At the sign of the Barking lion...

Mother of God Joy Of All Who Sorrow, Mettingham

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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Joy of All Who Sorrow

Joy of All Who Sorrow

Icon: St Olga   It was twenty years ago that I first cycled these narrow winding lanes, and in the years since then I had often taken my bike on the train to north Suffolk to escape. Here, in the lightly rolling landscape between Halesworth and the Waveney, you are further away from civilisation than just about anywhere in the southern half of England. Here in the Saints the modern world falls away, and you can be on your own, with the rising skylarks and the finches rifling in and out of the hedgerows as you speed by. A hare sits in the roadway ahead, and reluctantly lumbers off as you get closer. A buzzard drifts languidly over the tall trees. On a day in high summer the solid heat shimmers in the air. This is my very favourite part of all East Anglia in which to cycle.

But I hadn't been here for a long time. I'd already visited all the Suffolk parish churches, most of them several times, and almost all of those in Norfolk, and so my eyes turned further afield. For the last few summers I had been heading out at dawn for the outer reaches of East Anglia. There were wonderful villages out there, wonderful churches. I fell in love with Barnack and with Mundon, with Little Gidding and with Tilty, the rolling stone-built parishes of north-west Cambridgeshire and the secretive wooded lanes of mid-Essex. The churches were as open as they were in Suffolk, the people friendly. But I had spent more time around Peterborough and Chelmsford than I had in the Waveney valley. I'd even visited all of the City of London churches in the time since I'd last been out here.

But 2016 so far had been a rotten year for Saturdays. The previous year I had visted more than a hundred churches before the summer had even arrived, mostly on Saturdays, but in 2016 the weekends so far had been lost to rain and drizzle, to high winds and gloomy cold. No doubt global warming was to blame, but it became depressing, as Friday approached, to take a short break from busy work to check the weather forecast and discover that there would be no escape that weekend.

And then, my mother died. She had been ill for some time, but her death was the beginning of that long tunnel of trauma and mourning familiar to anyone who has lost a parent. Raw grief and sadness surprise us at such times, for how great they are perhaps, or even that they are hardly there at all. But we held the funeral on the hottest day of the year so far, and now the funeral was over, the darkness was consumed in the bright, light summer heat of late July. Suddenly, the overhanging sulky weather of hard, heavy spring relented, and days of startling summer sunshine culminated in the brightest, warmest Saturday of the year. I wanted to escape, and so I came back to the Waveney valley.

I had read about the Orthodox church at Mettingham several times in recent years, and wondered about it. Something had nagged me that I needed to visit it, but not enough to do anything about it. Orthodox churches are not common in East Anglia, especially outside the cities, but there were a few. One of them had been in Felixstowe, near to where I live, but when the garrison chapel at Colchester was sold and brought up by the Orthodox church, the Felixstowe church was closed. The orthodox congregations in Ipswich did not have churches of their own, but camped out in other churches. There had long been an orthodox church in Great Yarmouth, the Norwich communities had recently acquired a church in Prince of Wales Road, but apart from a handful of isolated rural outposts in Essex and north Norfolk, that was it. The Mettingham church was an attempt to provide a church for the scattered Orthodox faithful between Ipswich in the south and Norwich in the north, between Yarmouth in the east and Thetford in the west. Actually, there's rather more to it than that, as we shall see.

And so I cycled up through the Saints and came out onto the busy road that leads to Lowestoft and the sea. Here were Barsham and Shipmeadow, and just opposite Shipmeadow church there was a tiny lane, little more than a track, which hurtled downhill towards the Waveney, which narrowed and wound and deepened and would eventually have sent me scampering into Norfolk if I had not resisted the turn-off to the bridge, but instead carried on as the lane turned gently but inexorably back towards the top road and the pretty town of Bungay. And here it was. Somewhere. At first, I couldn't find it. I knew the address, had even seen it from space on a Google satellite map, but now I was here it was nowhere to be seen. Just a farmhouse, and what looked like a renovated stable block, and then a larger house, and at last I saw on the gatepost that it said College of Our Lady of Mettingham. I had found it.

I went and knocked on the door. A saintly bearded fellow opened it. It was Father Andrew, and I asked him if I could visit his church. Actually, that's not quite right. One thing I forgot to mention is that during the week leading up to my visit, which included my mother's funeral, I had slowly lost my voice. The high heat, the dehydration from having cycled some forty miles so far and the lack of practice from not having spoken to anyone for several hours didn't help either. But by a combination of signs and mouthings I managed to convey my desire to visit the church. 'But of course you may, it's open!' my new friend assured me, not the least bit fazed by my appearance or incoherence. I even managed a supplementary question in croaks and gestures - where is it? And this, too, received an answer. 'It's round the back!'

And so it was. I turned the corner to find a delightful little wooden church with blue domed cupolas, shining numinously in this Suffolk summer sunlight. It was one of those moments that knocks you back for a second, a glimpse of something beyond the everyday world, beyond the familiar and expected. I parked my bike and stepped inside to fresh, neat light and a heaven of icons.

Ikonostasis door: St Dismas Icon of the Mother of God Theotokos Kardiotissa ikonostasis door: High Priest Melchizedek
Icon: St Botolph Icon: St Andrew Icon: St Filofteia

The full title and dedication of the church is the Collegiate Church of the Ikon of the Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow. Father Andrew joined me in the church, took pity on me for my croaking voice, and gently explained everything without me having to ask too many more questions.

He and his wife had moved out of London some years before and settled here beside the Waveney. He was a Norfolk man originally, and of course we are just a stone's throw from the border here. His wife had been the daughter of a Russian prince, and the sale of some family property in central London enabled them to buy this large house and land with a special purpose in mind. For some years they had operated an Orthodox information service, and the house at Mettingham with its ten bedrooms was perfect for accomodating Orthodox religious clergy who had come to minister in the area. These twin purposes of education and hospitality were central to the life of a medieval college of priests, and so the idea of founding a College here in Mettingham took hold.

Intriguingly, Mettingham was home to a College of Priests from the 14th Century until the Reformation, based at the Castle on the other side of the top road, and so it was fitting that one should be re-established here. Even more, as East Anglia was considered Mary's Dowry in the Middle Ages, and the majority of churches here were dedicated to feasts of the Blessed Virgin, especially in Suffolk and particularly so in the river valleys, and as the medieval college was dedicated to her, so Father Andrew and his wife decided to dedicate their new college to Our Lady of Mettingham, the Mother of God.

Father Andrew had officiated at the Felixstowe church, but when that had closed it had placed them in something of a quandary. How could he best minister to the Orthodox faithful of East Anglia? At first sight, the obvious thing might be to establish a church in Norwich or Ipswich, but as Father Andrew pointed out, the Orthodox flock tends to be scattered and rural, and as they would need to travel by car into Norwich or Ipswich, it made much more sense for them to travel by car here instead, halfway between the two. Mettingham is within the Broads Authority area, so planning regulations are particularly tight, but it was with the encouragement of the Broads Authority that the new church was elaborated - early plans had been rejected as 'not sufficiently church-like'.

They had originally intended to dedicate the church to St John the Wonder Worker, an Orthodox missionary in China who had later led the church in California, but by a coincidence this was the dedication which had already been chosen for the church in the former garrison chapel at Colchester. So instead, they used the dedication of the cathedral St John the Wonder Worker had founded in San Francisco, Mother of God Joy of All who Sorrow. The church was completed in 2009. Since then, its success has been rather embarassing, for that year coincided with the beginning of free movement within the European Union for people of the two most recent members, Romania and Bulgaria, both traditionally Orthodox countries. EU migrants form a large proportion of the seasonal workforce in rural East Anglia anyway, and while the church can cope with its regular congregation of eighty-odd, special occasions demand new ideas - most recently, several hundred members of the Romanian Orthodox community celebrated Easter in the disused Anglican parish church at nearby Gillingham.

And so the Collegiate Church of the Ikon of the Mother of God Joy of All Who Sorrow sustains the faith of the Orthodox faithful of East Anglia, not all of them incomers of course. There are daily services here, and the great Orthodox Liturgies can go on for hours. People wander in and out, children chatter and play, and yet there is a deep holiness in which everyone knows they are present. At the heart of the liturgy is a sense of the numinous, of openings to heaven and the eternal.

I thought about the sociologist Stuart Hall's idea of Resistance through Ritual, the way in which minority groups sustain themselves and their identity through increasingly traditionalist activities. To turn this on its head, all rituals sustain communities that adhere to and value the significance of those rituals. They give the communities identity and meaning. Here at Mettingham, far from home, often in precarious employment and not always valued by their hosts, Orthodox Christians have a touchstone to a faith and an energy which has sustained them and their forebears and made them who they were.

And I thought to myself, we used to have this. Churches which were the centre of their communities, open houses rather than venues for the Sunday club, touchstones down the long generations rather than mere historic buildings. But when the Church of England lost its self-confidence, threw out the Book of Common Prayer and then alienated the Anglo-catholic movement, it was the beginning of the end. I thought back to the CofE I'd known as a child, with its choral services and archaic language, its candles and intoned collects.

Yes, of course it was an invented tradition. But this was the Church of England that had been important in most people's lives once, not for being inclusive and comprehensible, but for seeming permanent and essential, of being mystical, something other than that which we would find in our ordinary lives. People could go to church in the reasonable expectation of being amazed, of being lifted out of themselves and having their lives transfigured, if only for an hour or so. Perhaps it would only have survived if we too had been exiled in a strange land.

Father Andrew showed me the icon of the Mother of God, Joy of All who Sorrow, as well as some memorials of his wife, the founder. He made sure I was refreshed for my onward journey, and I thanked him for his hospitality and headed back up to the top road, joining the modern world on the outskirts of Bungay. Was it the modern world? The cars roared past, there were signs to supermarkets and retail parks. I cycled up the busy road in the direction of Beccles, and after half a mile or so I reached the track which led up to Mettingham parish church. I have visited this church half a dozen times in the last twenty years, and never found it open, never found a notice telling me where I could get the key. But now, at the bottom of the track, was a new sign. Church Open, it said. For some reason this thrilled me. Was it the influence of its new neighbour? Probably not. But at the very least it reminded me that we haven't lost everything yet.

  tryptich icon of the Mother of God Theotokos

Simon Knott, August 2016

Icon of the Mother of God Theotokos Kardiotissa Joy of All Who Sorrow ikonostasis
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