Yew berries, bright against November frost, are rich on the trees and lie thickly scattered on the ground around the gate which leads out onto the footpath towards the woods. In front of me is a scene from a ‘chocolate box’ vision of Ye Olde England: a soft-stoned village church with bell tower, solid in a churchyard of lopsided gravestones.
This is St Laurence, Appleton, the village church in the place where I grew up, and I’d like to tell you a little about this church and what it means to me.
Those of you who know me well, know that I came to St Chrysostom’s as a returning Christian. Although I did not attend this church regularly as a child, I’m surprised to realise now, looking back, what a substantial role it has played in my life, and how much I appreciate what it has contributed to my sense of home.
St Laurence is an old church, dating back at least to the 12th century, and its architecture bears witness to 800 years of change. There’s lots to see at this ancient site, and if you’re interested, you can find out more with the help of Google. Suffice it to say, that the little alcove above the south porch (pictured), with its tiny statue of St Laurence and his gridiron, was something I saw on many weekends during my childhood, as we passed by during family walks, and I always look up at him as I pass by today. (The story of this saint, apart from his grisly martyrdom, is beautiful - do look it up!)
From 1979-84, I was a pupil at the village school (a Church of England school), and my memories of the church include attending for Christmas services and processing up the aisle dressed as an angel, visiting the church with papers and crayon to do brass rubbings from the brasses hidden under the carpet in the chancel, and singing the Easter musical ‘Jerusalem Joy’. Some of the songs from that are still firmly in my head – particularly the one where Jesus overturns the tables in the temple, and Peter’s denial of Jesus – both of which speak strongly to my Christian journey now.
Another vivid memory is of the Rector at that time, Rev. Peter Wylde, who often came into school for assemblies and other things. He had a wooden leg, from injuries sustained during WWII, and he used to let us tap it, which I found absolutely fascinating. Despite his disability, every Ascension Day he led the entire school on a ramble through the countryside. I have memories of these walks which are happy and full of sunshine, and miserable with the rain, but they are strong formative memories. I wonder if there are any schools today where the whole school goes for a walk together… In those days I had no idea of the remarkable life of this man, but an interesting account can be read here
As an adult, I moved away from Appleton, but the church continued to feature in return visits, especially at Christmas, when much of the village gathers in the church on Christmas Eve for a service of Nine Lessons and Carols; this is a beautiful service, and also a time to say hello to old faces, reconnect with people who have known me since I was a child. As a teenager I used to resent this, but now there is something incredibly comforting about being known by people who have watched you grow.
Unlike some village churches, which sadly carry an atmosphere verging on abandonment, I’m happy to report that St Laurence feels very much alive, loved and prayerful. Both the building and its worship have evolved over time to incorporate the traditional and contemporary. More importantly the people of this church provide a backbone to village life which reaches far beyond the church building. They are active volunteers in the Community Shop, Parish Council, Cricket Club, W.I. and many other organisations. It is certainly true that Appleton (now a commuter village to nearby Oxford) is an economically comfortable community that is not confronted with the deprivation found in urban parishes like St C’s, but I don’t find it complacent or lacking in a real, caring, and rooted, sense of community. This was really brought home to me during the summer of this year, when my father died and his funeral was held at the church. The loving support which poured out towards my mother and our family was phenomenal, and continues to this day, and it has been through this time of loss that I have come to truly value and appreciate the love and stability this church brings to the village.
In the churchyard my Dad’s grave lies next to that of Jim Hester, the Woodman from whom I used to fetch wood shavings for our guinea pig’s hutch, and nearby to Mrs Purbrick, who was one of our school dinner ladies, just two of the familar names to be seen around the churchyard. Sitting quietly in the churchyard today, I am glad to have this place to come to, and I am glad of the blessings this Christian community and its saints bring to the people around it.
Thank you, Fiona, for this lovely ‘postcard.’