This ‘society’ consists of an informal Facebook group with some 1,600 members. Anyone who shares the group’s passion for exploring places of worship and contributing photographs that inspire others to enjoy visiting such places can join.
Perhaps more people would be encouraged to do so if one could come up with a more attractive name. ‘Church crawling’ is John Betjeman’s phrase. He used it first in a BBC Home Service talk, broadcast on 21 July 1948, in which he said: ‘I know no greater pleasure than church crawling. You never know what you are going to find.’
Betjeman was a great phrase-maker, but this was not one of his best. He intended the term to echo the phrase ‘pub crawling’, but whereas one might be reduced to crawling if you become progressively more inebriated, crawling to church sounds penitential rather than joyous. It also has slightly sinister connotations, as if, like Kafka’s narrator in The Metamorphosis, we church lovers had woken up one day to find ourselves turned into insects. Worse still, it suggests an affinity with that pest, the deathwatch beetle, that has done so much damage by chomping away at the timbers of ancient church roofs.
Betjeman’s ‘church crawling’ was intended as a rebuff to Nikolaus Pevsner (characterised by Betjeman as ‘that dull pedant from Prussia’), just as his Shell Guides were intended to be the antithesis of Pevsner’s Buildings of England series. He characterised Pevsner’s scholarly approach in a paraphrase: ‘Hagworthy, St Philip. Norm. with Perp. additions; interesting E.E. pisc’. This gives you no idea of what the church is really like, he asserted. (Hagworthy is Betjeman’s invention – there is no such church.)
Betjeman maintained that ‘for those who have eyes and ears and imagination’ every church is of interest. The contributors to the Church Crawlers Anonymous group certainly have the eyes to see, and their images reveal just what a range of aesthetic delights there is to enjoy, from ancient yew trees to war memorials of solemn beauty. As Betjeman further remarks: ‘the old churches of England are the story of England. They alone remain islands of calm in the seething roar of what we now call civilisation. They are not backwaters… but strongholds.’
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IMAGES: Kate Owen.
Text: C Catling.