Evensong: people, discoveries and reflections on the church in England

Review by Christopher Catling.

Reading this book reminds me of the University of London’s Warburg Institute Library, which has a unique classification system designed by the library’s founder, Aby Warburg (1866-1929), to encourage serendipitous discovery: looking for one book, your attention might be directed to another volume that takes you in unexpected directions.

Some readers will come to Evensong in search of archaeological reminiscences: the story of how, having excavated York Minster, the author was recruited by Peter Addyman as Secretary to the Churches Committee of the Council for British Archaeology. Richard gives a wry account of working with Warwick Rodwell to excavate the church of St Edmund at Kellington, demonstrating that a church considered unremarkable had a pre-Norman timber predecessor. This led to his seminal work Churches in the Landscape, and to his appointment as Director of the Council for British Archaeology in 1991 in succession to the redoubtable Henry Cleere, when the CBA first moved from London to York.

An entirely different reader might be attracted to the musical aspects of Richard’s life and his experiences as a chorister and occasional composer of church music, which serves as the springboard for observations on many different aspects of church history and heritage; when he quotes Angela Tilby’s description of evensong (a ceremony little changed since the Reformation) as ‘a home for the hesitant, a service for those who put store by doubt as well as belief’ you feel that he is describing himself.

His musical training also enables Richard to tell the story of an enigmatic plank of wood reused as a door at Wetheringsett church, Suffolk, which turns out to have been the soundboard of a 16th-century organ. By this stage in his life, Richard had been appointed Director of the Institute for Medieval Studies at the University of Leeds and, with his musical colleagues, he set out to reconstruct the organ, leading to further insights into the physical evidence, often overlooked in churches, for organ chambers and bellows. Look out too, Richard says, for musical notation in the form of medieval graffiti inscribed at eye level beside doors and on pillars that once provided prompts for processing clergy and choristers.

Then there are the readers who will know Richard as Professor (now Emeritus) for Conflict and Culture at Huddersfield, and the author of biographies of Barnes Wallis, Leonard Cheshire, and Guy Gibson. This interest started in childhood, when the visitors to his father’s succession of inner-city vicarages included some notable figures of the CND movement of the 1960s (Richard speculates that MI5 kept files on these ‘dangerous left-wingers’ – such as archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes and her husband J B Priestley). Another of his father’s friends was the radical theologian John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, who caused a storm in 1963 by arguing for the uncoupling of 20th-century Christianity from the beliefs of a pre-scientific age, rejecting myths and miracles and looking for the deeper, timeless truths of a morality built on Christ’s central message: ‘love thy neighbour’.

These contrasting strands in Richard’s life are woven together in a book that is eclectic, discursive, and multi-layered (as befits an archaeologist). Reading it is like sitting by the fire, listening to a skilled raconteur pouring out an endless stream of anecdotes: among them, his efforts to promote Monkwearmouth–Jarrow as a World Heritage Site (CA 238; his anger at the rejection of the nomination by inspectors from the International Council on Monuments and Sites sears the page), and his recollections of John Betjeman sparring publicly with Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark (Betjeman accused the Anglican church of turning its back on heritage; Stockwood replied that it was not his job to be the director and fundraiser for a historic buildings preservation trust).

You could describe this wonderfully serendipitous book as an absorbing account of the history of archaeology from somebody who has played (and continues to play) an influential part – but it is so much more.

Evensong: people, discoveries and reflections on the church in England, Richard Morris, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25, ISBN 978-1474614221