-day fast is nearly upon us, and we gulp at the prospect.  In the Middle Ages, the gulp was so palpable that they made something of it:  in a last outburst of frivolity and feasting before Lent's wilderness, down went all the food that would otherwise waste.  Hence Carnival - carne vale - farewell to meat.

For centuries, several English towns saw no reason not to mark Shrove Tuesday by transforming the entire parish into a football-pitch and the whole population into two opposing teams.  Shrovetide Football lasts for at least an afternoon, is played between two goals several miles apart and is generally devoid of rules.  Here it is being played in Chester-le-Street in 1927:


Sad to say, the various drawbacks to this tradition (as portrayed in the reel!) became obvious in the end even to the most enthusiastically turned blind eye.  The game in Chester-le-Street was banned in 1932.  A glorious survival is the game in Ashbourne in Derbyshire, whose townsfolk remain resolutely boisterous.

Depending on your part of the country, Shrove Tuesday is also the day on which to 'clip' or clasp the parish church.  Everyone joins hands in a great ring around church and sings a hymn.  This is still done in several parishes - and what an appealing and self-unconscious tradition!  Still, there is the sad thought that the girths of many churches must now outreach many a shrunken congregation.

Is it sentimental - or rather sensible (in all senses) - to see in this tradition an instinctive and affectionate gravitation to the natural heart of a village or town?  I think the latter.  Clipping a church is new to me, but I feel that there is a hearty rightness about it.  A church might be a 'serious house on serious earth' as Philip Larkin put it, but it is also a place of vigour and life, where time is to be spent and labour undertaken gladly.  Why shouldn't we turn the church into a kind of toy, in the right spirit and at the right time, if children play with their parents?  This is why I rejoice in the ornamentation and decoration of churches, and  the continual additions and alterations of paintings and engravings - even if apparently needless or useless - even if roughly done!  And why I rejoice in bell-ringing and making a terrific  and uplifting racket with a belfry.  It proves that a church - far from the austere and artificial edifice in many a modern mind's eye - is  to be lived in, to be loved, and to be both mankind's house for God and God's house for mankind. 
'Clipping the church'- St Lawrence, Rode, by W.W. Wheatley.  (from the Wikimedia Commons)

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