The sound of the church bells ringing is the ever present soundtrack when I think back on my village life childhood.
Our village was small enough that you could hear the bells from it’s four corners, the cheerful peal of six cascading and rising in a dozen patterns, calling us happily to church.
They rang often in those early days, before each church service, at weddings and baptisms, for Tuesday night practise. When I was old enough I’d climb the narrow eroded staircase, holding tight the frayed rope along damp walls, until we emerged into that high small room above the choir.
I’d perch in the small window seat, a musty smelling cushion for comfort, and watch my dad and the team playing the intricate patterns marked on the board.
Hands raised high as the rope disappeared into the ceiling before that strong tug down again as the bell made it’s heavy roll back.
They’d let me join in some weeks. I’d stand in front of my dad, my face only as high as his waist, and pull down on the rope together, quick to catch the tail of the rope as it attempted its escape.
On wedding days I’d stay in the window seat, crack the grated window open and watch the groom and his beautiful bride walk out of the church and into married life, a crowd of villagers gathered at the gates to wish them well on their way.
In my post-uni internship I took some Christianity & Culture classes. I remember someone saying once that maybe the best thing would just be to sell of all those old, draughty, damp churches. Turn them into galleries and bars and luxury flats. Or just give them away to the National Trust – anything to get these costly, inappropriate and outdated buildings off our hands.
It makes sense, I guess. The pews in that 12th century village church are bowed and eaten half away by woodworm and creak loudly if you so much as take a deep breath. We’d joke over cups of weak tea at the end of each service about dousing the whole thing in petrol, lighting a match and closing the door behind us. In winter it was so cold, we added extra layers before leaving for church and sat the whole service shivering in our coats. There were no toilets, no Sunday school rooms, and the ancient paintings that had once graced the walls were so faded and eroded that it was hard to tell which side of the arch showed the sinners and which the saints.
And don’t we always say that church is about the people, not the building, anyway?
So I get it, I really do.
But there’s something about that old church standing all those years in the middle of the village, its spire the tallest thing for miles.
There’s something about walking 400m to church, up the avenue of lime trees, past the primary school we all went to in turn, across from the pub we drink our pints of London Pride and Cider in and play ‘aunt sally’ on long summer evenings.
There’s something about pushing open that heavy wooden door, running your hand across the ancient stone font – no delicate carvings here, just a heavy circular trough – and finding your seat in that creaky old pew, leaning over to hug someone in front of you.
There’s something about coming here each Christmas Eve in the dark, seeing the candlelight shining out the windows as you approach, and hearing the bell chime midnight as you sing carols and celebrate communion in the gentle glow.
There’s something about standing on that step up to the choir, under the great archway, to say your wedding vows to the man in front of you, knowing that thousands of couples before you have stood in this very spot and made promises that seemed big and scary and wonderful.
There’s something about a church that knows the names of everyone in the community, who share their garden produce each harvest and run a free monthly cafe for the village. There’s something about doing church in a community where people stay, where no one moves on. Where the old lady who’s watched you grow from a toddler and still writes you inspiring letters full of scrawled cursive sits alongside that man who always says the wrong thing at the wrong moment and never fails to rub you the wrong way but who sings with loud enthusiasm from the hymn book.
It’s not perfect. So far from it. It’s hard to be a church community when you’re cold even in the summer, when there are too many people who want things “the way they’ve always been”, when you’ve been around long enough to see that some people just don’t change. It can be all rather disillusioning.
But sell them all off? Do the sensible thing of pooling our precious clergy in the larger towns and bus the villagers in each Sunday? Quit altogether and find somewhere they do things the way you like?
Of course it’s easy for me. I moved away. But in the moving away, sometimes you recognise for the first time just how lucky you were, just how much opportunity there was to grow and to love and to worship in that place.
The bells stopped ringing many years ago. They told us the beams they were hung on had become unsafe, making it dangerous to play those enormous ancient bells.
I never got used to the quiet really, never got used to hurrying between those elm trees without the sound of the bells calling me on. We stepped through that heavy wood door into married life to the sound of a Scottish piper and sunshine after a rainy morning and it was glorious. But I missed those bells.
Last Saturday, those bells rang again for the first time, as the village celebrated together on the grass under the old tower. I wasn’t there, but I can still remember clearly how they sound. I’ll be back in a few months for Christmas, will walk up the lane, spy the church across the school playing field, the candles glowing from within, and hear the bells announcing the good news of God incarnate, Emmanuel, joy to the world.
And maybe I’ll convince my dad to let me follow him up that narrow staircase, find my old spot in the window and let the sound fill my ears and soul.