Why a secular-humanist historian likes churches


St. Margaret’s Church, Clea-on-the-Sea, Norfolk

This was the view from the front door of a rented holiday home in Norfolk in eastern England that my wife and I stayed at for a fortnight each July for about ten years. The house was nothing exceptional (though at its heart was a two-roomed 17th century dwelling). But the view was stunning. As well as St Margaret’s Church and its graveyard (behind the wall on the left), we could see off to the right in the distance the church at Wiveton and the steeple of a third at Blakeney.  In between was a large common which until the 14th century had been the harbour that made Cley a centre of the wool trade. Completing a magical outlook was the roof of the local pub, a mere 45 second stroll through the graves.

Cley quickly became my favourite church. I had had a kind of unofficial ‘favourite’ church elsewhere in Norfolk, but this was elevated to a position of more esteem. It is a church with a grandeur and calmness, its interior light and airy, and often used nowadays as the site for art exhibitions. From the opposite viewpoint, the grandeur of its scale is more easily seen, dominating the Newgate end of the village. There’s something about this church which attracts more than other ones, large or small. I feel comfortable with it when so many others leave me cold or even daunted.

As an historian of religion, I am attracted to churches that speak to me of their cultural position in the past. The location of this church in a village grown rich and fat on mediaeval wool made me understand it better. But now bereft of that economic impulse, and left with little other than second homes and tourism, St Margaret’s has assumed a new persona as a quiet, in many ways largely deserted ecclesiastical role. Its services are often small, and like many of North Norfolk’s flint-covered churches it struggles on historic building grants and goodwill to stay up and afloat. As a secular humanist, I don’t revel in that condition for churches. But it does accentuate my appreciation of their cultural role during periods of economic and ecclesiastical affluence now gone.

Other religious historians, notably those with a confessional connection, will appreciate an ecclesiastical structure in ways different to me. Indeed, the doyen of British church historians, the Revd. Professor Sir Owen Chadwick, has had a house right in the shadow of St Margaret’s for a long time. It is easy for me to see why he might be attracted to that situation, and I would have loved to emulate him. Indeed, my wife and I tried to. The holiday let we stayed in there went on sale two years back, but it was way out of our price league. We had to let I go.

For my part, I am taken with the way this church has been reborn in a more secular time as a quiet and contemplative place, uplifting in its brilliant clerestories. It now provides gratification for aesthetic and artistic inclinations, being used for summer art exhibitions, with its brasses and gravestones becoming the stands upon which paintings and new art may rest. Above all, it’s a fantastic church to see by a summer’s night, approaching through the comforting gravestones in the stillness, and to feel agreeable in a medieval building’s longevity.

Not every church moves me in this way. But the medieval churches of eastern England, many with surviving wine-glass pulpits and rood screens with the faces of female saints scrubbed out by Reformation puritans with issues about gender and pictures of interesting people, remind me of why they are empty of worshippers but full of Europe’s culture. These calming buildings inform my sense of heritage and my belonging without imposing their religion upon me.

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