I first came across Iffley church in the Autumn of 2011. I was in the final year of ordination training and the Diocese invited me to come and meet Andrew McKearney to see if St Mary’s might be the place for me to serve my curacy. Once it was announced that this was where I was to come, it seemed to me that everyone who spoke with me knew of Iffley and the church building’s fame. I’m afraid that up until that point I had never heard of the place! I did not know that it is considered one of the finest unaltered Norman churches in England; I knew nothing of the beakhead carvings or Tournai marble; and I had never heard of the Piper window. In the time that I have been here, I have discovered many features, many delights of course. However, there is an irony I wanted to share. There are many, many people in our local community who find the deepest solace in Iffley church who know nothing of the west door’s significance or of the historical importance of the High Romanesque style. What they know of St Mary’s church is that they are met there by the presence of God.
Andrew told me very early on that the building itself was another member of the ministry team in the parish. He has called it “the other Vicar”. Of course, there are visitors who come for the history and beauty of the place. However, there is some other thing, quite different as well. We really can’t put a number on it, but we see on the prayer requests and hear through passing comments that week by week people come into St Mary’s not to immerse themselves in heritage, but to encounter God, seeking that quiet moment unseen, to lay down their hopes and fears amongst those living stones.
Over the summer months, we are going to experiment with making opportunities for prayer more visible in St Mary’s. We are going to use the area in the corner of the tower where the minister’s desk and chair currently sit. There is space into which we can move the prayer requests and also provide images, objects and words that might help people in prayer and contemplation. We hope to make use of the stairwell that leads upwards from the front pew as well, in a similar way to the empty tomb installation that was there after Easter. I would be really interested to hear your thoughts about prayer spaces in churches, and the things that you have seen elsewhere or have often wondered about for St Mary’s. This is a time for us to try out different ideas without making any permanent changes — no faculties required!
Martyn Percy, as the new Dean of Christ Church, has written about cathedrals, saying that they are “sacred spaces and common ground. Cathedrals stand as signs of God’s love and grace in the midst of a distracted world. They provide serious spaces and places for prayer and contemplation in a busy world. Cathedrals meet, greet and minister to every visitor, and enable every casual wanderer to take those first steps to becoming an intentional, seeking pilgrim.” Surely the same is true of Iffley church, in its enduring, quiet ministry to those who come when no-one else but God is there to meet them.