Monday, July 31, 2006

The Ark of St. Laurence ~ A Place of the Past, Present and Future

I climbed the steep path that borders one side of the village green in Alvechurch, leading to the churchyard of St. Laurence church. Glancing back at the village hall and the post office with the red pillar-box outside, I was engulfed in a wave of memories. This view has hardly changed since 1969, when I left for Canada, having grown up in the village.

I was looking forward to meeting Pat Spreckley, who'd be mowing the grass in the churchyard that morning. As I walked further up the hill, past the old house called The Shrubbery, near the churchyard I met John Sidwell. He was busy cutting the long grass on the banks below the high hedges there. On his head he wore a protective visor and as he raised it to greet me, while still holding the long "strimmer," he looked for all the world like a medieval knight, lance in hand. He paused in his work to walk with me to meet Pat, who was hard at work riding the lawnmower. On this unusually hot July day with the temperature soaring to the mid thirties, neither John nor Pat seemed sorry to take a short break from their work to give me a much anticipated tour of the Ark, the stunning boat shaped addition built on to the side of St. Laurence Church.

Over the past few years during visits to Alvechurch I've watched the progress of the Ark and the controversy surrounding its design and funding with interest, so it was exciting this year to find it being used and to have a chance to see it from the inside. From the outside it struck me as beautiful; its design of glass and wood, with the warm and lovely brickwork that tie it in with the old church, tells of a brave vision for the church in the twenty first century.

Inside Pat showed every part of the lovely building with well deserved pride. The kitchen would be the joy of anyone preparing for a large function, with stainless teel fridges, freezer and work surfaces and no less than three sinks. The place has a feeling of life and usefulness. Although aesthetically lovely, it isn't just a "work of art" to be admired, but obviously to be used and filled with people.

The large hall, which can seat one hundred for dinner, has two storey high, glass windows, gorgeous wooden floors and a high beamed ceiling, and gives a sense of being out in the green of the surrounding trees and churchyard. From the upper floor, the village stretches out below, and beyond that can be seen in the distance, the Rover factory at Longbridge and the hills that sweep up behind the village on that side, the Lickeys and the Wasthills.

There is a door in the wall between the Ark and the old church, a doorway I remembered as being bricked over, when I was a child. Now a beautiful Gothic arched glass door, framed with a border of golden wood, connects two worlds. I stepped through it, from the light modern glass and wood of the Ark, into the ancient church of my childhood, cool, even on such a hot day outside, the peace and quiet of the place a balm for the soul. In bright contrast with the shade of the interior of the church, sunlight shone through the exquisite, jewel coloured stained glass windows, which portray medieval and biblical figures. In the choir vestry, a woman in royal robes looks down from a window; a very young Queen Victoria.

The following Sunday evening at eight o'clock, I visited the Ark again, this time to experience the weekly gathering called "Engage." I found a group of people of all ages, seated on rows of chairs in a semi circle, facing the tall windows and a screen onto which the words of contemporary worship songs were projected. The singing was accompanied skillfully on an electronic piano played by Kate Harris, who was joined in leading by Hannah Genders.

The simple but vibrant gathering lasted just an hour, ending as the sun set over Alvechurch in a blaze of deep aqua and brilliant pink. The Ark felt like a beacon on the hill, where the church now known as St. Laurence was founded by the Lady Aelfgiva, and has watched over the village for centuries. The Church is obviously alive and well in Alvechurch, the re-opened doorway symbolic of breaking down barriers between the past and the present, and a faith that is relevant and real in any age.

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