Saturday, June 14, 2008

Away with purpose

We had our annual Parish Outing today - forty one of us taking the coach, and three more following by car - to visit Newton House and Dynefor Castle, a National Trust property outside Llandeilo in verdant Carmarthenshire.

Despite clouds punctuating the sky, it remained warm and sunny all day, which added to the cheer which everyone in the fellowship sems to raise whenever they are together. Enjoyment of each other's company, whether they've known each other sixty years or six months, is one of the best characteristics of our extended church 'family'.

We started with Morning Prayer in Tredegarville School Hall, before boarding the coach. On the way West along the M4, we stopped off in Port Talbot for an hour, for coffee and a visit to St Theodore's Parish Church to pray and inspect the High Altar reredos, removed from St James' Church after it was made redundant, and re-installed, after a good cleaning in the sanctuary of the church. Both visitors and the home team who've already become familiar with it, were delighted with the outcome. "It fits so well", said the visitors; "It feels already as if it's always been there." said members of the home team.

Yes, it just fitted perfectly. No modifications were needed. It doesn't intrude upon the fine modern stained glass windows which rise perfectly above it. The triptych fully open fits against the east wall with sufficient clearance around to frame this great ritual art work properly.

St Theodore's has undergone a major restoration and clean up which makes the most of its pale coloured sandstone interior. A classic 'high Anglican' building, it is blessed by being uncluttered, plain and simple with bursts of restrained beauty and colour in its altars, Marian shrine and windows. The reredos was a reject from the un-remembered London church for which it had been commissioned in the early 1920s. It looked beautiful and imposing close to in St James', but it hand't been designed with St James' sanctuary in mind.

Colonel Bruce Vaughan, architect of St James' - he'd been an engineer with the Indian Army - was a master of mediaeval church design. Thw church he built cannot be identified as a copy of any known 12th century French Gothic church, but if it sat in a market town across the Channel, it would be presumed ancient from its look and feel.

Now that the reredos and altar have been removed from Vaughan's sanctuary, it looks like the space he intended it to be, uterly simple. The reredos originally may have been a liturgically fashionable 'must-have' items for a thriving church. I'm not sure Vaughan would have approved as much as the congregation did of this innovation. But by then, he was in Adamasdown cemetery.

St James' hasn't survived as a place of worship (we wonder when the new owners will start work on redeveloping the building in the present economic climate), but that fine reredos, whose historical origins have not yet been traced, looks like it's found a home worthy of its magnificence eighty five years after it was first fashioned. For me, this was a moment of closure, of sorts, though the sadness of loss endures.

We arrived in good time to lunch at Newton House and have a good look around the house and grounds, including spectacular views from Dynefor Castle ruins, before moving down to Llandeilo to see what they've done to adapt their church building to serve contemporary needs - with some excellently designed Parish and community rooms in their spare North Aisle, and use of the space at the base of the tower for a cyber-facsimile exhibition of the eighth century Llandeilo Gospel manuscript which lives in Lichfield Cathedral. The way it worked out so positively spells 'regeneration' in a rural community. It makes a change from new shopping centres, that's for sure.

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