Sunday, 13 January 2019
I have no idea why, but most days I drive one route to work and a completely different route on the way home. So it is that most mornings, while pondering the stresses of the day to come, I find myself in the procession of cars heading out of Henley toward Redditch, passing along the way a tiny, timber-towered church perched on a grassy corner of the A4189.
It doesn’t really advertise itself. Perhaps that’s because Oldberrow isn’t really a village of any significance. It took a brief stop by the wayside and glance at the lychgate noticeboard for me even to discover its name. But since then - and despite its internet presence being equally feint - I’ve had a hankering to go.
Once a month the church hosts a communion service. It’s tiny inside; one room little bigger than a cricket pitch but with a surprising warmth. Warm too is the welcome from the church wardens and Rev Kate. All told we are barely a dozen. The fact that the service booklets run out and are hastily shared, suggests that few regulars are expected let alone a visitor from so far away as Kenilworth.
Without any hymns (the church doesn’t boast anything so grand as an organ or piano) the service speeds through at quite a pace. The readings also being brief, and the communion queue only ten, we’re through in forty minutes.
One of the knock-on effects of the absence of music combined with the tiny dimensions of the church, is to throw the focus fully onto the words. The sermon comes across more like a bible study talk - there’s no figurative middle-distance into which the vicar can easily address her remarks. Rev Kate deliberately comes forward to be as close to the congregation as she can. This feels like it is being said for us, not as part of a general performance we are distantly witnessing. I remember the same being true at a Rachel Podger violin recital a few years ago. Then, it was as if we had been invited in to sit in on a private rehearsal, now it was as if we were there as the vicar was gathering her thoughts.
The same is true of the liturgy. I’m aware of all the individual voices - this is not a collective mumble but a coming-together of people who genuinely want to be here. It’s a very compact and tiny gathering but none the weaker for that.
Without an organ voluntary to see us on our way, the congregation’s reflections are brought to a halt by the noise of the kettle being switched on at the back. Tea and a recommendation to visit the equally-diminutive church at Morton Bagot when it appears on the rota, follows. I promise to go.
It’s inevitable that thoughts should stray to why churches like this are kept active. How do they survive on a dozen people coming through the doors once a month? I suppose the answer is that a lot of them don’t and end up being attractive conversions for those keen to cash in on the characterful buildings in attractive settings. But continue St Mary’s does and perhaps its most important message is to passing motorists: We’re here and we always will be.