Report and pictures by Peter Mann
18 people attended the first service in St Denis’ East Hatley for 52 years on the evening of 7th September 2011, when Ian Parker led a very simple and peaceful Taizé service dedicated to trust, peace and reconciliation.
St Denis was closed for worship in 1959, the building emptied of its contents and allowed to decay. Although the churchyard remains consecrated – the last burial was in 2004 – it always seemed highly unlikely that it would ever be used for worship again. By 2004, the building was in a very poor state and completely covered in ivy.
However, because it is Grade II* listed, South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC), by now the owners of the building, could not allow it to become a ruin – and thanks to a generous contribution from English Heritage, together with funding from SCDC and Hatley Parish Council, the ivy was removed, the roof retiled, other structural work done and the building made into a safe shell, albeit with much of the floor missing. (NB This was all before the church was given to the Friends of Friendless Churches in 2016.)
What is a Taizé service?
Taizé is a village in south west France where a community of brothers (monks) set up after World War II.
Hundreds of thousands of people from all over Europe and beyond spend time there (usually camping) every year. It hit the headlines a few years ago when the brother who founded the community and led it for over 50 years was murdered during a service.
They have a particular style of worship, based on music – singing very simple, but beautiful, repetitive chants – and periods of silence.
The St Denis’ Taizé service
The idea for a Taizé service at St Denis’ was suggested by Ian Parker after a similar service at Hatley St George church earlier in 2011, with the intention for it to be held in the churchyard.
“Our half-hour service,” said Ian, “usually consists of a couple of readings, three or four songs, a short silence then a longer one. We usually have lots of candles as well – however not quite sure yet how we will manage that outdoors at Hatley!”
At a pre-service meeting to look round the churchyard, Ian and Philippa Pearson were given a peek inside the empty church and it was felt that there was sufficient floor space to accommodate about 15 people; SCDC readily granted permission and chairs and candles were brought from St Mary’s in Gamlingay.
With Ian leading the service, and also playing the flute, and Philippa singing two solos, a unique event was created in the tradition of a Taizé service based on music – singing very simple, repetitive, chants and periods of silence… perhaps not complete silence, for the sound of a distant tractor and occasional small plane could be heard; doubtless in spring, the blackbirds, robins and thrushes would be at full cry too, but none of it spoilt the occasion.
Jan Cooper added to this with a beautiful reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12-27: Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body”…
Our thanks to Ian, who is a lay member of St Mary’s in Gamlingay, and Philippa Pearson for organising the event and everyone else who contributed to a very simple and memorable occasion.
Ian, who says he likes organising Taizé services, also kindly provided the background information about how the Taizé service came into being.
What of the future for St Denis?
While St Denis is no longer consecrated, outside and inside it looks and feels like a church – but one thing no one has experienced for over 50 years is its wonderful acoustic.
In the eyes of SCDC, St Denis is a problem, for without electricity or water or a vehicular entrance and set in a consecrated churchyard, what can be done with it? As a Grade II* building, it cannot be demolished or allowed to fall into disrepair again.
The answer, perhaps, is to go back to English Heritage and ask for help with funding to repair the floor and complete work to the windows and other essential items – then give it back to Ely in order for it to be re-consecrated and used again from time to time for worship.
It won’t be an easy sell, but St Denis’ deserves a second chance rather than being laid to waste.
Footnote Since those comments were written, St Denis’ has, thankfully, passed into the ownership of The Friends of Friendless Churches, which has invested in a new floor and windows in the nave and, subject to raising the funds, will also restore the chancel and sanctuary.
- St Denis’ church – 800 years old but no longer consecrated.
- St Denis’ churchyard – a ‘living’ churchyard and nature reserve.
- The Say rectors of East Hatley – they gave over 112 years of service to the parish.
- Hatley St George church – Hatley’s other church, still open for services.
First published on the original Hatley website, Sept 2011; with minor changes for this site, 26 Dec 2018. ▲