A Sermon in Stone

The wayfarer in Leicestershire might easily miss its most precious gem: Staunton Harold – a house, church and lake which perfectly complement each other. Their sheer beauty on first sight may, however, conceal their real significance, especially that of the church. As Herbert wrote:

A man that looks on glass
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass
And then the heaven espy.

For the church of the Holy Trinity proclaims a spiritual truth. The inscription over its west-door encourages us to look beyond its immediate beauty into another dimension. It reads:

When all things sacred were throughout ye nation demollisht or profaned Sir Richard Shirley Barronet founded this Church Whose singular praise it is to have done ye best things in ye worst times And hoped them in the most callamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.

Staunton Harold church was built during the Commonwealth. Shirley lived to see his world collapse around him. The Civil War disastrously divided friends, families and neighbours. Churches everywhere were being despoiled by people like the ‘Detestable Smasher’, William Dowsing. The monarchy was abolished and the doleful pall of Puritanism hung over everything.

However, Shirley didn’t just hope that things would get better. In defiance of the Powers-that-be he did the best things in the worst times as the inscription says. He built a church which, though outwardly continuing the English Gothic tradition, mirrored inwardly the valid insights of his contemporary world.

The visitor passes from one vision of God, the Gothic, reflecting his transcendence and majesty, into a perfect Jacobean Classic interior, suggesting a faith both reasonable and intelligent, being reminded at the same time that this resulted during those ‘most callamitous times’ in his imprisonment and eventual death the Tower for his impertinence.

What other lessons does Staunton Harold teach? Here are some suggestions for your consideration:

Tribulations like today’s have happened before and will continue to do so. There will always be those for whom God’s Kingdom implies tearing everything up and starting again. Cromwell and Dowsing believed sincerely in what they were doing; but faulty belief, however sincere, is more destructive than sheer neglect or vandalism.

It’s right positively to seek to do the best things in the worst times. To wait till things get better may postpone indefinitely what God wants done today, whilst it is called today.

We should hope [the best things] in the most callamitous [times]. Visionaries, like Shirley, who can discern chinks of light amid total darkness, are worth their weight in gold. They are also prime targets of those whose depredations they resist.

The Gothic-cum-Renaissance of Shirley’s church suggests the future lies neither in ‘putting the clock back’, nor in some new ‘final solution’. The former would make us antiquarians, the latter, little-Hitlers.

Wise men always appreciate the past and evaluate the present, knowing that much in both will prove transitory. We should therefore safeguard both past and present, valuing the spirituality which created the great Gothic Cathedrals alongside the reasoned insight which informed the writings of the Anglican divines; not forgetting that flowering of the English language in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which produced Shakespeare, the Authorized Version and the Book of Common Prayer. Yet neither spirituality nor reason by itself will save us from our present distress, and either will become a broken reed piercing the hand of anyone who leans upon it too heavily.

Let the inscription inside the church say the final word:

Sir Robert Shirley Baronet Founder of this church anno domini 1653 on whose soul God have mercy.

Francis Gardom is Honorary Secretary of Cost of Conscience.

Staunton Harold is on the B587, five miles north of Ashby-de-la-Zouch. It is administered by the National Trust and open from March to October. To check ring (01332) 863822.