Hallo again to all.
They were a dismal lot: six or seven large battered cardboard boxes, piled high against a wall. The cardboard looked old and cheap. They held whatever was salvaged from St. Laurence's Church*, which had closed a few months earlier, a small parish in a corner of a large diocese already crowded with churches.
Each church's end is different: some close because they are caught in a theological struggle and become collateral damage in a war no-one wins; some close because they have the misfortune to be near another more flourishing parish; others close because they steadfastly refuse to grow, if growing means changing. We'd no idea why St Laurence had met its end.
The larger cardboard box was filled predictably with prayer books and hymnals and a wealth of black plastic three-ring notebooks containing photocopies of sheet music, presumably a bespoke effort for a choir of limited means and ability.
Another box held an astounding number of what are called 'confirmation veils', which girls often donned on the day they received that sacrament. There's little demand these days for that vesture. They were a cheap sort of nylon, redolent of the 1950s, so out went the lot. Vestments came next. There some of the dreaded cassock-albs (out!) along with several traditional albs and amices in cambric or something like it. (Those were kept, even if they are rarely used.) Some dispiriting polyester-looking altar frontals, pulpit and lectern falls, in strangely pastel colours, filled another box. Out!
Another box contained a vast amount of material used to cover church ornaments and appointments during Lent, in the traditional purple, but also in cherry red and black, all ready to swath on Good Friday and . . . ? The cloth was synthetic and nasty: Out! Another box was filled to the top with framed photographs: earnest young clergymen speaking to parishioners at the church door in the black-and-white 1930s and 1940s; women in hats serving at unidentified church events populated snapshots from the 1950s. The black-and-white photos gave way to the garish Kodachrome of the 1960s and 1970s. Each photo in its frame was carefully identified with a typewritten label.
A scattering of other books, a felt banner of uninspiring design, some strange antimacassar-like covers in liturgical colours completed the inventory.
Having separated what would be disposed of (much) and what would be kept (little), we were in something of a spiritual funk. 'Is this what it comes to?' we wondered existentially, 'Just a clump of boxes with items and objects less impressive than one might find in the costume room of a community theatre?' What difference did the decades of that church's existence make?' Somehow, we thought irrationally, there should be some odour of holiness or shards of sanctity in the contents of the boxes. The life of a church for more than 100 years shouldn't come to . . . this lot of stuff, not fit for a jumble sale.
But often it does come to that. The disjecta membra from parishes of great age, wealth, or historical importance — should they close, for whatever reason — probably end up in the auction rooms of Christie's or Sotheby's. The objects and textiles would be surely more impressive, but life is still fled from them. What matters, what can't be boxed or sold, are the lives of parishioners touched, moulded, changed, made better (God forbid anything other) during the time the parish existed. Most of those parishioners of St Laurence are likely dead, we mused, but no doubt some are living. We could set about to find them and ask them about their church, what it was like when it was alive, and what difference its closing might have made. But first we turned to books to answer the question: Why did St Laurence's Church die?
In a 1985 diocesan history, it became clear: 'Many parishioners have died in recent years, and others have moved to other communities, with the result that the number of communicants residing in the area is quite small'. That was more than 30 years ago. So perhaps there was no reason to weep at its closing or to maunder amongst the boxes. It was a small parish whose clear reason for existing ended some years ago, demographically dead yet clinging to life for a few more decades. No doubt there were earnest attempts to keep it going. Perhaps a number of descendants of founding families kept it open as a sort of private chapel. But by 1985, it was clear that St Laurence's was not likely to survive. Its heyday was likely the baby-booming 1950s — all those confirmation veils! — and it would be hard battered in the 1960s. The 1970s brought in those polyester vestments and perhaps those black notebooks with simpler choir anthems, and the parish registers (yet to be turned over) no doubt document dwindling numbers . . . Fast forward to 2012 and that pile of boxes.
It's not impossible to mourn the demise of St Laurence's Church, but understanding its natural history makes its death understandable and far less sad. The places we call our spiritual homes will someday close, most long after our own deaths. It's the untimely and the unnecessary deaths that should give us pause and make us sad. Those that quietly end of demographic old age deserve a gentle prayer of remembrance and safe home for their parish records. Old polyester cassock albs? Bah. Rubbish them!
See you next week.
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