This delightful old bridge spans Bradwell Brook in the centre of the village of Bradwell in the Peak District. It looks like it has been in situ for centuries, connecting the community together from a time when the traffic it carried would have been mostly on foot or horsedrawn, right through to today. It still serves its original purpose well. Its comparatively dainty character by modern standards is photogenic and quite graceful. Walking across the bridge, pausing mid-way to watch a family of ducks bobbing downstream in the current, I had a tantalizing glimpse of a different pace of life in an age now long lost to us.
Life lived at walking pace, on the ‘small map’ of a well-known and seldom left locality, was once normative in rural communities the length and breadth of Britain. John Clare’s poetry reflects this strong identification with and knowledge of such an intimate sense of place.
To modern eyes however this bridge is weak, dangerous even should a heavy lorry try to cross it – although I can’t help but think that the relative narrowness of the span between the stone parapets offers a small measure of in-built protection from that particular hazard. Nonetheless, it is labelled as ‘weak’ and all heavy traffic through Bradwell uses the low road bridge from which the top photo was taken.
Of course in faith terms we are constantly looking for new bridges into the communities of which we are a part. We yearn for strong spans which will carry and cope with the huge weight of our contemporary expectations of mission and discipleship. Rightly we make plans for increased volumes of traffic. But what if the bridges we need are best made small? What if some of the bridges we already have are actually sufficient for the task? What if walking pace is enough? What if it isn’t a gigantic eight-lane superhighway viaduct that’s needed but a series of new footbridges instead, crossing the gap at different yet equally significant and important places?
I just can’t get away from the fact that Jesus did ministry on a local scale, at walking pace or sat down around a table, the very intimacies which John Clare mourned with the coming of the industrial revolution. Maybe ‘small footbridge thinking’ would force us to reconnect with some essential truths concerning the intimate nature of God’s love. Perhaps God prefers to travel at 3mph, walking alongside us and accompanying us at our pace, just like on the road to Emmaus. When we slow down like this there is so much more to be seen, appreciated, heard, smelled and noticed.
Are such small bridges weak? I think not. It seems to me that they can bear the full weight of the gospel of grace. The only weak point is our willingness to cross to the other side and live it.