Devon Parish Churches
A church is an earthly expression of the quest for the eternal. In Devon, it is an integral element of the landscape, as much a part of it as the hedgerow banks and lanes. It is not only in the country, but of it, fashioned out of the local materials of wood and granite.
Regardless of whether or not it is in use, and by how many, it is in itself an act of worship, and a constant reminder of spiritual values. It is where the major life events are celebrated - baptism, marriage, burial - which is what gives the building such a powerful accumulation of the collective memory of the community.
But a church is more than just a spiritual powerhouse. It is a living history lesson.. Its very appearance tells of the growth and decay of the ideas which have fashioned our society.
All churches face East (the direction of sunrise). Initially the church was a multi-purpose centre of the community; the east-facing smaller chancel was the ‘sacred space’ where services were at the altar. It was divided by the rood screen from the main body of the church, the nave (so called because the original missionaries used the upturned hull of their boats to form the roof of their first church). This had the practical purpose of making the place a general meeting space as well as the house of God. At first there were no seats for the congregation except for a few low stone seats beneath the windows. (Hence the expression “the weakest go to the wall”).
The rood screen was usually made of wood, with painted lower panels, open arches above them, and over the arches a canopy supporting a large statue of Christ on the ‘rood’,or cross. Many churches had privately endowed side chapels, and the porch also formed another ‘room’ , where weddings and the baptism service began before the baby was taken to the font near the church door. Devon has nearly 150 Norman fonts. In the South Hams there is a series decorated with the same features; palmate scroll, cable moulding and zigzag in different combinations.
By 1400 the church service was beginning to change from a mystical rite to a didactic experience. The importance and length of the sermon meant that congregations paid to have the nave filled with pews, and people’s seats in church reflected their social status. The pulpit became the focal point for prayers and preaching. The congregation was expected to learn, rather than simply be present. Lecterns - compulsory from 1604 -were often an eagle, with the bible resting on its outstretched wings.
During the Reformation the churches were stripped. Treasured statues and paintings were often hidden (if not destroyed) and replaced according to who was in power at the time. The altar was replaced by a wooden table to remind people of Christ’s last supper with his disciples. New visual aids such as the 10 Commandments and the royal coat of arms were displayed instead of shrines. Many rood screens were destroyed or defaced. (Only 140 have survived in Devon). The church became a single space without barriers. Services were in English rather than Latin, but the communion table was later fenced off with altar rails.
During the Victorian era many church interiors underwent a literally dramatic change. The level of the chancel floor was raised up from the nave in order to mimic the chancel as a 'stage’' where the service should happen. Worship became again focused on the high altar. The choir left the nave and joined the priest in the chancel, also wearing robes. Organs were installed and hymns became part of the church service. Churchyards changed from very busy places, scenes of games, dancing, fairs and church ales, to places of tombstones and wild flowers.
As society became more democratic during the 20th Century, a new era of change began to affect churches. The congregation itself became more involved in the services, reading lessons, leading prayers, and playing music. This led to changes in seating as there was more flexibility and moving about and active participation.
Today the wheel has come full circle - modern churches are again social spaces as well as sacred spaces. There is often a kitchen and informal refreshment area along with a display and exhibition space incorporated.
When you look at a church today you can usually see remnants of most of the previous times and fashions. There may or may not be a mediaeval rood screen, a Georgian pulpit, a Victorian reredos, a modern kitchen. Often tombs and monuments are cheek by jowl with carved bench ends and padded chairs and airport-style carpets, and kettles. The church exteriors perhaps offer more of a purist aesthetic - towers of granite nestling snugly between the folds of the hills. Devon has more church towers than any other county (hardly any steeples), and more bells too.
Today a visit to a church offers a sense of space and retreat, an opportunity for calm reflection and contemplation. An inscription on a bell,