I took part in a very well-mannered, English revolution on Easter Sunday, in Redenhall Church, a beautiful 15th century church in the parish of Redenhall in Norfolk, nestling in the tranquil Waveney valley, where the barn-owls hunt in the dusk and where I canoed on the river as a child.
The Diocese of Norwich had decreed that there would be no worship on Easter Sunday in the old church -- the first time for some six hundred years. A few -- 10 in all -- local people thought that there should be. And I thought I should join them.
I walked over the fields from Harleston, as parishioners had done, clutching their prayer books, for hundreds of years, before a fearsomely ugly church in the town (St Johns) was built in Victorian times. As I walked out the birds were still calling each other before night fell -- starlings, blackbirds, crows and magpies. A rabbit ran out from under my feet across a field and into a burrow in a drainage ditch. And the Redenhall bells rang out -- bells that had rang out first as the Armada sailed across towards our shores -- as I walked into the churchyard, and saw my father waiting for me underneath an old yew tree.
I walked into the church with my father, and was handed the Book of Common Prayer, and an old black leather hymn book. We clustered in the choir pews (I remember singing there as a child, in scratchy white ruff and long burgundy gown) and one parishioner turned on the CD player so we could sing the first hymn. We were out of time on that one, and the order of Evensong got a little muddled up, but somehow it all felt right, and that we were well protected from all the "perils and dangers of the night," as the Evening Collect has it.
The reason that the Diocese had decreed that there would be no church service in Redenhall was that the church hierarchy was hoping for a good turn-out for the Bishop, who was preaching at St John's in Harleston (and offering a finger buffet after the service). But those at Redenhall were there for simpler -- and to my mind -- more important reasons, than maximising the congregation at one church to make a good show.
They believed that a church that had survived two world wars, where the bells had rung out for some six hundred years, and is so much loved by the local people that it is full every Christmas for the carol service shouldn't be allowed to die -- not on Easter Sunday, without a service. I agree with them.
I somehow think that God, whatever and whoever God is, would have liked the bareness of the service that evening -- just 10 people feeling their way through a kind of service with battered old hymn books and a CD player. Perhaps it would even be preferable than the pomp of the gowns and the mitres, the ruffs, the candles and the splendour of what the Church of England has come to represent because it brings us back to where it all started -- a few people gathered together in a quiet place, thinking along the same lines.
This very well-mannered revolution -- of the flower ladies who arranged Easter bouquets even though no service was planned, the bell-ringers who rang out a summons to prayer, the men and women who read the Evening Prayers -- has a tinge of Occupy about it -- that rebuke to the Church as Establishment, hierarchy, institution, which is so much needed at this time if the Church is to have any meaning.
I'm not in the Church of England any more -- I can still remember the day when it lost me, when a vicar told the congregation that women couldn't be priests -- and I look for guidance to the Quakers now. But I can see that our old churches matter to us all -- and I respect those who keep the oak pews dusted and polished, who ring the bells, who arrange the flowers, who tend the graveyards. My grandmother lies buried in the lea of the wall at Redenhall, next to my friend and neighbour, who died of cancer in his thirties. But the Church should be there for the quick, as well as the dead. If the Church means anything in these times, it should understand that places like Redenhall Church matter -- and if they close on Easter Sunday they die -- and a part of the Church dies too.