Church Going I-III (2018, acrylic on canvas)

Church Going I: Mass, Brixton

This poignant series draws its title from the famous Larkin poem in which the author, despite himself being an atheist, visits a church mid-week while out cycling and wonders what will become of such buildings once the gradual withdrawal of faith from its once-central place in English life is complete:

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,

And always end much at a loss like this,

Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,

When churches will fall completely out of use

What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep

A few cathedrals chronically on show,

Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,

And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.

Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Church Going I, subtitled Mass, Brixton, is the most abstract of the series. It refers to the Neoclassical church in Brixton now in regular use as a nightclub. In its flashes of dark green, red and white, the painting suggests the movement, noise and passion of a night spent in hedonistic dancing – in sharp contrast to Larkin’s secular-yet-thoughtful conclusion that churches will remain as spaces in which to be serious:

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,

If only that so many dead lie round.

Church Going II: Greyfriars, Dunwich

According to a history of Dunwich written in 1754 by Thomas Gardiner, at the time of Henry II Dunwich had 52 churches, chapels and religious houses, as well as hospitals, a King’s palace, a mint and a bustling harbour. It was not the gradual withdrawal of faith from English cultural life that destroyed its Franciscan abbey, but changes in the coastline in the 14th century, that silted up the harbour, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and above all the relentless erosion of the Suffolk coastline by the North Sea, which devoured Dunwich’s last church in 1919. All that remains are the carefully restored remnants of the Greyfriars Franciscan monastery. The confluence in Dunwich’s poignant history of the devouring ocean and England’s once-tumultuous history of religious conflict gestures back past Larkin to Arnold’s Dover Beach, which touches on the retreat of faith less with Larkin’s wry, thoughtful pessimism than with an agonised grief:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Church Going III: St Mary’s, Potton

Church Going III stands in marked contrast to the other two. Its title refers to an unremarkable Bedfordshire parish church of Norman origin, rather than a well-known landmark, and at the time of writing retains a regular congregation. Though the painting retains the bold colours and wind-blown brushwork of Church Going I and II, the warm yellow-gold tones at the centre of the picture suggest the outline of a church lit from within and inviting the passer-by to enter.

The painting balances on a knife-edge of hope and pessimism, evoking a church yet living but with its light perhaps wavering, on the brink of being overpowered by other forces around it. At the time of writing St Mary’s in Potton remains a living church, but as a relatively rural church in an age of declining church attendance the warmth of its outline in the painting contrasts poignantly with the brutal sense of probably eventual desolation in Larkin’s ‘let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep’. And yet, as it brings us gently to the present day both in terms of the history of English religious buildings and also of the history of the Christian faith in this country, Church Going III offers both a poignant reminder of the fragility of rural faith but also a glimmer of golden light, a twinkle of hope that

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

perhaps England’s religious structures, both temporal and spiritual, will in some form continue.