As I write this St Mary's Church in Eaton Bray has been celebrating again. On the feast of St Mary the Virgin, special guests were invited to join with us to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the present church building. Bishop Richard, Bishop of Bedford, spoke about taking the long view. The importance of ancient buildings especially churches in their communities is that they are a constant presence through good times and bad.
In 1219 when St Mary's was consecrated, Henry III was on the throne. He was still a child and the country was ruled by a regent who died in 1220. Then the Archbishop of Canterbury effectively took on the role of Regent until Henry reached his majority. These turbulent times included war with France, the siege of Bedford Castle and several subsequent Archbishops of Canterbury being elected only to have their election vetoed by the Pope. St Mary's Church has been there through the Black Death, the dissolution of the monasteries and the break from Rome under Henry VIII. Times were indeed uncertain and religious practices changed significantly with the introduction of the Prayer Book in English and a law that every person must attend Sunday worship.
In later years, the beheading of Charles I would have been a shocking event followed by civil war and the Parliament of Oliver Cromwell. The restoration of the monarchy brought yet more change and uncertainty. St Mary's church has stood through the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars. There have been times when the building fell into disrepair and almost fell down, occasions when people must have wondered if there was a future for St Mary's. As Malcolm Guite, poet and priest writes: 'It's easy to take such continuity for granted, but, in times of change and consternation, times of confusion and uncertainty such as our own, these unperturbed continuities come to mean something more: they become signs of survival and hope.'
Churches are often the oldest buildings in the community and become the repository of community memory. It is there that significant moments in the lives of individuals and groups are marked. The church is there for celebrations of weddings, baptisms and festivals. It is to the church that people come to mourn their dead and at times of crisis. Over the last 800 years, the villages of Eaton Bray, Edlesborough, Northall and Dagnall have grown and developed. They have experienced times of poverty and times of prosperity.
As we face some big challenges and changes in our national life, it is good to be reminded of the long view. It is also good to be reminded that through it all God is with us. In Psalm 46 the Psalmist writes of God's constant presence even in the midst of doubt and uncertainty. 'God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea. The Lord of hosts is with us.'
For over 2000 years people have used this Psalm as a prayer. The permanence of a building such as St Mary's is a pointer to the permanence of God. As Malcolm Guite writes: 'The long continuity of unbroken worship, through the changes and chances of history, is lifted week by week into God's transfiguring presence.'
Joy (Vicar of Eaton Bray with Edlesborough)
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About the Vicar's Letter
The Vicar's Letter has been appearing in the villages Focus magazine since August 2002.
The Rev. Peter Graham also used to publish The Vicar's Letter in the parish magazine of 1964. Please see the Vicar's Letter area for these.