First published in Country Life
St Martin’s Church in Fifield Bavant is one of the smallest churches in the country in regular use. It lies on a grassy slope above the valley of the River Ebble in south-west Wiltshire. Last time I came I walked up the mown path with two spaniels from the farm, Edward and Winston, racing ahead.
Fifield Bavant is a community of twenty or so. I shall be there at 10.00pm on Christmas Eve for the communion service. St Martin’s only seats 30 or so on simple wooden pews, and that’s with someone sharing the organist’s bench. Yet, each year there are 100 people there on Christmas night, and often more. That’s five times the village’s population. Half the Christmas congregation squeezes inside, and everyone else stands around the fire which burns in the brazier outside the west end: gloves, hats, and Christmas fancy dress. Families, friends and visitors, parents, children, cousins, and grandchildren gather to sing the familiar carols and welcome the Christ child.
Afterwards, there will be mulled wine to warm the blood.
I am so looking forward to Christmas Eve.
As Bishop of Ramsbury, in the Diocese of Salisbury, a title first used in 909AD, I am responsible for 260 churches in Wiltshire, many of which are small, rural and holy, like St Martin’s.
There has been a church in Fifield Bavant since at least the 13th century. There is evidence of settlement in the village back as far as the Iron Age. It has never been a large place, although the population is at its smallest now. For centuries the church has been a place where people have come with their joys and sorrows, hopes and fears: new birth at Baptism and grief at death.
It is a church, as Philip Larkin described, which is “a serious house on serious earth”.
On Christmas night we come out of the darkness to sense the light which illuminates all things, and which is not overcome. We come to feel again something deep and ancient, like the stones of this church. We come to touch and be touched by something greater, to express again a longing for a new heaven and a new earth.
The Church as a whole has long had an uneasy relationship with Christmas, unsure whether to celebrate full churches, or complain of commercialism and folk religion. Canon Tupper Carey, who was brought up in Fifield Bavant Rectory, suggested in 1914 that Christmas Church celebrations should be banned as they were simply an excuse for secularism and drunkenness.
I, however, am firmly on the side of those who wish to celebrate that the churches are full. Perhaps it is that the Church that needs to see that we are not the sole custodians of all that is religious, holy and spiritual.
Christmas in a country church shows just how important these ancient buildings are. There are those who talk of the struggling rural church. The history of the churches in my part of south-west England shows, however, that they have always had their ups and downs. St Martin’s has certainly had its share of troubles.
In the late nineteenth century the church was in disrepair. In 1830 the rectory had been declared unfit for human habitation. Earlier, it was recorded in 1570 that the Rector’s surplice had been stolen and no one replaced it, poor man, until 1585.
Country churches are now well used. The proportion of people from a village attending is much higher than that of the town. Recent national evidence has shown that despite their comparatively small numbers it is churches with congregations under 30 which are more likely to grow.
The church buildings of this area, at least, are in a better condition than they have been since they were built. Helped by Historic Churches’ Trusts and others, together with great local generosity, the buildings are mostly very well maintained.
At St Martins’ the congregation were recently faced with a £96,000 bill for work to the roof and other essential works. They raised it all, with a further £25,000 put in the reserves for the future. And that with a population of just 20.
The author Terry Pratchett, who lived nearby, joined in with the fundraising despite describing himself as a Humanist rather than a Christian. He helped to organise a fair, advertising it on his Facebook page. On the day his fans turned up dressed as Wizards or as Death, characters from his novels. Pratchett came to all the fundraising committee meetings because he saw the importance of the church for the community. He used to like to sit in the St Martin’s, saying it was a place of “solace for the soul”.
The Visitors’ Book records others passing by, for it is a place of pilgrimage and prayer. St Martin’s is one of those thin places where heaven touches earth.
There is so much beauty in the world, and far too much pain. There will be those in church who come to celebrate and to laugh, as well as those who are finding life tough. This year I shall be thinking of our friend who had a fall in March and was left partially paralysed and in a wheelchair. Christmas is not an escape from all that.
St Luke tells us in his Gospel that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, as all were to return to their birthplace. It’s much the same now, as many of us go back home at Christmas, to our roots, to join with family.
This year all four of our children will be here at home, although the youngest will not arrive from his junior doctor Christmas Day shift until after 10.00pm on Christmas Day.
When we return from our Christmas services, we have been touched by something rooted in community, history, friendship and family. The night time Downs around Fifield Bavant will have been filled with singing: angels singing Glory to God in the Highest and goodwill to all.