(An article first printed in a Parish Newsletter of the 1970s)
I have been reading quite a lot lately about ancient churches and trying in my mind to put our beautiful old church in its historical setting. Here are some interesting points I have discovered:
Our Parish Booklet infers that the Old Church was built on or near a hermit dwelling. Certainly the different Celtic saints, such as Teilo and Illtyd, who perambulated and operated in the area, settled, often as hermits, on just such a high view-point – and ours must have been very handy for the evangelizing of England that went on in those days! The records of vicars only go back to 1254. There was the necessary well or spring for our hermit on the church perimeter, though it has not been designated as ‘holy’. One writer states ‘our sense of continuity with the beliefs of the ancient Britons is never stronger than when we stand by one of the holy wells which are to be found near many churches.
St Michael was the saint ‘almost certainly first associated with it in the role of a sentinel to defend Christianity against the persistence of the old nature worship’ – any battles taking place on the north or ‘devil’s side’ of the churchyard! ‘After Lucifer had been overthrown by the loyal angels led by St Michael, the less sinful among the fallen angels were allowed to have an earth dwelling in woods and on high hills and were known to man as elves.’ Sometimes a church never got built – only a cross, the remains of which we also have. Another dedication of hilltop churches is to St Catherine, whose cult was introduced into England at the time of the Crusades. She is especially associated with beacons at sea (and fireworks!) via her origins at Alexandria, the site of the famous lighthouse.
We have no records of the actual building of our church in Norman times – the situation presumably chosen not only as a holy place but because of its commanding position overlooking the river. How odd, though, it seems now to think of our very close connection with France. And strange too, in our remote parts, to think of even closer ties and influence through the ages with Rome and Roman civilisation, though so remote were some parts of Wales and the borders that one or two pockets of Roman Catholicism remained after the Reformation and do so to this day. Tradition says the holy stoup in the porch was broken by puritans. It was the custom, incidentally, to use the porch for parish business meetings – hence the stone seats, and perhaps inside the church the chest was used for church funds, though Henry II in England gave orders for churches to have them for contributions towards the crusades. One church in Suffolk has carved in the porch ‘if ought thou lend or borrow truly pay, ne give ne take advantage though thee may’.
The rood loft has gone and one wonders whether a statue of St Christopher stood there because every church (and house) once had one ‘to protect inhabitants for that day’. At any rate we now have St Christopher in our west window where, together with St James, he guards churchgoers and the river – such a vital means of communication in earlier days.
There seems little doubt that in the great days of pilgrimages to Compostella, boatloads of pilgrims – many from these parts – sailed the Wye to Bristol and other ports for embarkation for France and Spain – a tremendous and arduous journey in spite of the hospices of the religious orders to help the faithful on their way. The crucifix above the stone altar was a pilgrim’s gift from Compostella.
There have obviously been considerable changes in progression through Celtic Church, Catholic Church, Established Church, the Non-Conformist Movements, the separation of the Church in Wales (following on Disestablishment in 1922); on, perhaps tot the Ecumenical movement of today. Locally these great changes were reflected in the building of the three chapels and of St Mary’s. Disestablishment meant sharing with the civil authorities responsibility for the redistribution of Church funds. Penalt has been fortunate to obtain restoration grants under this head, sorely needed after the period of decay following on the two wars, with consequent loss of population and industry. But the Old Church has gained also through the ages from its benefactors and workers… which is not to say that its running expenses today do not pose a problem! Economic problems and historical setting apart, the church is what we make it…’what matters is that it is God’s house – a public yet private place, the keeper for generations of the griefs and gratitudes of a complete community.