In the summer of 1992, Gloria Davey came upon a ruined church near Swaffham in Norfolk. It had no roof, no windows and no door. Satanists were using it for their rites; a grave had been opened, giving up its bones. Gloria’s husband Bob felt obliged to act. He disrupted their rituals, and when they threatened to kill him, he called in the local Territorial Army. They didn’t bother him again.
Bob Davey was 73 when Gloria found the late 11th-century church of St Mary, in Houghton on the Hill; he died, aged 91, having visited it every day thereafter. He and a small group of friends built a mile-long access road and made the church watertight – made it good again, you might say. Then a kind of miracle happened. Beneath the white plaster on the walls of the nave, he discovered the oldest known depiction of the Last Judgment in England, and the only known one of Noah’s Ark.
There are some 10,000 medieval churches left in England alone. They need us to survive. But, asks Peter Ross in his delightful book, do we still need them? Steeple Chasing is an extended exercise in what John Betjeman called ‘church crawling’. Ross extends his remit to include other places where people have anchored deep meanings, among them the Angel of the North. Church attendance is in decline; yet cathedral visitor numbers are booming. Perhaps people now want to worship differently; perhaps they don’t even want to call it worship. ‘You pray as you can, not as you can’t,’ a monk at Pluscarden Abbey, near Elgin, tells Ross.
It is human to make places sacral. Churches, by virtue of centuries of such work, are the most profoundly human places we can be in: hands hewed the stone, bent the iron and cut the glass; the very walls are steeped in prayer and song.