Recorders of the faith
around. Above the group of half a dozen church recorders who have gathered with Parker and Smith to discuss their work hovers a host of heavenly angels, painted in medieval times and staring down at us from timbers of the nave roof.
“I was slightly retired from being a planning officer,” Parker recalls with a twinkle in his eye, “but my wife evidently regarded me as much more retired, so we joined Nadfas [the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, a 91,000-strong arts and education charity with 350 branches all around Britain]. I went along to our local meeting. ‘Are you a historian?’ someone asked me. I replied that I was probably more of a builder, and the next thing I found myself as part of a team of church recorders, being told I was now ‘Mr Woodwork’.”
There was certainly plenty to keep him busy in St Mary’s, including a fine wineglass pulpit and a delicate ancient rood screen. Woodwork is one of the section headings in the reports church recorders put together. Others include library, memorials, textiles, metalwork, paintings, windows and stonework. Plus, as a catch-all for more recent bric-a-brac that has washed up inside the church, “miscellaneous”.
Nadfas has 2,690 active church recorders, one of three national volunteering schemes it runs, and this autumn will see the 40th anniversary of the launch of the programme that has catalogued more than 1,600 historic churches. Every year volunteers spend around 281,000 hours in churches, the equivalent of £4million of labour were they paid the minimum wage.
“It all began with a conversation on a train between a vice-chairman of Nadfas and a lady who was trying to organise an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum,” explains Alison Wakes-Miller, the national chairman of the church recorders. “They agreed on how difficult it was to find out exactly what extraordinary treasures were in older churches, but uncatalogued and sometimes even unrecognised, and so a pilot was set up.”
The records are placed in local diocesan archives, as well as with the English Heritage Archive and at the V & A. “We see our records as making a vital contribution to the preservation of the national heritage,” says Wakes-Miller.
Sometimes church recorders turn up, or identify, items that were believed lost or whose true value and purpose had been forgotten. There have been some notable coups. In one project the King’s Lynn group unearthed original enclosure maps that had been put away in the back of a wardrobe in the vestry 200 years previously and never seen since. In another case, a valuable bust was stolen from a church at Shoreham in Kent. Because the church recorders had previously been there, a photograph and description existed that could be immediately circulated. When the bust turned up in a Sotheby’s sale, it was spotted and the culprits caught.
As an illustration of how they go about the task, the textile expert in the group, Gillian Savage, accompanies me to St Mary’s vestry. Behind a 14th-century wooden door unlocked with an ornate key and a bit of pushing and shoving lies a rather fine wardrobe – “too good for miscellany,” remarks Wakes-Miller when she joins us – that contains a remarkable collection of copes and vestments. Savage extracts from a sea of yellows and oranges, lace and embroidery, a macabre 100-year-old bejewelled black garment once specifically set aside for funerals and capable, I can’t help thinking, of shocking some of the mourners into an early grave.
“I’ve been a church recorder for five or six years,” she explains as she lays it out delicately for me to inspect. “Before that my professional background was in textiles. But I also do a bit of woodwork and ironwork. I like the challenge of learning a completely new vocabulary.”
It is that chance to accumulate knowledge, as well as use what they have gathered during their working lives, that inspires these church recorders. Every volunteer is given training on the particular areas they record, and they can, if needed, call on experts from various supporting museums and academic institutions, if a particular object or feature stumps them. There is also the everpresent copy of Inside Church: A Guide to Church Furnishings, produced by Nadfas and “the church recorder’s bible” according to Wakes-Miller.
Their main starting point, though, is the pooled wisdom of the group. “We spend a lot of time debating amongst ourselves quite how to describe precisely in the record any one detail,” says Sandra Tilley. Her role is that of compiler – she brings together the descriptions and photographs in the prescribed format laid down by Nadfas. Every record follows the same formula and now many of them have been made available online.
Words have to be chosen with great care, both to be historically accurate and, when they concern valuable items, not to give away too many details so as to attract thieves to churches that are often open but unmanned. “The insurance companies approve of our work,” says Matt Smith, “so we must be getting that part right.”
He is the veteran of the group, 20 years a church recorder and “at least eight” completed records. “I went to a meeting.” he says. “They asked me if I had any hobbies. I said I’d always dabbled in architecture and photography, and they jumped up and down.” He provides the photographs of every object and is joined in the task by Murray Low, a more recent recruit.
Not all the team are churchgoers. An interest in the treasures left behind by the long ebb of the sea of faith is sufficient, though they collectively concede that it helps to have at least one member (WakesMiller in this case) with a current knowledge of church ritual.
“I’m always clear,” says Smith, “that we aren’t treating the churches we visit as museums, but rather as storehouses.” Parker nods in agreement: “They’re often the oldest building in the local community.” And Low chips in: “They’re also very accessible when there isn’t any other public building left.”
It’s easy to imagine the goodhearted toing and froing that goes on between the group as they compile their record. Out of such companionable moments in churches up and down the land these past 40 years, something of great value has quietly been achieved – both in tapping into the energy and wisdom of the individuals concerned, and for the rest of us in the form of archived records that detail as never before the history of faith in Britain in thousands of remarkable objects. firstname.lastname@example.org A new generation of volunteers, p19
For the record: Sandra Tilley and Adrian Parker, above, log the treasures of St Mary’s in South Creake, where Gillian Savage, top right, displays one of the historic copes