Friday, 17 April 2009

Saint Mary's Whitby.

If you stand in the yard of Fortune's smokehouse in Whitby, hard by the sea and peer up through the clouds of smoke which are delicately smoking the bacon and kippers I have been eating all week, you can just see the tower of Saint Mary's Church, up a steep set of stairs from the town.

Once you get up there, this is the view from the main door, looking back over a wet and cloudy Whitby. The tower of Saint Hilda's Church is visible to the right of centre, directly facing Saint Mary's and built at the same height. You cannot see the mission Church of Saint Ninian's, but more of these two Churches, once part of the same Parish with Saint Mary's, another time. Suffice to say that the extremities of Churchmanship were enjoyed in Whitby in times gone by, as well as a foiled Cathedral.

And behold! For Saint Mary's is a Protestant Church. The triple decker pulpit, used by the clerk at the bottom, the Vicar in the middle and the preacher at the top, dominates the Church. The pews point towards it and from the top one can glower into the box pews on lower and upper tiers. The word of God is given architectural preference over the Sacrament of the altar, indeed it would be impossible for the vast majority of people to even see the (surprisingly disjointed, lovely) sanctuary.

You cannot see the ear trumpets attached to the pulpit, winding to the floor level where the Vicar's wife and her fellow hard of hearing cronies would, unaccountably, gather round to hear him preach. These triple decker pulpits are very rare survivors in the Church of England and I cannot think of another one with such a prominent position left standing. The erection of this pulpit split the parish, with many eventually converted by the Puseyite revivalists, petitioning for another Church and then another even more Anglo Catholic mission. Such revivalists, apart from saving the Church from torpor and moral decrepitude (not that I am biased) also formed one of the first schisms in the Church since the non-conformists split and the Methodists drifted slowly away, lost in a shrinking sea of Ecumenism. The Free Church of England eventually separated from Canterbury in 1927, after years of Protestant witness went largely un-noticed, Churches such as Saint Mary's (although not, in fact, Saint Mary's) who were perturbed by the increasing Catholicity of the Church of England felt that they could not remain - after World War I when praying for the dead became commonplace, after all, the troops had been prayed for in war, why not after it - and made a break which has not been completely unsuccessful.

And this is the image of what they split for - the primacy of scripture, shown clearly in the primacy of the pulpit as the centre of the Church building and the Church body. A split was avoided in Whitby by the building of Saint Hilda's over the water in the modern, new, prosperous part of town.

But here, under the flags and the clock, invisible to most of the congregation, is a small but perfectly formed sanctuary where even to this day the book is left on the North End, in that ridiculous misunderstanding of the point and location of the North End, so instead of presiding from the long side of the table in the quire, facing the choir stalls, one says the Eucharist from the short end of a misplaced coffee table. The blue votive lights, I cannot help thinking, would have caused a riot a hundred years ago!

This is the view which the visitor gets upon entering the Church, and what a fine Church it is, even if your scribe disapproves of such a design.The pulpit can be seen towering up to the upper stalls and the scale and completeness of the box pews can be seen in full.

And here is the Church from the outside, the Abbey hidden to your right, gravestones buffeted by salt water from the sea over hundreds of years, leaving pockmarks all over.