Our lovely village has always been a draw to folk from Cambridge and beyond, with its historic and literary connections, as well as its charm. Visitor numbers have increased in recent years, in part, thanks to the popular ITV series Grantchester which is screened in many countries around the world.
I have enjoyed meeting many different people in our village and the many who come into the church. One visitor, from Tennessee, wrote to me recently about his experience of the village, and especially the church, and with his permission I share it below.
Once upon a churchyard bench, by Louis F Morgan
It was Easter Sunday in 2019 as I walked through Grantchester Meadows along the river. Sunlight reflected brightly on the clouds, adding to the already beautiful morning. In the distance I heard the bells chime. The sound echoed across the meadows, beckoning me to The Church of St Andrew and St Mary. I walked along the edge of the Orchard Tea Garden until I reached Mill Way and the church came into view. I walked upwards toward High Street, making my way to the churchyard. The irony was not lost to me; walking upward as if ascending to a place of spiritual respite. In truth, this is how I have come to see Grantchester, especially the church.
In March 2017 I found myself seated on a bench outside the parish church while reflecting on my future. Spending most of my time in Cambridge while leading a group of twenty university students on a cross-cultural immersion into British life and culture, I was drawn to Grantchester initially because of its rich literary history. I had heard of Rupert Brooke, and I had read of Virginia Woolf’s, E M Forster’s, and others’ connection to Grantchester. I also knew of the novels by James Runcie bearing the village’s name. I had heard of the recent TV series, but I had yet to watch any episodes. It was the historical and literary interest that initially drew me to Grantchester, but it would be the few moments spent in meditation and reflection on the churchyard bench that compelled me to return again and again.
As I found myself pondering my future on that afternoon in early 2017, the atmosphere was a bit grey and cold. It mirrored my inner emotions. During the almost three months of living in the UK, I had been able to remove myself from the highly-charged US politics, which had consumed me for the year previous, and the religious systems and structures that had left me somewhat disappointed. I knew the sting of isolation from those back home who once had claimed friendship with me, all because I saw the world differently. It had been painful, and I was not sure what the future held for me upon my return to the United States.
Yet, in that moment, while sitting on that bench reflecting and praying silently, I sensed God was near to me. I arose from the bench and made my way to the wooden door of the church – hoping, just hoping I would find it unlocked. It was. Once inside, I turned a corner, only to be immediately captivated by the stained glass above the altar. I walked toward it, yet much too timid to get too close, as I was not sure if it was permissible. Honestly, I was not entirely sure if I should be in the church since no one else was around. I made my way to a pew near the back and took a seat. Finding a bit more courage, I knelt and prayed.
Although my words now cannot express adequately the impact of that moment, I sensed connection and belonging, even though I was the only person in the church. I knew I had entered a sacred space – perhaps physically, but certainly within myself. I had professed faith in Christ since I was a child, from which time I seemed to hold a sensitivity for spiritual things. Nonetheless, having been taught most of my life that liturgical and sacramental services were dead, lifeless, and of little value spiritually, I never could have imagined before that day just how lifegiving and Spirit-filled the ancient faith has become to me. It was like a curtain was drawn back and I could see beyond what I had seen before. I made the journey to the United Kingdom to help students develop through their cultural immersion, but, in the process, I found a deep connection to a different way of experiencing my faith. I arrived back home in the US a few weeks after my first visit to Grantchester, but I longed to return – to the meadows, the churchyard, and the church.
A few months later I did return, and I was able to attend a service. As I stepped inside the church I was greeted by Mary [Shaw], who quietly, yet most sincerely, welcomed me as she handed me a hymnal. She was the first to welcome me. I found my seat aisle-side in a pew near the back of the church. In a few minutes I was greeted by a bright personality who I have come to know as Hazel [Offord], a former churchwarden there. Not wanting me to feel alone, she conversed with me and sat directly behind me. She made me feel as if I had always belonged at Grantchester. I also received other warm welcomes from Margaret [Barwise], Lady Jennings, and the vicar, Reverend Rachel Rosborough, among others. The songs, the liturgy, the prayers, the homily… they inspired me that day. And then I joined the line to receive the Eucharist. I made my way toward that beautiful stained glass and knelt at the altar to receive the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of our Lord. Time and again I have returned and done the same, and each time I feel connection, renewal, and inspiration.
On Easter Sunday this year I was most thankful to be at Grantchester Church. I could hear the birds chirping through the stained glass as we sang. They seemed to join us as our voices echoed joyfully throughout the church. I particularly remember how moving it was when we sang, “I cannot tell why, He whom angels worship should set His love upon the sons of men….” Then it was time for that most holy of moments as we gathered together around the altar in Holy Communion to receive the Eucharist. And, as always, I enjoyed the fellowship and kindness of the parishioners. That day I quite happily became a lifetime “Friend of Grantchester Church” – a place that has become a spiritual home to me.
Today I stand with one foot in the spiritual tradition of my childhood and another foot in the ancient way. I have been able to lift my perspective beyond the systems and structures, beyond personalities and entertainment-driven services, and beyond the highly-charged politics that seem to distract from the Gospel. I have been drawn back to the simplicity and depth of the faith, finding my soul’s rest in the middle way, and understanding even more what it means to eat of the Bread of Heaven. I am grateful for those three months that allowed me time away to find myself again. And, I am thankful for that day of reflection at Grantchester that was a sacred space allowing me to sense confirmation and see my way forward more clearly. On Sundays, especially, I think of Grantchester… and my heart is full.
It is a reminder to me that our church buildings are important as places of peace and prayer, that the way we welcome the stranger has a huge impact, and that God, and faith, can be found in surprising places. Our church is here for everyone, whether you want to come along to a regular service or special event, or whether you want to pop in during the day for a moment of peaceful reflection. All are welcome!
Rev Rachel Rosborough