Recorders of the faith

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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. vol­un­teer­ 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

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