Wednesday, 8 July 2009

the pouncing gargoyle

winchcombe pouncing gargoyleI originally used some of these images at our Ministerial Synod earlier in the year, and then again shortly afterwards when I was asked to lead devotions at our Chairs of District meeting. For some time I have been meaning to work them up and post them, so at long last here they are.

winchcombe grinning demonThese magnificent gargoyles (or more accurately 'grotesques') are a selection of those to be found on St. Peter's Parish Church in Winchcombe.  They are extraordinary examples of a surprisingly common ecclesiastical artform.  Here the masons have carved a health warning in stone, for the grotesques are refreshingly candid and show with commendable honesty what someone can expect to experience should they enter the church and engage in the life of faith with this particular group of people . The grotesques demonstrate the reality of those warped and contorted behaviours and attitudes which wait to strike the community of faith. It is why we have procedures to deal with complaints and discipline. The pouncing gargoyle, the cat-like creature in the top image poised to leap down on the unwary passer-by, is particularly striking and fits well the text from 1 Peter. Whatever one's views on the language and symbolism used, the psychological reality to which it points is real and familiar. Medieval faith appears to be up front and honest about the broken and vulnerable nature of our selfhood to a degree which we find strange today. Perhaps our comparative reticence does not serve us well. Anyone looking up at the Winchcombe grotesques would hardly be likely to expect the congregants to be perfect. Today the charge of hypocrisy is easily levelled at church folk because the common view is that we are supposed to be a cut above your average secular 'sinner'. Winchcombe gives the lie to this misperception and offers a common bond of neediness to those inside and out the church.

winchcombe demon

Take this image for example: in this striking representation the king of demons is having what seems to be a well self-satisfied laugh at our expense. Trying to live a good life is clearly no easy matter. The carving is a public admission of this uncomfortable truism, and a warning to be on one's guard. Might it then also be an invitation to enter and find release, the medieval equivalent of a neon-sign?

The ancient service of compline is redolent of this need for vigilance and preparedness in the face of temptation, wickedness and evil. It acknowledges a primary reality of being human which besets us still. And because it is honest about how we are, not least towards each other, this church is a beacon of hope. The grotesques very visibly project a powerful message out into the community: if this is what you wish to be released from, come inside. It is only when we recognise the grotesque-ness in our own thinking and behaving that we can seek to transform it and find release from its power.  It is as though the carvings say: bring it on, do your worst, for here you will find a power greater than your torment. Again the service of Compline offers this sense of realism and hopefulness. Surely the healing power of God's love in Jesus can set us free from the psycho-social 'demons'  of our time too?winchcombe winged demon

winchcombe gargoyle

So although the carvings and the liturgy of Compline seem to belong to another seemingly unrecognisable world, they do in fact point to something ever so contemporary. Violence, corruption, abuse, addiction and exploitation could very easily be some of the names for those things which the masons sought to represent by their grotesques. The power of such to pounce and inflict hurt and harm in our time is very real. Perhaps we have much to learn from this honesty of stone and liturgy. And by so doing we might just have much to offer to our communities too.


  1. Thank you for these, they make me think again. How easily we allow words to become comfortable!

  2. I've just returned from York where I looked up at the gargoyles on the Minster with a different eye following this great post - thankyou.

    Also had another look at Constantine who you also feature - "under this sign, conquer" - what's that all about?! (well - yes - I know where it comes from, but still - what's that all about!!)