by Alison Bacon
“Inferno in Town Centre”.
The headline in the local paper is arresting, the pictures nothing less than apocalyptic. Flames stream skywards above the silhouette of blackened masonry. Further down the page, workmen perched on cranes pick over the carcass of a church. I have kept the cuttings in our wedding album because it’s the church in which we were married, and exactly three months later it burned to the ground.
Thirty years on, the newsprint is yellow and ready to fall apart, but the images remain, a disconcerting souvenir. I pick out the once familiar outline of the lantern roof and the empty tracery of windows that told stories in stained glass. But the camera has missed something, or maybe it didn’t survive. At the top of the path and next to the door there used to be a bronze plaque showing the burning bush, and underneath the motto of the Church of Scotland: Nec tamen consumebatur, “nor yet was it consumed”. Ironic, you might say, since despite the heroic efforts of the minister and the fire brigade, St. Paul’s Parish Church was consumed entirely.
The facts of the case were soon established. The seat of the fire was a neighbouring cinema, closed for redevelopment; the culprits kids with nothing better to do. But fire conjures up the wrath of God. When it strikes a church, it touches something deeper than our everyday religion. I look beyond the facts and the wedding photos, and question what was lost when the church burned down.
I’m not looking for faith, because the church of my childhood was not, as I recall, about faith. It was about arriving on time and sitting still during the sermon. It was getting a prize every year for regular attendance at Sunday School, a prize that was nearly always a Bible. It was people who sat every week in the same seats, wearing the same clothes, until changes in the weather and the hymn sheet nudged them into next season’s wardrobe. It was Brownies, Guides and Christmas parties, all in a bare church hall with splintery floorboards and metal stacking chairs. It was knitted dolls and stewed tea at the Sale of Work in November, the throat clenching terror of singing in the Christmas Nativity Play, and, on the third Saturday in June, weather permitting, coloured streamers trailing from the window of the swaying double-decker bus that took us on the Sunday School Picnic. It was something other than home or school, but connected to both. It was a third of my childhood.
As teenagers we longed to cut the chains, but in a time of limited affluence our options were limited. The sixties saw us languish under the passionless neon lights of Youth Clubs, Fellowships and Saturday night badminton. There a few of us found God, and the rest of us bided our time, knowing escape was at hand in the shape of that ultimate ticket to ride, a student grant. For those of us who returned, after university, to knock at the door of the manse requesting a church wedding, it would mostly be our last visit. By now we had got out from under. We set off for new and distant lives, leaving behind the families who had nurtured us, and the church, that in its old-fashioned, closeting way, had nurtured them.
Since it’s been thirty years, I think I can risk going back. The changes to the town are predictable: strands of retail development join the dots of what used to be rural communities; the old town centre is preserved in the black and white lettering of a Heritage Trail, but lacks its old sense of purpose. The church has never been rebuilt, but curiosity drives me to the place where it stood. I arm myself against disappointment, anticipating a leisure club, a wine bar, a recycled row of charity shops. But when I get there I find none of these. In fact I find nothing at all. The site has been commandeered, as empty spaces are, by a few parked cars, but there are no marked bays, no council notices, in fact, no signs of life. I find this gap in the brickwork strangely satisfying, and think of R.S. Thomas’ Via Negativa, where God is in “empty silence … in the darkness between stars”.
The empty space in front of me defines a childhood, and gives home to the ghosts of an extended family that left its mark on a restless generation. I wonder if the church still owns the land, and, if so, why they haven’t marked the spot. They could have used the plaque that stood by the door, the one of the bush that burned but was not consumed.
Alison Bacon has been writing for five years and is still working on the second novel, the clutch of blogs and the golf handicap. You can visit her here.