‘Hey, kids, it’s Harvest Festival in church on Thur—‘
And that was it. No more discussion. Finito. Period. Fin.
As we approach our thirteenth anniversary of resident status here in Nunburnholme I cast my mind back to the ways in which we have become enveloped into the bosom of this tiny rural community. The process started just moments after our arrival, with an invitation to drinks at Hessey Farm.
‘Thank you, what time?’
‘ANY time!!’ came the answer.
Then there was a handsome stranger at the door bearing gifts; a tray of his own farm eggs.
With a husband living away during the week I suddenly found myself alone, with a toddler, in the middle of nowhere. But very soon I was invited to coffee mornings at The Old School House where Arthur and I tried hard to make a good impression. I was the youngest grown-up there by at least twenty years and it seemed that Arthur always managed to fill his nappy triumphantly, perhaps because he already felt so at home, but the kind older ladies, who turned out to be a fun bunch, were always very accommodating.
That autumn a leaflet floated through our letterbox inviting us to join a sponsored village walk. It was on this long chilly trek to the pub at Millington, with Arthur hoisted in a backpack onto Danny crying ‘Can we go hooome nooow?!’ (Arthur that is, not Danny) when the ladies of The Nunburnholme Jubilee Committee, scenting fresh blood, carried out a strategic advance. It was the friendliest press gang imaginable. Weakened by their infectious enthusiasm I became a committee member, and have been one ever since.
There is little in the way of ‘infrastructure’ in this secret Wolds valley, conspicuously bypassed by the Holy Grail that is super-fast-fibre-optic-broadband, but thankfully we have a Victorian letterbox and a red Gilbert Scott Telephone kiosk that glows reassuringly at night, so the carrier pigeons and smoke signals are not always necessary. There is no shop, school or pub, let alone mains gas or sewer (instead we all keep a giant tank of poo under the drive, and another of highly flammable fuel oil in the garden.)
When I chatted about local amenities with the previous occupant of our house, she boasted optimistically, ‘But we have a BUS SHELTER!’ in a tone suggesting that, because of this, I should want for nothing. It turned out she was right. At that time the bus stop provided an essential chat-hub for mums who made the morning toddle there to see their children onto the school bus. But now with generally fewer little people in the village they enjoy the luxury of a door-to-door bus service, and the shelter, though cosy and kitted out with mod cons like a bin, illustrated history boards and a seat, is less of a hub.
And so, by default, our dinky little church of St James provides the village with it’s only real meeting place. Famed for it’s heavenly peal of six bells, and its mysterious Saxon Cross, it has stood there in one form or another since the early middle ages. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the folk here are ingenious in the many and varied ways they use the building to generate a strong sense of community. A year round program of events, sometimes held in the donkey paddock but most often utilizing the church as a venue, means that one can often enjoy a life-improving concert, talk or demonstration, not to mention the occasional knees-up, without even having to get into a car. The Jubilee Committee is the culprit, delivering leaflets, rounding up hapless volunteers, tirelessly plugging the next attraction, and then counting the proceeds which are ploughed straight back into the village in the form of things like new pew cushions, churchyard maintenance and daffodil planting. Even though they have no official link to the church, what motivates the NJC, more than anything, is a deep sense of stewardship when it comes to the beloved crumbling sandstone edifice of St James.
Apart from the obligatory church parade as a Brownie, where I got to do the reading or, if I was good, carry the colours, I was never what you might call a ‘church goer’. Born overseas to fairly heathen parents, I never got round to being christened or baptized like other ‘normal’ children. My best friend was a Methodist, and went to ‘Shell Club’ on Sundays, where she claimed to have several boyfriends, but I was very wary of overtly religious carryings on like eyes-closed tambourine bashing or clapping for Jesus, activities that filled me with a kind of panicky dread. My first year in halls at university found me unwitting neighbour to The God Squad. They patiently persisted in well meaning attempts to lure me into their bible meetings, but my ardent interest in hedonism proved infinitely more seductive. Later, having settled on the man of my dreams, it was a lady registrar, not a vicar that conducted our wedding service, (although being a romantic, I was careful to find a suitably picturesque and ancient site with gravitas, and battlements, in which to seal the deal).
But look at me now, a [fairly] active member of a church bell ringer’s band, attending committee meetings and steering groups to raise money for a community room annexed to the church. I sometimes drop high falutin’ words like diocesan, faculty and quinquennial into the converation, and I make the big floral arrangement you see on the font at Harvest time. Shit, it looks like The God Squad got me in the end.
Perhaps as I get older a growing sense of mortality has made a more reflective person of me. That, coupled with an over-active imagination and a willingness to believe in magic and superstition means that from time to time, say it quietly, I do rather enjoy a Sunday morning in church. It’s not cool or sexy, but it is the only time I get these days to actually sit quietly and examine my inner self. (Yoga comes close, but I’m usually too preoccupied with not falling over to think very deeply about how I treat others or what I might do to become a better human.)
Hold a gun to my head and demand my religious affiliation, I am likely to whisper in a trembling voice, ’p-p-pagan…?’. But in the absence of a local branch of East Riding Druids (I’ve checked) The Church shares just about enough similarities and ideals with those more pre-historic beliefs in cosmic wonder and Mother Nature for me to comfortably tuck a tiny wooden cross next to the golden sickle in the pocket of my white cloak. You only have to study the intricate and bizarre carvings on our Saxon Cross to see how, for a time, the two systems happily overlapped.
I will never forget a friend, devout churchgoer, turning to me in our shared pew at the end of an Easter service and saying brightly, ‘It would be so lovely to actually believe all those stories, wouldn’t it?’ I admired her honesty and realized that belief or faith is as unique to each of us as our thumb print. I confess that, for me, church simply evokes a wide-eyed respect for the ancient and arcane. I shudder with delight at the archaic words and hypnotic chanting rhythm of the old Lord’s Prayer that, at five years old, I first learnt to recite at The Alice Smith School in Kuala Lumpur. I admire the elegant beauty of gothic brass, carved oak, lacey altar-cloths, embroidered stoles and starchy cassocks. Perhaps it’s the aesthetic of religion that draws me in.
While I often feel quite moved in church, and some of the text is delicious to say out loud, especially the tongue tickling ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ bit, I generally tend to mumble through the parts of the service where the congregation are explicitly required to declare their faith in God. Being on the ‘Readings Rosta’ means that, once or twice a year, heart thumping, I deliver a solemn, sometimes unpronounceable, or incomprehensible, passage from the bible to the hushed and attentive worshipful gathering. After I sit back down, it’s useful that the vicar or lay reader usually goes on to explain just what I was blathering about.
I confess that I seldom get past all the ‘our souls’ without an infantile inner titter, and while I love belting out a good old fashioned hymn I invariably find myself struggling to reach the upper registers, notes that only the bats can hear. At those moments it is fatal to make eye contact with anyone, a nudge in the ribs will invariably make me hoot. Despite my great age and responsibilities, a giggling bobble-hatted Brownie still inhabits my heart.
Still allergic to anything remotely ‘Happy Clappy’, I do find saying The Peace a little iffy. It’s like clinking glasses at a dinner party except here you have to get round the whole congregation swiftly shaking hands and saying ‘Peace be with you’. You feel at once like both the Queen and the Pope and it never fails to be a bit awkward, especially if you inadvertently miss someone out and spend the rest of the service worrying that you’ve snubbed a neighbour. Sometimes you get more than you bargained for with a big unexpected hug, and once, my friend Sarah broke the tension whispering ‘No tongues!’ as we embraced.
If I accidentally stumble into a Communion service, things can get even heavier. Not having been officially initiated in to The Church (despite the vicar’s best recruitment efforts) I am not strictly allowed to take communion, and although the vicar says that anyone can come up to the altar rail to receive the body and blood of Christ, I feel queasy at the thought of potentially bringing hellfire and damnation onto my sacrilegious head, so I console myself with a simple blessing and the gentle touch of an ordained hand on my head instead. This bit often makes me feel quite special, and I’m sure that as I walk back to the pew I am a little purer than I was. After all that, you get a hot drink, and a good catch up on village news, what there is of it. There is also a tin of the most delicious chocolate biscuits that miraculously never runs out.
Despite being abandoned by my wretched teenage children, I enjoyed the sumptuous celebration of earth’s gifts at last night’s harvest festival service. As usual our resident farmers were there to soak up the praise and glory for all their hard work, rows of my garden apples lined up along the organ, (oo-er missus) filling the ancient building with the scent of orchards. Gourds and squashes grown in the Old Rectory vegetable garden were piled artfully onto the choir stalls, and every ledge and windowsill was bursting with colourful informal arrangements of autumn flowers and conkers. The shared supper in the little nave afterwards brought with it a warm sense of togetherness as we picked over cherry tomatoes sausage rolls, homemade scones and warm apple cake.
So it makes me a little sad that my children, and husband, have adopted a complete NO WAY JOSE (or should that be JESU?) attitude when it comes to popping down the village with me for a little light godliness now and again. When Arthur and Rose were small, and biddable, they always accompanied me, and I liked to think that in some way akin to a nourishing bowl of Ready Brek, it afforded them the benefit of a little warm glow of Christianity that might protect them from the evils of the modern age. On high days and holidays Danny would join us, along with his gorgeous singing voice, but he, like them, has turned irrevocably to the dark side, often and publicly declaring that all religion is evil. I make allowances for him. He’s seen a lot of terrible things, and is toughened with cynicism.
But my babies are surely too young to hold such callous Atheist opinions. As dutiful little pupils at Warter C of E Primary School, their hands would shoot up eagerly when a volunteer was needed to light the big candle in assembly. Pretending to be a prodigal son in the Open The Book sessions was a highlight of the day. But now they roll their eyes at the poppycock of the holy trinity, sniff superciliously at their RS homework, and recoil like Count Dracula caught in a sunbeam when asked to do a reading. On more than one occasion Arthur’s Head Master has caught him defiantly not singing the hymns in church. Instead they worship at the altar of You Tube, Netflix and Snapchat, music is their religion, and goofing about with mates beats shaking hands with a gathering of old duffers in a musty church, and who can blame them?
Although I plan to hang about for a good long time to come, thoughts do, from time to time, drift morbidly to my funeral arrangements. Ultimately it has become my firm wish to push up the daisies in the graveyard at Nunburnholme. I’ve already checked with the Church Warden and have his assurances that it’s not necessary to bagsy a plot just yet. A conservation group once conducted a botanical survey of the turf there and the wild plants they found revealed a diversity only found in ancient wildflower meadow. So having put down my own roots, and become so much part of life here, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather spend eternity.
Would my little Atheists, hopefully grown up by then, be able to stomach my plans? I think, if the organ hasn’t completely disintegrated by then, I rather fancy the idea of including The Lords My Shepherd (to the tune of Crimond) in the order of service. I imagine my beautiful offspring clothed in stylish black remembering fondly how I screeched like the mice on the Mouse Organ in Bagpuss when I attempted the high notes. I’d also hope that it would bring to mind all those Christmas Nativities where, bedecked with Yasser Arafat scarves and dressing gowns, or silk turbans, beads and tinsel, I forced the poor things to stand awkwardly with their friends and re-enact the miraculous virgin birth using a swaddled dolly and a wooden crate of hamster hay. Would they resent the dead me for dragging them back to church one last time, when instead they could shove me down a conveyer belt to the strains of Doctor and The Medics, and go straight to the pub? Or will they, like me, have reached a resigned acceptance that it’s rather nice to be included in a community of God botherers?