Monday, 20 May 2019

Hideous pulpit of St Peter’s Church

I WAS brought up as a child in a small village in Kent. The local church, which was about a mile outside the village, held a special “toy service” a fortnight or so before Christmas, where we children were asked to present nearly new or unwanted toys.

These were then given to the Church of England Children’s Society for distribution in its homes and orphanages. We would march up the aisle bearing our wrapped gifts, which would be received by the rector and placed under the enormous Christmas tree.

Then the following week there would be the carol service, which, being a small person, I always found far too long. But it was notable for the rather rowdy singing.

Happily for me, old Mrs Coker, who shared our pew, always had an endless supply of chocolate in her handbag. Old Jamaica — it was the rum and raisin variety if you are old enough to remember the orange wrapper with the sailing ship on the front. Mrs Coker had a younger sister, a Miss Lucas, who played the church organ. Miss Lucas attempted to teach my sister and I to play the piano and Christmas was one of the occasions when the two of us would be expected to have some kind of performance to offer at home.

St Peter’s Church itself was small and ancient, hunkered down by an old water source at the bottom of the scarp slope of the North Downs, just off the Pilgrim’s Way, which runs from Winchester to Canterbury. In true Norman fashion, the church was very cold and inhospitable but the people were always friendly.

I remember the huge and hideous black pulpit which was apparently a cast off from St Paul’s Cathedral and dominated one side of the nave, complete with stairs up, a half-height door and a huge sounding board suspended by a chain from a beam in the roof.

Years later, when asked to speak at an aunt’s funeral, I still did not dare go up into it but stood in the nave. The darkness of this monstrous pulpit was made even more austere by the height and blackness of the 18th century box pews which had escaped the enthusiasms of Victorian church re-ordering.

For me as a child, Christmas was the one time of the year when the light seemed to win in this rather gloomy and forbidding environment. The great Christmas tree would for a few weeks outdo the massive black pulpit in size and splendour, bursting with fairy lights and decorations of all sorts.

The parcels piled underneath in rampant generosity shouted out that God’s intention was for all His little ones, whoever and wherever they were, to know something of His great love, expressed supremely in the Little One of Bethlehem.

And then the candles would come out for the carol service and the grim old wrought iron fittings with their dingy lightbulbs would be rendered irrelevant in a blaze of glory throughout the church, telling all those with eyes that the Light of the World had truly come and that from now on all mankind’s efforts to reach up to heaven were best directed in finding fellowship with the Christmas Child.

I wish you all a hopeful Advent, peace and happiness among your family and a joyful, light-filled Christmas, the time when brightness reigns.

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