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This page last updated 15 April 2017
Anglicans Online last updated 11 August 2019

A review for Anglicans Online
by Richard Mammana

A review of
Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches
Edited with an Introduction by Kevin J. Gardner
Bloomsbury, 2016; ISBN 9781472924353.

Betjeman expert Kevin Gardner turns his attention in this fine anthology to a peculiar English genre of poetry: the elegy on a parish church. There are 61 poets and 95 poems about 78 identifiable churches in a comfortable volume of under 200 pages. It would make a good gift for any person interested in Anglican culture—and indeed just English culture—writ large.

The book opens with a brief essay on "Anglican Memory and Post-War British Poetry," in which the editor traces literary trends in a period when "Anglican memory runs deep in the bone," but "no one could deny that the Church of England is moribund and that its power over ordinary lives is insignificant," with under two per cent of the population attending services regularly. Against this background, he assembles an impressive collection of poems taking as their themes the more than 35,000 parish churches "that adorn the landscape of England's green and pleasant land."

A particularly lovely aspect of the book is its inclusion of a gazetteer in which the locations, history, architectural aspects, and other notes about all of the churches in the anthology offer potential visitors background about the buildings that inspired the poems. This reviewer's only complaints are that the poems are arranged in alphabetical order by their authors' last names, and that there is no indication of the dates when the poets lived, or when the poems were published.

Nearly every page contains a gift like these lines from Fleur Adcock:

Now we begin again, the vicar and I,
rolling the carpet back,
our heads bent to the ritual;
tweaking and tidying the heavy edges
we move our arms in reciprocal gestures
like women folding sheets in a launderette.
A button flips off someone's jacket.
Yours? I offer it to the vicar.
No, yours. He hands it back with a bow.

Or this from Frances Horowitz:

a church noted by Betjeman
saddle-backed, herring-boned
tiny, cool
more ancient than its written history
a god's eye in Cotswold fields:
outside, the graven cross, six centuries worn
is a single shaft to heaven

And this from R.S. Thomas:

I have seen it standing up grey,
Gaunt, as though no sunlight
Could ever thaw out the music
Of its great bell; terrible
In its own way, for religion
Is like that. There are times
When a black frost is upon
One's whole being, and the heart
In its bone belfry hangs and is dumb.

AO staff member Richard J. Mammana is the archivist of the Living Church Foundation and a member of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is a parishioner and clerk of the vestry at Trinity Church, New Haven, Connecticut.