The End of Local Christianity?

A doorway at St John the Baptist – Westfield Church, East Sussex, England

Christianity in England has Her Majesty the Queen as Defender of the Faith. This has come about after centuries of bloodshed between Catholics and Protestants. Each side had its Archbishops burned by the other. Yet Christian religion was strong – the idea of faith – the belief in Jesus Christ, still embedded in the mind. How else could the universe be here? Did not God make Man in his own likeness?

Then along came physics and the scientific method followed by a fight back by the creationists. Now the main problems for local Christianity seem to be falling congregations and falling churches. Beware the Cromwells! The ‘poling-out’ and smashing of stained glass windows by Oliver Cromwell’s men and before him the mass vandalism and art atrocities of the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, is now replaced by teams of thieves taking lead from roofs and smashing more glass, stealing from offertory boxes, overturning gravestones, illegal use of metal detectors, and the theft of valuable church items.

In those long ago days when you could be hanged for stealing a loaf of bread, theft of church property would likely see you dead too. Nowadays, crimes against churches are a daily occurrence and there is only one police officer in the whole of Sussex whose impossible job it is to specifically protect our Heritage – my good friend PCSO Daryl Holter.

Daryl explains: ‘Nowadays, crimes against churches are a daily occurrence, My work here is to specifically protect our Heritage. Sadly, churches make up 51% of all recorded Heritage crime for Sussex Police to investigate, that’s at least one to two crimes a week.’

Focusing on the divided county of the South Saxons – Sussex, visitors will find more than 560 Anglican parish churches, ranging in date from, at the earliest, the Eighth Century to the present – of these, 284 are in East Sussex. Each church has a history detailed in this most excellent website here:

https://sussexparishchurches.org/towns/east-sussex/

In the past, the Anglo-Saxons set up churches here and abbeys and monasteries too. The Saxons managed to covert the Viking Danes after much bloodshed. To the east of Hastings, prior to the famous 1066 Battle and the building of Battle Abbey, there was a large area of French Abbey land called Rameslie, owned by the Norman Abbey of Fecamp. Rameslie covered an area from east Hastings to Rye and Winchelsea and the valley of the River Brede. The precise borders of Rameslie are not known, however, I have been visiting churches in the general area of Rameslie to see how Christianity is faring a thousand years after the fateful Norman invasion – anniversary 14th October.

In the two weeks prior to the battle, the Normans laid some villages nearby to waste, including some in the remit of Rameslie. Instead of giving the Abbey of Fecamp the right to build Battle Abbey, Duke and then King William gave it to one (creepy) monk from Marmoutier who kept plaguing him.

Then came the punitive Erminfrid Penitential:

https://1066universityofsheffield.wordpress.com/

The Bishop of Sion eventually told King William that the Pope was displeased with his murderous rule and wanted him to make amends. So finally after burning half of England, he let Marmoutier build their abbey and eventually- after his death – to forge its charters to ensure a grab of lands and spurious rights including the killing of the King’s Deer.

Here’s a view of some of the local churches in Rameslie or nearby.

Westfield Church – St John the Baptist
St George – Brede Church
Catsfield Old Church – St Laurence – early 11th Century and mentioned in the Domesday Book
St Mary – Salehurst Church
St Mary – Udimore Church
St Laurence Church, Guestling
All Saints Church, Icklesham
St Thomas-a-Becket, Winchelsea

Each of these churches has its own problems – of congregation size, administration and repair. So, for example, take a look at Salehurst Church.

St Mary – Salehurst Church frontage

When you get to the door, you will see a notice telling you (despite the Church’s stance on temperance), that if you want to see inside you must wait till the local pub opens and get the key from the pub landlord.

Contrast this with Westfield Church where, apart from a disrupted path border, the church is open and well-kept.

St John the Baptist – Westfield Church gardens
Inside St John the Baptist -Westfield Church

When you take a good look at the very old 11th Century Catsfield Old Church you can really see the problems.

St Laurence – Catsfield – roof repairs to the church

The sheer cost of re-tiling this huge roof must be very considerable – but if it is not done then the whole building will fail and it will be impossible for the congregation to sustain it, with rain falling inside it. So money has been found from somewhere – which shows commitment – either locally or from central church funds perhaps.

Now look at a commercial premises and the way they keep up a very high standard using business money because if no-one wanted to go there it would be impossible to keep the building in such a fine state. I’m talking about the Netherfield Arms Public House – here:

The Netherfield Arms Public House

Public Houses have been closing all over the UK. Those that have survived have done so by meeting local demand – for wholesome restaurant-quality food without posh and snobby waiters, for example, and children’s playgrounds, outside seating and sufficient parking. It has been a struggle to survive and relies entirely on customers’ goodwill and footfall.

So does the survival of the Rameslie and Battle District churches. they need ‘customers’ and footfall. Will we see a steady closure of churches, a loss of beauty and ancient architecture in the next 20 years? Will this be caused by a lack of money locally, centrally or just a drifting away of the ‘unfaithful’ who have decided to follow humanism, paganism or any other -ism rather than Christianity? What is at the tipping point of church collapse? Building costs rise, refurbishment is an endless task, although the greatest cost to the Church of England overall are the pension payments to retired clergy – who are living longer as health services improve.

Take a look at some of the problems of upkeep.

St Laurence – Catsfield Church graveyard staircase
Caring for the many oaks and yews at Westfield Church
Caring for graves, tombs and ornamentation – for example: The Brede Giant – Brede Church
St George – Brede Church Graveyard

Churches have been built on hills and high points, in the marshes, in woodland – all places of great beauty and tranquility. It is vital to remember that the loved ones of the local community are at rest here. The tranquil spaces must be preserved. Even if churches no longer have a use as religious centres of worship due to cost of maintenance, their grounds are hallowed, their trees are national treasures. We do not want to lose any square centimetre of peace.

I have found as I toured these places, local people who were knowledgeable about their history and the ancient history of their churches. They worry about the future for these buildings. They are concerned that housing estates are not built over graves and stunning views lost to the public due to private estate enclosure.

The question is – is this whole religious system sustainable? Have we lost too much already? Should the government and local authorities or central church authorities do more? Should precious objects and paintings be sold just to preserve church stone fabric? Should the collection boxes and church roof lead be protected by alarms and cameras? Should each church have a more active warden with a camera at the church linked by wi-fi to the warden’s home laptop?

Should the police give more manpower and resources to the issue of heritage preservation both religious and civil?

All these are tough questions. I hope I have spurred debate. Please let me know what you think.

The glorious view from St George – Brede Church

kind regards

David

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