On Sunday 12th July 2015, parishioners and church helpers met for the Dedication Sunday service and then enjoyed a Bring and Share lunch, to thank everyone from dusters to flower arrangers, mowers and sweepers for all their help during the past year. The Rector’s sermon gave a historical resume, with an up-to-date perspective, which we thought you might like to read.
Today we celebrate two things.
Firstly, we celebrate the dedication of this church.
Secondly, we celebrate those living stones, the worshippers at this church, and those who have given so freely of their time and energy to sustain and uphold this house of prayer and contemplation: A THIN PLACE - where people from the village, Festival-goers or tourists, can come into contact with God.
The church we sit in today was not the first church on this site: but perhaps only the yew trees to the east of the chancel will remember that.
There was a church here, on this site, before the present one – it used to belong to Romsey Abbey, run by a Rector, who had a local priest acting for him in this area. This church served the community around what was then called Edington Manor, Tinhead and Baynton. Virtually nothing is known of this church or its dedication: but what is known is that the church served the community here well – something for us to continue to emulate today.
William of Edington, son of a local Edington landowning family, left this village and served the national church. As clergy were required to be literate and well-educated as part of their role, they often held what today would be called ‘civil service posts’: William became Treasurer of England, then Bishop of Winchester, and finally, Chancellor of England. William was later elected Archbishop of Canterbury, but was too ill to take office, and died soon afterwards.
Even in those days God asked people to give sacrificially for His church, and William, whilst he was still alive, gave money to develop the facilities here in Edington, and remembered the church in his will.
In 1351, William of Edington, began buying parcels of land from locals and from Romsey Abbey. William established a chantry here on the 29th of October, and a Warden, William Scarlett, was put into position. On that same day, the rights to the church were transferred from Romsey to here, so that the original church (whose dedication is unknown) and chantry (dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Katherine and All Saints) became one.
A chantry is a place where a group, or college, of priests would, at regular times throughout the day, dedicate prayers, offer worship and say masses for the dead. This would have had a particularly high-priority in those days, because Black Death had entered the country just three years before the building of this church was begun. Depending on where you were in Europe, and what sort of community you lived in, death rates could vary between 20% and 80% of the population. An awful lot of people needed to be prayed for. The need for a chantry was immense, and there were probably 12 chantry chaplains offering prayers for the dead here, both named and unnamed, throughout the day, every day.
The Black Prince may have persuaded Bishop William to convert the expanding chantry into a monastery, following the rule of St Augustine. There is, in truth, differing opinion about whether the Brothers of Penitence, or Bonhommes (sometimes called bluefriars, on account of their robes) – were canons or friars – i.e. whether they were lay or ordained, and whether they were an enclosed order or whether they saw their vocation to be alongside others in the local community. This was one of only two such houses for the order in England, and information is scarce. Perhaps they were modelled on the only other community of Bonhommes that we know about, at Ashridge?
It is believed by many that the chaplains of the chantry became members of the order of the Bonhommes, but this is not known for certain. The first Rector of Edington, in this incarnation, John de Aylesbury, took post on the 5th April 1358.
What this reminds me of, theologically, is that the church then, as now, is always reinventing itself and changing. The church of God has NOT been the same for 2000 years – it has always responded to the needs of the times, and changed accordingly to meet those needs.
As we continue through time, the monastery continue to grow and to acquire lands, and benefited hugely from the will of William of Edington. The large new church on the site was dedicated in 1361. Something of the influence of the monastic complex remains in the design of this church: apparently we have high aisle windows because light travelling through windows at a lower height would have been obstructed by the roof of the adjoining monastery’s cloisters, on the north side of the church. Additionally, the doors in the north transept, which appear to serve no known purpose, once allowed access to the adjacent monastery buildings.
This church’s greatest claim to national historical fame comes from the time of the Cade Rebellion in 1450, against King Henry VI. This was a revolt against an unpopular government, and dissention as a result of years of war with France, and especially the loss of Normandy. The king’s advisor, the Bishop of Salisbury, was here when a mob dragged him from the altar and killed in the place where the children on Pilgrimage Day now have their picnics. (I don’t mention that to them - it might put them off their sandwiches!)
Much damage was also done to the monastery buildings and items were looted from the church by the mob: the Bonhommes were successful in applying for a tax exemption from the king to help them to afford rebuilding and re-equipping the church.
So this church, which is so well-cared for these days, has been badly damaged and badly treated in the past, but not destroyed: and it has overcome it all to be a symbol of peace and closeness to God for many, including many thankful visitors and tourists.
I would now like to speculate a little about why it managed to survive the Dissolution of the monasteries so well. I think it was partly down to luck. In 1538 the Rector died (of natural causes), so it was easy for Cromwell’s supporters to arrange for a sympathetic new Rector, Paul Bush, to take up post. In March 1539 he surrendered his home and the monastery buildings and lands. He was later made Bishop of Bristol and given a pension of £100 a year, plus income from some of Edington’s manors. The other 12 monks were given between £2 and £10 a year, and had to leave their home, and their lives, behind them. This apparent deal with Paul Bush may offend our sense of justice, but the fact that he made a deal also ensured that the church was not treated as badly as other places had been: which is why this church is so good an example of architecture of its type, whilst nothing remains of the monastery.
Between 1539 and the 1970s the Priory Church congregation became the responsibility of a series of perpetual curates, many of whom lived in Warminster or Devizes, but who later lived in the local area. It wasn’t until the 1970s, during the last third of Ralph Dudley’s time here, that Edington was officially granted a Vicar, but of course the title was used informally and extensively before then.
Since that time, the church has continued to develop and thrive, with much restoration work being undertaken, and new features such as a children’s area and a new organ being added.
So what does all this history tell us?
It tells us that this place was built for the people of this community and to serve their many needs.
It is not just bricks and mortar though: it is made up of living stones, and always has been.
If there was an earthquake in Edington (just as there was in Christchurch, New Zealand a few years ago) that demolished this beautiful building, there would still be a Church in Edington – because the people here are the church.
Unlike some historic churches, this church does not give the impression, to anyone, of being a museum - but is a place where people can come, and feel welcomed, and feel close to God.
It is a living place.
It is a place at the heart of the community, and serving their needs.
It is the home of a growing congregation, both numerically and spiritually.
It is the heart of a praying and loving community.
And in our ‘Thank You party’ after this service, we hope to share our joy and thanks for all the people in this area who continue to contribute so much to making it the special place that it is.
© Friends of Edington Priory Church | Registered charity no: 00268249 | updated 17/07/15