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Sunday, 22 May 2016


For the last twenty-plus years I've lived in a row of Victorian cottages with a gravel path in front which forms part of a traditional route to a church.   The church, like so many in Scotland, is a mid-Victorian building which replaced an older structure, built on a hill on land which has for centuries been a spiritual centre.  Graves in the churchyard date back to the 1700s.  Those are the legible ones. There will be many others which have vanished.
I often watch the churchgoers processing past my window, in an idle sort of way as I drink tea and catch up with Twitter and the like.  They've been getting fewer in number and, like myself, greyer and more gnarled and 'hunched' in appearance.  As I've been watching this ageing and gnarling and shrinking, week by week, winter by winter, I've been feeling oddly more anxious as I realise I'm observing the passing of an era.
I say 'oddly' because I don't really like the church as such - at least, not the one whose traditions I was brought up in.
I grew up in a strict church-going family at a time when Sundays were observed and Bibles were read. You didn't work on a Sunday unless you were a nurse or similar.  Shops were closed.  You had a proper dinner.  It was a day of rest and quiet.  It all seemed very dull.
When I was young I loathed Sundays and I loathed the church - or thought I did.  The benefits were that it gave me something to rebel against - a structure, and a moral code - and it is in their nature that all adolescents need to rebel in order to test themselves, develop and mature.  Perhaps that structure and moral code can be (or was) a too-obvious diversion, an easy target, unhelpfully masking other issues.  But I don't have the time or the inclination to go into all that at this point.
Conversely, the church gave me reassuring places to go when I felt a bit lost.  I stopped attending church services as soon as I was permitted to make my own decision about that but I continued to visit church buildings with their silence and their spires and their shadows and their smell of dust.  Some felt appealing, mellow and welcoming and gave genuine comfort.  Others felt sour, like cold, over-boiled potatoes and the unwholesome aftermath of a very bad meal.  These gave comfort only in that they were grounding reminders of a familiar, leaden dread.
The church-going generation - my parents' generation - is passing.  Church buildings are closing down.  Soon there will be towns with no church, no spire, no bells, no Sunday service.  Cathedrals and abbeys on the grand scale will remain as attractions and museums but small town churches and country churches will be lost, de-sanctified and demolished or turned into houses.
This is a source of regret to me.  I don't like much of what passes for Christianity.  The ministers I have encountered from time to time have not impressed me.  They seem by and large not people with whom I'd like to discuss anything on a spiritual level.
But I need to know that churches are There.  That there is a moral code to follow, or to choose not to follow. That Sundays off matter, as human souls and dignity matter.  That there are spires rising to Heaven in every little town, spiritual symbols that can be observed as sources of inspiration and hope within the mundane and the everyday, reminders of human mortality and redemption, rather than archaic architectural 'features' in a re-modelled upmarket home.
I say all this as a total hypocrite of course.  I've been part of the 'decline'. However, that may change as I teeter on the edge of my own graveside.

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