St Andrew's, Croydon

Sunday after Christmas: 31 December, 2000


Revival of the Fittest

If you drive up to the Midlands via the M11 motorway and the A14, then, shortly after crossing the Great North Road, you come to a turning marked to Leighton Bromswold.

Leighton Bromswold is an undistinguished village apart from its church (dedicated to St Mary) and the Jacobean gatehouse which once belonged to the now-vanished Leighton Bromswold Castle. It was proposed to build a mansion on the site of the castle, but only the gatehouse was ever built.

It's with the Church, however, that we are concerned, because its history is a parable of the Church in the present day: and if the Duke in As You Like It was able to find "Sermons in Stones", then so can we – except in this case the stones are not lying on the ground in the Forest of Arden but those which form the building of St Mary's, Leighton Bromswold.

Like many another country church in 1600, St Mary's lay in ruins. It had been seized by Henry VIII's Commissioners at the Reformation, stripped of its assets and left abandoned. A half-hearted attempt was made to rebuild it in 1606 but the building stopped for lack of funds and for 20 years, so Izaac Walton tells us, it was "so decayed, so little, and so useless, that the parishioners could not meet to perform their duty to God in public prayer and praises". The nave was roofless, but the local landlord, the Duke of Lennox, graciously allowed the parishioners to use one of his barns instead.

That all sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? A church, or a group of churches, or a Diocese or a whole Province falls on hard times. There's nobody around with the will or the means to start putting matters right. Yet in spite of this, the faithful few go on intrepidly meeting together for worship convinced that, in his own good time, and in his own way, God will provide them with a saviour in the form of a faithful priest, or wealthy patron, or perhaps both, who will take on the job of raising their parish Church from the ruin into which it has been allowed to fall.

Which was precisely what did happen at Leighton Bromswold, though not in the way people might have expected. The faithful priest was the Anglican Saint, George Herbert, the author of some of the hymns which we often sing; but, curiously, he never became Vicar of the parish and may never have visited it in his lifetime. He probably wasn't even an ordained priest when his association with Leighton Bromswold began.

George Herbert was presented with the Prebandaryship of Leighton in 1626, whilst he was a don at Cambridge, the same year that his close Cambridge friend Nicholas Ferrar was ordained Deacon and went to Little Gidding, two miles down the road from Leighton Bromswold, to found the remarkable community with which his name has ever since been associated. Herbert asked Ferrar to help rebuild the ruined church but Nicholas was fully occupied with his community, so he suggested that his brother, John Ferrar, should supervise the rebuilding whilst Herbert, for his part, should try and raise the money amongst his influential friends.

Which he did. £50 from the Earl of Pembroke; £200 from Catherine Clifford; some money from Henry Herbert, George's brother; donations, small and great, came from here and there. The actual rebuilding was supervised by John Ferrar, and Arthur Woodnorth, a wealthy gold merchant, who was also a subscriber, acted as Treasurer.

By far the greatest amount of money, however, was subscribed by George Herbert himself, from his very modest resources. So worried did his mother become, that she summoned George to London, and advised him to abandon the whole project. He is recorded as having replied to her, "Mother, I ask you to allow me at the age of 33 to become an undutiful son, for I have a vow to God that, if I am able, I will rebuild Leighton Church."

And so he did. Leighton Church stands today as a memorial to the Saint who enabled it to be rebuilt, but probably never saw it with his own eyes. In 1630 he left Cambridge to become Vicar of St Andrew’s Bemerton, near Salisbury, and three years later he died of consumption, and was buried there.

So what does all this have to tell us about the Church today? Let me suggest three lessons which we can learn from the history of Leighton Bromswold.

Lesson One is that in any age, be it the seventh, seventeenth or the twentyfirst century, the rebuilding of the Church of God is likely to be in the hands not just of one charismatic leader whose personality carries all before him, but rather of a number of dedicated people with many different talents, who are just needing a leader to inspire them because he has been inspired by the vision to be able to see what can be achieved in the circumstances, and with the determination to get on and do it. That leader’s personal involvement in the day-to-day running of the project may, so to say, be at one remove from "the shop-floor" where most of the physical work is being done. Herbert, remember, probably never went to Leighton. His mission consisted in enabling others to do what he himself, because of his poor health, could not have done – physically rebuild the church from its ruins – by raising the funds (which in turn, perhaps, his fellow-builders could not do).

Lesson Two is that rebuilding anything is costly. Not only did Herbert himself provide most of the money, but his tireless effort to raise it from others may well have taken its toll of his delicate health and contributed to his early death at the age of 39. There's few jobs in the world more back-breaking than trying to get people to donate money to a cause in which you yourself passionately believe, but experience great difficulty in attracting the interest of others. "Leighton Bromswold? Where’s that?", they ask. "Oh, Huntingdonshire", they reply on being told where it is, "now that's somewhere in the West Country, isn't it? Or am I thinking of Herefordshire?"

Lesson Three is that if, during all those years of inactivity, the faithful laity of Leighton Bromswold hadn't continued to meet for worship in the Duke of Lennox's barn, dark and cold and inconvenient as it undoubtedly must have been, there wouldn't have been much point in rebuilding the church of St Mary anyway.

So the real heroes of this story are not just Herbert and Ferrar and Lennox, but those intrepid souls of Leighton Bromswold who kept the show running: people with names like Mr Bun the Baker, Mrs Farrow the Farmer's Wife, Miss Dose the Doctor’s Daughter and Master Switch the Schoolmaster's Son. Had it not been for their faithfulness, Leighton Bromswold would never have found its way into Simon Jenkins book England's Thousand Best Churches for the simple reason that it wouldn’t have been there!

Perhaps a fitting epitaph for the faithful of St Mary's and George Herbert are the words written in Izaac Walton's book on Herbert's life. He said:

"Allow that Herbert in the body never looked on Leighton Church, never worshipped God in its aisles; Leighton Church was very dear to Herbert's heart: it was hallowed by his prayers, it was washed by his tears. It is ever to be remembered as incensed by his memory."

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