Britain’s churches need us to survive – but do we still need them?

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

Sixteen cathedrals to see before you die

There can be no clearer illustration of the central role that great cathedrals continue to play in a nation’s life than the outpouring of grief that greeted the catastrophic blaze in Notre-Dame in 2019. President Macron described the building as ‘our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we experienced all our greatest moments’. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of any major European city without a cathedral at its heart. Emma J. Wells has written an accessible, authoritative and lavishly illustrated account of the building of 16 of ‘the world’s greatest cathedrals’. Her subjectivity is evident in that only seven feature among Simon Jenkins’s top 25 in his

How the quarrelsome ‘Jena set’ paved the way for Hitler

Today, the German city of Jena, 150 miles south-west of Berlin, is the world centre of the optical and precision industry; but in the 1790s it spawned an even more marketable commodity. It was then a small medieval town on the banks of the river Saale with crumbling walls, 800 half-timbered houses, a market square and an unruly university. Here, in the philosophy department, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a young professor inspired by Immanuel Kant and the French Revolution, proclaimed from the pulpit his theory of the ‘Ich’. ‘A person,’ he roared, ‘should be self-determined.’ In an age of absolute power and the divine right of kings, the idea of free

In praise of Britain’s unsung cathedrals

When a kindly vicar helped me get my life back on track, 20 years ago, I vowed to light a candle in every cathedral in the British Isles. Sadly, I don’t have the time or money to do them all in one go, but I’ve been ticking them off one by one and I’ve been to 44 so far. So long as I step up the pace a bit, I still hope I can get along to all of them before I cash in my chips. How many cathedrals are there in the British Isles? Well, that depends on how you count them. There are 42 Anglican cathedrals in England,

How we became a nation of choirs and carollers

Between the ages of 15 and 17 I had a secret. Every Monday night I’d gulp down dinner before rushing out to the scrubby patch of ground just past the playing fields, where a car would be waiting. Hours later — long after the ceremonial nightly locking of the boarding house — I’d sneak back, knocking softly on a window to be let in. I’d love to say that it was alcohol or drugs that lured me out. It wasn’t even boys — or, at least, not like that. My weekly assignation was with Joseph and Johann, Henry, Ben and Ralph. My addiction? Choral music. Better than some and worse

Britain’s choirs are facing oblivion

Britain’s choirs are facing oblivion. Yet they’re also terrified of returning. One story explains why. Picture this innocent choral-society scene in Skagit County, Washington State, on the evening of 10 March. One-hundred-and-twenty singers, most of them elderly sopranos, gathered in the Presbyterian church to rehearse for two hours, their chairs 15cm apart. At half-time they took a break for shared snacks, and at the end the helpful ones stayed to stack the chairs. Fifty-two of those singers came down with Covid-19, supposedly through the release of aerosol droplets in the ether. Thus began the swirling of rumours across the world about the grave dangers of singing. It has still not