“Church Going”: a Gloomy Affirmation.
In May 1954 the Church Times published an article announcing a campaign led by the Historic Churches Preservation Trust headed “Save our Churches Week”. Why or how Philip Larkin might have read the piece is a mystery; but he did, and he cut it out and kept it.
At around the same time Larkin was on a cycling holiday in Ireland and “came across a ruined church, the first I had seen. It made a deep impression on me” he later wrote, “ I had seen plenty of bombed churches, but never one that had simply fallen into disuse, and for a few minutes I felt the decline of Christianity in our century as tangibly as gooseflesh”.
These experiences inspired his poem “Church Going”.
The Church Times article quoted the Archbishop of Canterbury: “over two thousand [churches] must be helped at once” he railed, to be saved from decay and ruin, and people needed to be reminded of the “great heritage which is ours in these ancient churches, so rich in beauty, such a living and lovely part of England. Eight thousand of them were built more than four hundred years ago”.
Larkin was, by all accounts, a complex man. He was also a great poet who used words with astounding subtlety and irony and fitted them into rhymed verse which often looks beguilingly simple. He privately (to his friend Kingsley Amis) called “Church Going” his “Betjeman poem”. We need to read every word with care.
The very title is ambiguous. Obviously this is a poem about going to church or visiting a church (which are two different things anyway). But is it the visitor who is going to the church, or the church – or the Church as an institution - which is going, fading, exiting?
Confronted with the suggestion that the poem was religious Larkin said that “the poem is about going to church, not going to religion – I tried to suggest this by the title – and the union of the important stages of human life – birth, marriage and death – that going to church represents; and my own feeling that when they are dispersed into the registry office and the crematorium chapel life will become thinner in consequence”.
It is not an obviously Christian poem; Larkin quietly makes that clear. The visitor ensures “there's nothing going on” before stepping inside; he refers disparagingly to “some brass and stuff/Up at the holy end”; the verses placed on the lectern are “hectoring”; he irreverently pronounces “Here endeth” (a phrase chosen with care); the echoes snigger; he is “bored, uninformed”; and in a final act of disdain he leaves a worthless Irish sixpence in the wall-safe.
And yet, despite Larkin's protestation, it is unquestionably a religious poem; or at least it is a meditation on the power and significance of religious faith as handed down to us. The poem may be quizzical, wry, equivocal, but the church remains a “special shell”. Even if it may be an “accoutred frowsty barn”, it is “a serious house on serious earth” where “all our compulsions meet/Are recognised, and robed as destinies”.
As the poet speculates about the possible future decay and almost complete dissolution of the building, “A shape less recognisable each week,/A purpose more obscure”, the verse becomes a lament for something which hasn't yet happened: neglect. “Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky”. It is an oblique celebration, a veneration even, of antiquity and of the mysterious, numinous unity of faith and place.
Those of us who do church-going for fun know just what he means. There is always a slight trepidation about opening the door (if it opens at all); what may lie inside? Often an “unignorable silence”. We recognise the unmistakeable authority of these beautiful places which were built with reverence and love; we are not, mostly, experts either – and are slightly baffled by “what rood-lofts were”. Knowing about rood-lofts isn't the point. Larkin speaks as an inexpert observer and that's exactly what almost all church visitors are. We don't know the technical words, we may not be believers, but we often stop just to be somewhere different - as Larkin did.
Unlike cynical old Larkin, however, we are rarely disappointed. In any case, although he affects to reflect that “the place was not worth stopping for” - it clearly was. We have a superb poem to prove it and he is contradicted by that plain fact. “Church Going” is a back-handed affirmation of places “proper to grow wise in”.
Nearly two million people visit CCT churches every year. In order to prevent Larkin's gloomy vision of decay becoming a reality, it would be helpful if they each donated rather more than an Irish sixpence.