Church: More that a religious building?

Church: More than a religious building

All Saints Basingstoke is the church that I attend most Sundays. In 2017 it celebrated it’s 100 year anniversary, and I was inspired to write this blog post.

This lovely building, built in 14th century Gothic revival style, replaced a tin structure that sat on the site from about 1900. The tin building was moved, now sitting next to the church as a church hall.

Photo © Chris Talbot (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Funds for building All Saints came from local resident, Reverend Alexander Titley Hall. England was embroiled in World War I which meant that the building was completed by those too old or too young to serve as soldiers. Expert masons, over the age of 50 directed youngsters learning their craft (under the age of 18). All Saints completion, in only two years, is an astonishing achievement.

More about All Saints history are artwork can be found here

All Saints is not just aesthetically pleasing. It’s also been serving the community for 100 years – from baptisms and marriages to Sunday services, Christmas, Easter and other church calendar celebrations. It has forged a strong community and in turn actively participates with the wider Basingstoke community. It’s been involved with a number of charities and community events. More importantly we’ve found it to be friendly and welcoming! It’s where my children were christened earlier this year.

Photo © of Natalie Pithers

When I told my 4 year-old that we were going to church to celebrate its 100 year birthday she eagerly exclaimed “and it’s still up!!” But actually her excitement that a building has survived 100 years is justified. Not all churches or public buildings last that long, think of how many may of been lost during World War II.

Anyway, this Sunday the church hosted “Messy Church” – a fun arts and crafts event for kids. My two little ones particularly enjoyed the clay table – but there was also stone painting, soap carving and building churches with biscuits and sweets. After the crafts we sang songs, listened to a re-telling of a Bible story and said prayers.

As part of the centenary celebrations the stump of a (roughly) 100 year old tree was displayed. One little chap did pipe up that he’d counted the rings twice and got to more than 100!

We were invited to add notes of important events, nailing them on to the log at the appropriate numbered ring.

People added personal, national and global events – from world wars to the landing on the moon – to birth dates and wedding anniversaries.

It made me think, not just about life over the last 100 years, but about the role that church played in the lives of our ancestors. We tend to think about baptisms, marriages and burials – but what about all the events that take place in between?

Photo © of Natalie Pithers

Even if our ancestors were not “active” members of their church, I certainly have recollections of childhood midnight mass on Christmas Eve – of nativity plays and Harvest Festivals. I bet many of our ancestors attended events like these too.


Our Ancestors Church Life

This is one of the reasons why I love visiting the churches where my ancestors were baptised, married or buried. Of course you have that wonderful sensation of treading where their footsteps once fell, trailing fingers over rough stones and cool fonts – which they too might once have felt or held. But visits can offer more than these sensations, they are also an opportunity to seek out and speak to members of the church community.

One group of my ancestors (surname Woodrow) lived in various areas of Dorset, including Bere Regis. I recently took a visit to St John the Baptist, Bere Regis and caught the end of a Sunday service.

Photo © Chris Downer (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The Reverend kindly told me a little about the history of the church – in particular proudly explaining it’s links to Thomas Hardy. Written information was on hand too, specifically about the exquisitely beautiful church roof which dates from 1485. See here for more information.

Photo © Nigel Mykura (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Near the font, carved into the wall was a list of all the Reverend’s, dating back several centuries. These carvings are protected with glass so please forgive the focus and the shadow of me taking the photo!

Photo © of Natalie Pithers

It occurred to me that my ancestors, in Bere Regis in the late 1700s would likely have learned the history of the ceiling too. Perhaps it was a source of pride? Something to tell other family members about when they visited, attending baptisms, marriages and burials.

There are so many questions we need to ask ourselves when we look at our ancestors religious life. Not least because Church may have been serving more than religious needs, it was also often involved in the wider community. 100 years ago there may not have been Messy Church on Sundays, but there may have been a Sunday School – or 200 years ago a charitable Ragged School (run by the Church).

Delve into those historic newspapers, ask the clergy at your ancestors’ churches. Maybe join a service, look at the dates on some of the hymns – some of them may have been sung by your ancestors too.

What role did (or does) your local church play in your community? What role did it play in the lives of your ancestors? What was the service and the hymns like? Who else attended the church? What was the Reverend like? Was there a Sunday School?