Letter from an empty church

Stuart Kelly

7 May 2020
Wigtown Parish Church with Wigtown Bay in the background. A blue sky and large low clouds.

When he is not reviewing, writing books or chairing literary events, Stuart Kelly is also (appropriately perhaps) a Reader or lay-preacher in the Church of Scotland. 

In our latest letter from lockdown, he considers time, worship and isolation.

My nights are becoming monastic. It might be longer days, it might be wisps of anxiety like low-lying mist, it might be insomnia, it might be age; but sleeping has become strange. It has a new rhythm. As the sun sets, I set my head. Two and a half hours later I wake up. This is Vigil. I read and work and wait to turn off the light. Just around three, Matins begins. The choir ornithological knows it is still night by our eyes, but they sing. I work, I read, I pray, I drift into that state for which there is no word: not asleep, not awake, dreaming but aware that I am dreaming.

The birds resume around five and I lie there, aware enough to move, drowsy enough not to stir. I pat out their songs on my fingers, as if birdsong were a language I might learn. The wood-pigeon has a pattern. A triplet then a longer, lower note; this is repeated between three and five times, but always ends with a single crotchet and a double crotchet, a ta-da, with the “da” being conspicuously down a key. The blackbird is incomprehensible, never repeating, never a snatch of a snib to unpick it. If the wood-pigeon is pigeon-Latin, a blackbird is Aramaic. The rook is minatory.

The church chimes toll. Eventually the light is inescapable and the day to be faced. I find my glasses. It is Prime. It has been for some time, if we define it as day break. Odd phrase that. I swing my legs out of bed and think “So, Age, you are finally here!” and Other-Stuart, with whom I converse in the dark says, “No, you haven’t walked even a mile a day in thirteen weeks. No wonder. Go figure.”

God, of course, amongst a great many other things, invented irony. One of the last church services I attended was on Ash Wednesday, in a tiny chapel called Hoselaw (it has rather pretty, if not beautiful Pre-Raphaelite frescoes and if you are preaching there, only the celebrant can see the Hebrew name of God picked out on gold leaf in the apse). Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent as we “look forward” – all irony intended – to forty days of abnegation and self-denial. Lententide has seemed somewhat elastic this year. I have not been back to church for thirteen weeks, with the exception of having to read some electricity meters. So I have missed Mothering Sunday, Maundy Thursday. Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Sunday, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday. I ought to have been preaching at five different churches over the same period. We are now in what the Church calls “Ordinary Time”, but nothing feels ordinary about it.   

The Church is a kind of calendar. There is a liturgical horology that divides the year. I have always loved the word “escapement”, which means the mechanism in a watch, and yet has a sense of escaping (one of my duties involves changing the church clock when time goes back or forward). Yet in the church there is that sense of long time, and stillness. It is both in and out of chronology. We say together the words that the long-dead have said; we sing the hymns that the departed once sang; we sit where ghosts sit. I toll the bell and think of the other, now skeletal hands that once did the same. So when my rituals are dislocated, I fall back on the more mundane routine.

So: routine instead. I make a strong coffee and watch the news. I feed the birds. I wait for the post. I listen to Choral Evensong. If church-time is like a slow pendulum, house-time is like a clepsydra, a Greek time-keeping device that functions by drips of water or mercury. The splashes may be unevenly spaced but the total will be accurate. It feels elongated and etiolated at the same time. There is a kind of chaos of sameness. The other day, as I watched the rook and the siskins and the starlings, I suddenly remembered how much I like Radio 3’s recordings of bells and the “Sounds of the Earth” slot. I made a mental note to turn over to the channel before 7.30.

I ate a banana. Then I realised it wasn’t Sunday, it was Wednesday. Had it been Saturday, I could have forgiven myself the mistake. But how could I be out by so much? Later I had to witness a legal document for a friend (doing so under social distancing was like a Feydeau farce) and when he asked what the date was, I was a whole month wrong. 2020: the year with no May.

The church I used to worship in had something I have never seen elsewhere. Affixed to the pulpit was an hour-glass. The Session Clerk used to turn it over at the start of the service, and if it ran out, the congregation did too. I sat once listening to its hiss, the granular static, the whisper of falling.  

Worship has to be communal. I might use religious broadcasts as a kind of prosthetic substitute, but if it is not “time together”, then it is not worship. Those who need the church most – the lonely, the anxious, the vulnerable, the sick, the grieving – are most deprived of it. Open your Primarks and Top Shops and McDonalds and Burger Kings and Sport Directs and Matalans – but churches? No. There is a role for private devotions, but it is only part of what Church means. When I am sent off to some rural church to cover for their minister, I always wear – nobody has noticed – the correct liturgical colour for the day. I also – do not let anyone high-up in the Church know this – also have a rosary in my pocket which I clench if I feel nervous.

And after having delivered the sermon and the prayers I come home and go to the pub, where the locals always ask me what I was wittering on about that day. It feels curiously like Church, and I would like to think that Jesus would approve of me standing on a barstool and explaining to non-Church people what I care about. One person started crying when I did my prayers. I said, as they held their ales and spritzers and whisky chasers, not to pray for things to go back to how they were.

How things were was a toxic melange of racism, prejudice, sexism, homophobia, capitalist greed, political mendacity, violence, poverty, venality and cruelty. I would rather not return to that. But I would like to be able to go back to Church. There’s an old saw that those who preach use – if you are doing a Christmas Eve service, and there are beaming children and indulgent grandparents you never see for the rest of the year, you thank them for coming and say “Do remember – we are open for the other 51 weeks of the year!”. Only – we’re not.

During lockdown the Church has asked us to have a hard look at ourselves. Even before the pandemic, it was known that churches will have to close. Where I live it may well be over half of all churches close. Their time is up. We are curating new ruins. As my dear Mum says – half lovingly, half a threat – you’ll miss me when I’m gone.  

Stuart Kelly is the author of 'The Minister and the Murderer' (Granta)

Filed in: essay, read