While looking round the old Medieval Parish Church at Alnwick in Northumberland a few months ago, I got talking to the Steward by whose kind presence the church was open for people like me to look around it. He lamented that the church, although handy for the Castle, was very uncentrally placed as a place of worship for the town. "Well," I said, "perhaps you should have kept S Paul's in the middle of town and sold this church to the Catholics". (You see, the Anglican early Victorian church of S Paul ... by Salvin ... was, a few years ago, sold to the Catholic Church.)
"Yes", was his reply, "that would have been a rational thing to do. But it would have been unthinkable."
It has a lot of Christian sense to it, this very Anglican and very lay attitude. A church was solemnly anointed and consecrated and for, perhaps, a millennium has been a place where prayer has been valid and generations have been christened and churched, married and buried, in which the community has had its centre ... and such things do matter. Ours is an incarnational religion, in which places are sacred. Matter matters.
But ... affection for a building can become a fetich, an idolatry. It is no secret that this is the factor which led to a smaller percentage of layfolk than of clergy making the transition to the Ordinariate. It is why the Anglican Bishops, Olympic gold medallists in Anal Retentivity, desperately made sure that no church, however much unwanted by the Church of England, fell into the hands, or even the shared use, of the Ordinariate.
S Paul's, in the middle of Alnwick, is a fine building with a tall, assertive, rather East Anglian tower. It is a curiosity in as far as, built by the Third Duke, it contains his effigy over his tomb. It was carved by J E Carew, the irascible Irishman who did so much neo-Classical sculpture for the Earl of Egremont at Petworth in Sussex, not to mention that large marble carving of the Assumption which used to be the altar piece in the Ordinariate Church of our Lady and S Gregory in Warwick Street. His Grace lies wearing his ducal coronet and his Garter robes ... is this a customary combination? I wonder what he would have thought if he could have known that his building, which makes such a statement, now makes that statement for the papists of Alnwick. And I wonder if the pp has him on his obits list.
Those papists, incidentally, had previously worshipped in a much smaller church, S Mary's, lower in the town, which was built in the decade after the Emancipation and is now the Town Museum. Gothic as that style was before it became grammatical, even in alienation it still feels a friendly, homely little place. As congregations numerically decline, I wonder if it is now actually just about the right size for the Catholic congregations of Alnwick. But it doesn't have its own carpark. Beside it, part of the ensemble, is its convent, with a statue of the Mother of God in a niche high up above the entrance, so that still, happily, survives. Or rather, it did do until the end of last September when the few remaining sisters were relocated and the House closed. You knew I was going to add that last sentence, didn't you?
At nearby Berwick on Tweed, the Catholic church is still the intimate unobtrusive building that was put up in 1829, lurking well back from the street and behind the presbytery; accessed through an alleyway. Georgian-gothick windows; still, despite the 1970s, with more than a whiff of the era of Mrs Fitzherbert about it.
There is something, to me, exquisitely, intensely, appealing about Catholic churches of that era. Before the great expansion of the earlier twentieth century, yes ... but before the catastrophic post-conciliar collapse. Have you read Blessed John Henry Newman's description of those years in The Second Spring?