On a cold Saturday morning in early March, I picked up the “Clerk of Oxford,” and we drove out to South Leigh to visit its church with famous medieval murals. It’s a marvelous place. While approaching, one’s eyes are drawn to the blue-faced clock in the 14th-century tower with the ominous inscription, “Ye know not the hour when your Lord doth come,” which ought to set up any worshiper nicely. But when you enter through the south porch you’re transported into a space that is soaked with memory.
Along the south wall is a large mural dominated by St. Michael the Archangel. To his left is the Blessed Virgin Mary, placing rosary beads on one pan of a scale so that the man sitting on it will outweigh the little devil trying to tip the balance in favor of hell.
Above the chancel arch is a lavish depiction of Doomsday with sinners being dragged to hell on one side and the righteous welcomed into heaven on the other. Together with the other mural, the effect of the paintings is to bring the nave to life with color and visual narratives: you can never be alone in that nave amid the company of saints, sinners, angels, Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and even impish devils.
Below the righteous entering heaven stands a Georgian pulpit in which John Wesley preached his first sermon. Although I like the idea of him holding forth below the murals, by his day they had long since been covered by Protestant whitewash so that he must have looked out on a bare, empty space, sparsely occupied by the few people in the village pious enough to come hear a young, pontificating curate. He had not yet gained the fame that drew crowds to learn of his Arminian God and the “heart strangely warmed.”
Beyond the pulpit, in the north aisle is St. Clement, now alone in a corner, looking across the nave at visitors or worshipers, with a friendly face and a hand outstretched in blessing. The remainder of the church is filled with furnishing from different periods and memorials to long forgotten local luminaries whose families, friends, enemies, and descendants lie in the cold earth outside. Except for the striking murals, the church isn’t all that remarkable: like other English parish churches, it stands as a living witness to the past, within whose embrace a few still meet their God in the company of those whom the world has otherwise forgotten.
What surprised me most about the church is that it has never been noteworthy. For much of its history it was little more than a chapel to the nearby Stanton Harcourt, and often lacked its own priest or regular services. And yet the medieval murals, the memorials, and the church furnishings all bear witness to how dear that space was to the people of the parish, both their place of worship and a storehouse of collective, local history. While the world may not have cared about the little church in South Leigh, someone nearby found it important enough to pay for lavish painting, to make it a shrine to their own village. Ironically, the effects of that love now draw sightseers from the world over to an otherwise humble village.
“The Clerk” and I then went to North Leigh to see its more colorful but less impressive Doomsday mural, its Saxon tower, and its ornate late medieval side chapel containing an alabaster tomb of a medieval lord and his lady beneath a canopy of fan-vaulting. Here too physical memories encompass all who enter, though now speaking to greater prosperity than in South Leigh. Ladies tying together small bouquets for Mothering Sunday in the north aisle were a reminder that even now memories are fashioned for future generations.
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That day got me reflecting about Christianity and the act of remembering. The historical nature of our faith can’t but ascribe importance to memory. Much of this we inherited from the Jews, whose life and religion were (and are) deeply marked by historical memory: the patriarchs, the Exodus, the long chronology of noble and ignoble acts from Joshua to the arrival of Rome. From the beginning, Christians remembered Christ’s life and, in particular, his passion, death, and resurrection. Indeed, he commanded us: “Do this in remembrance of me.” For us, remembering is a sacramental act that feeds us and unites us to God.
Perhaps because of this Christians have esteemed history. Until the modern age, the great events of our world were understood as part of the unfolding drama of God’s redemption. History was a sermon writ large, filled with signs of God, saints and holy monarchs to be praised, and fallen sinners to serve as warnings. At the start of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede writes:
For if history relates good things of good men, the attentive hearer is excited to imitate that which is good; or if it recounts evil things of wicked persons, none the less the conscientious and devout hearer or reader, shunning that which is hurtful and wrong, is the more earnestly fired to perform those things which he knows to be good, and worthy of the service of God.
The point of history wasn’t empirical accuracy but rather didactic potential; a story wasn’t worth retelling if it didn’t contain a moral. History was connected in its hidden meaning to the great events of the Old and New Testament as the world slowly traveled through the six ages of its existence. We may find that off-putting and rightly esteem factual accuracy over sermonic potential, but we have to face the fact that people once read and inhabited their histories, whereas ours has become increasingly locked away in academic vaults.
All around Christendom holy sites sprang up: Jerusalem, Rome, saints’ shrines, holy wells, monasteries, grand cathedrals, and even humble parishes like South Leigh. Christian memory was inscribed into the landscape, hammered into the rock of the earth as an enduring sign of the Heavenly Jerusalem that is to come. That is part of the paradox of Christian memory: in remembering, our minds are returned to the hope of the resurrection that is to come when Christ returns to judge the quick and the dead. The Christian past contains within it the Christian future, for it is rooted in the incarnate Son who with the Father and Holy Spirit is Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. This is something that those who painted the murals in South Leigh understood implicitly.
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We live now in an age of amnesia. Consumer culture eradicates the customs and even landscape that we have inherited — the iconoclasm of our own times dwarfs all others — or else promotes only those aspects that can be used for profit. Our progressive values find little redeemable about a past that so maltreated women and minorities, and our secularism is increasingly mystified by the priorities of the Christian world it has largely eclipsed. A generation that finds its home in the commercialized digital ecosystem of social media cares less and less for the saints and sinners of its past; indeed it occasionally seeks to eradicate the memory of the sinners who now embarrass it (see, for example, the kerfuffle in Oxford about Cecil Rhodes) in a secular re-enactment of the Protestant whitewashing of saints and sinners in South Leigh. Unlike Bede’s moral imagination, the moralism of today finds it hard to connect with the people and events of the past: we dare not even keep a statue to spit on. We are trained to cast off the old as waste.
In such a world, it is all the more vital that Christians both acknowledge the importance of historical memory and seek to preserve it. Ours is a historical faith, not only linked through time to the Incarnation but also permeated by the company of saints, past and future, who remain ever present with us in prayer and worship. The Incarnation sanctified time by uniting it with the eternal in the Person of Christ Jesus, compelling us to be wary of attempts to forget the past or to reject the company of the dead. To step away from tradition or to dig up our roots is to take a large step toward ahistorical paganism, which almost invariably becomes subject to the preoccupations of the present. As G.K. Chesterton memorably wrote:
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
I fear we are quickly becoming a church that no longer cares to speak for, or hear, the dead; I fear we are becoming a church that forgets.
We therefore need places like South Leigh to remind us how mistaken we can be, that we’re not nearly so clever as we imagine ourselves. We need places like South Leigh to remind us that we are part of a fellowship that reaches back deep into time, that has in its different generations (often ineptly) sought to “walk” in the Lord’s “holy ways.” We’re no less inept than they were, nor more (or less) virtuous, despite our sophisticated artifice. Places like South Leigh with its homely medieval murals provide us with memory inscribed in stone: like them we feed on Christ, who imbues all time with meaning and who promises to be ever-present with us in our remembering.
The photos were supplied by the author.