RYE to FAIRFIELD
St Thomas à Beckett church is in some ways everything I hoped for and in others disappointing.
Extract from Reflection Journal – Monday 28th August 2017
Making a pilgrimage to Canterbury it seemed appropriate that I should visit this little church in Romney Marsh. The Church, built in Fairfield some time around AD 1200, is situated all alone in the middle of a field on the Marsh. Now surround by ditches the church was often surrounded by water during the winter and spring and accessible only by a causeway constructed in 1913.
The connection with Thomas á Beckett is rooted in legend. It holds that the then Archbishop got lost in the Marsh and nearly drowned. As he prayed for help a farmer happened upon him and saved him from the waters. In gratitude the Archbishop had the church built.
Used as a venue for fabulous weddings and as a filming location, I had seen many pictures of the church and arrived with great expectations (One of the film’s shot here!). From a distance the church looked just as I had expected. perched in a small island of land and surrounded by ditches, and there were a few sheep grazing to add to the pastoral scene. As I drew closer I must admit to some disappointment. The exterior of the building is covered in 18th century red bricks which look much less appealing than they do in the photographs. Inside however did not disappoint me. The Georgian style interior is beautiful, with its white box pews, the 3 level pulpit, and the heavy timber frame. Sitting in the peace and quiet of this place it really is possible to believe that you have travelled back in time.
‘Never judge a book by its cover’ This saying might just as well be changed to say ‘ Never judge a church by its covering’. I had done just that when I first saw St Thomas à Beckett church, only later understanding that the rather disappointing red brick shell was put up in order to protect the amazing internal structure. Reflecting on my reaction I guess I am not surprised by it because I am very aware that this ‘judging by the outside’ is something that so many people do with churches. My own church in Swavesey gathers in a building which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year and it is a fact that from the outside it looks that old. This weathered, red brick structure, with its decorative spires has something of a sombre look and I have had many conversations with people who, on entering the building for the first time, are somewhat surprised that it doesn’t look how they imagined. Wooden pews, a pulpit and possibly an organ are often on the list of expectations, and almost everybody anticipates that the main hall will be a dark place. There are two other sayings, You never get a second chance to make a first impression’ and ‘First Impressions last’ and I find myself wondering what these sayings together might have to say to us!
I know that for many there is nothing that can be done about the appearance of the building in which they worship, and I do not suggest that simply dressing up a church building, or moving to newer, more modern and attractive premises is going to make us more successful as church in our primary purpose of glorifying God, but I do believe that we need to be more creative and more imaginative in finding ways to draw people into our buildings and showing them that ‘church’ isn’t perhaps what they think it is. I wonder if sometimes we are guilty of not realising that our buildings are perhaps our biggest resources (aside from the people in them) and they offer huge potential if we are prepared to ‘open them up’ and invite people to make use of them. Having somebody attend a midweek activity in the church building doesn’t make them a Christian, but it can be the first step to breaking down preconceived ideas and prejudices that they might have, and lead to new opportunities.
And what about us? What first impression do make on the people who meet us? We are ambassadors of Christ and we need to remember that we represent God to all people. The first thing they notice about us is likely to be what they remember – whether we think this is fair or not is irrelevant – and we have a responsibility to God to ensure that what they notice, and what they remember, encourages them to want to know more about us, about church and about God.
Who saw me today?
What did they see?
What did they notice about me?
Will it stick in their minds for the right reason or the wrong reason?
Was there anything distinctive about me that will want them to maybe know me better?
Will they have glimpsed something of Jesus in me?