St Mary, Stow

A plain stretches north and west of Lincoln. As you travel along the A1500 towards Gainsborough, along the alignment of a Roman road, you become aware of a rather large church dominating a tiny village, and you turn off the main road for a closer inspection.

At first sight, this is a tall and large cruciform 12th century church, albeit with a 15th century central tower, an opinion reinforced by the splendidly carved wide Norman south doorway. On closer inspection of the south transept though, you see, almost side-by-side,11th, 12th and 13th century windows, as if for comparison, in the fashion of the very best instructive Victorian manuals of architecture.

You open the door, turn east, and immediately are struck by the height of the nave and by the stupendously monumental pre-Norman chancel arch. Closer examination shows that the 11th century crossing was actually larger than the present one.

No one knows precisely how old the oldest part of Stow church is, but in ad 975 Bishop Aelfnoth built a church here as a minster, a mother church to serve the Lincolnshire part of his large diocese. Stow church is full of interest, one highlight being substantial fragments of a painting of St Thomas a Becket, behind the altar in the north transept, perhaps painted within a generation of his martyrdom.

Nearly 150 years ago, the chancel of Stow church was well restored by the great Victorian architect, J.L. Pearson. Like all churches, Stow needs constant attention, today requiring up to £1·5 million for repairs, including the replacement of its leaden roof, quite beyond the powers of the small village, even with the generosity of the many visitors. This year (2005) it has been declared one of the world’s most endangered sites by the World Monuments Fund, to draw attention to the problems of maintaining Britain’s parish churches.

Reflect that buildings and mission are not exclusive. A church building can be a vehicle of evangelism and an act of witness. Does your parish church proclaim itself to visitors?