A Writer in Residence project for Part Exchange Company, 2015, working at St. Mary Redcliffe church.
Soft Furnishings by Bea Roberts
Immortalised in the stained glass of the Lady Chapel
between St. George and the dragon is a woman with a handbag.
She doesn’t seem fussed about the dragon, is frankly non plussed by St Francis next to her decked out in doves,
her eyes are on the Holy Mother as she patiently waits her turn to adore.
My granddad was a vicar but on visits to his parish my seven year old self was less impressed by the masonry and the history, the liturgy and the ritual than by the excitement that he let us roller skate across the church hall.
On receiving my assignment here I felt oddly nervous and resigned,
A detailed 70 page history arrived,
How will I write about a church, I thought, in addition to which I had to google in preparation, Corbel and Cope, Transept, Clerestory, Vestry, Rood and Boss.
How pleasant then to find as a warmly welcomed outsider that this place,
this celestially vaulted space,
is a house of God with jazz in the basement,
a poet in the muniments room and a film club on Wednesdays.
Downstairs in the vestry is a 14th century armoire, the medieval love child of a cupboard and a wardrobe.
A rarity, I’m told, that experts came to probe and were astounded by,
wooden panels and hinges that have survived over 700 years.
That vast swathe of history has seen civil wars,
the rise and fall of governments,
monarchs throned and dethroned and beheaded.
Bombs rain down from the sky and genocide.
Women’s rights and workers’ rights and civil rights,
the invention of the internet, the nuclear warhead and the Breville Toastie maker.
Oblivious to all this, this ancient armoire squats quietly in the vestry of St Mary’s
keeping snug and safe within its stoic wooden bosom a Henry the hoover, the dusters and some Pledge.
Great men may build a towering palace to God but they never give a moment’s thought to storage.
Every Monday, Jane and Pauline and Bernice repair the veils and copes and altar cloths with curved needles and thread so fine you can scarcely see it.
My favourite things are the soft furnishings.
A saw and a lamb and a clamshell are stitched here.
Fleur de lys, lions, stars and a slightly wonky-eyed cross-stitched messiah my heart goes out to.
I wonder how many, when kneeling in prayer, have spared a thought for the carefully embroidered heraldry, crowns and crests that cradle their knees from the hard wooden floor,
so that their minds are free to dream
and contemplate the spiritual realm
instead of shuffling uncomfortably in their pews and persistently thinking ‘ow’.
Sublime qualities manifest themselves in ordinary things too,
not just in the works of saints and poets and prophets like the guide books push us towards.
Within the people who have sat here for centuries have been private thoughts of forgiveness and love and meditations on world peace and the nature of suffering tumbling in the same heads amongst worries and doubts and insecurities and thoughts of washing up liquid and tomorrows and diets and deadlines and Facebook and gas bills.
The women here have made padded hangers to take the strain from the shoulder seams of the priceless copes
and plain cotton bags to shield and shroud the delicate silk of the fabulously embellished chalice veils – there is not glamour there but care.
Acts of generosity with arms spread wide through time
to craftspeople who came before and made such things
and to grandchildren who will arrive in years to come and find these sacred cloths still here to adore.
There are millions of tiny unseen stitches in the fabric of this history,
and that is why the lady with the handbag is apt to be immortalised amongst the divine