Sunday, 13 August 2017

Who Used the Church Porch?

From "The Pilot", 1966, comes this, an interesting historical ramble. I've shown St Helier Church Porch. In St Brelade, the Porch was converted into a vestry and a new porch opened up at the front of the building.

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse

Who Used the Church Porch?

Once upon a time the church porch was a remarkably important part of the building. Almost the only common reminder of varied and ancient uses that even the smallest still holds are the civil notices upon its walls.

Until about the sixteenth century, the `ancients', or `masters of the parish', generally did the business of their village or town in the church porch. At least in some parts of Northamptonshire, they were still doing it there in the nineteenth century.

They won their title of `parish vestry' only when they moved from the porch to the vestry, perhaps moving in hope of greater warmth, but also probably because many of the great mediaeval porches were pulled down at the Reformation from dislike of other uses to which they had been put.

One of the favourite of these had been the Palm Sunday Passion play. Processions on other occasions marshalled themselves in the porch and returned to it after stopping at various places in the churchyard. But on Palm Sunday the procession halted outside the porch at its return, to watch the Passion play traditionally staged inside or upon its leads.

In the churchwardens' accounts of St. Peter Chepe for 1519 there is an item which appeared in the expenditure of a good number of other London churches: `Paid for hiring of the hairs of the prophets upon Palm Sunday'.

Weddings, too, were at one time generally celebrated in the church porch. So Chaucer wrote of the good Wyfe of Bathe, `Husbandes at chirche dore hadde she fyfe'.

Christenings often took place there as well, and possibly the piscina in the Norman porch of Malmesbury Abbey was used as a font. In some porches there was an altar, as there was at Grantham, while in the parish church at Bristol there is a recess which is said to have been a confessional.

This last might be related with a very early use of the porch, as the place for penitents, who were excluded from the body of the church until they had been granted absolution. The catechumens had formerly shared the porch with them, during such parts of the Mass as they were allowed to hear. (Porches, for example in Indian and African churches, are still put to these ancient uses. Unbaptized relations of converts also watch the baptisms from them.)

When such porches were an almost separate structure, usually at the west front, they were sometimes known as a `galilee'. Precentor Millers gave one explanation of this name when in 1834 he wrote about the Ely galilee: `As Galilee, bordering on the Gentiles, was the most remote part of the Holy Land from the Holy City of Jerusalem, so was this part of the building most distant from the sanctuary, occupied by those unhappy persons, who, during their exclusion from the mysteries, were reputed scarcely, if at all, better than heathens.'

In some monastic foundations this was the only part of the building accessible to women. Here a monk's women relations would come to see him, first having been told formally at the gatehouse, `He goeth before you to Galilee. There shall ye see him.'

On the continent the place of the great porch was sometimes taken by a cloistered court. This was generally called a narthex, a term sometimes properly employed also in England. Later, it was on occasion known as a paradisus, a garden, or a parvisium, an open place. In England, as abroad, this part used by the penitents was also commonly employed for the `pleadings at the gate', that is the bishop's Consistory court; and sometimes, as at Canterbury, for the civil and criminal business of the Hundred court.

Not infrequently a second storey was added to the great porch, and even, as for example at Taunton, Stamford, and Thaxted, a third. These chambers, or the whole porch, were called the parvise (from the old paradisus or parvisium), a word which also came into use for a domestic study.

Sometimes, as at St. Mary's, Sherborne, or at Gissing, Norfolk, the parvise had a fireplace, and seems to have been used by itinerant or chantry priests, or as a study by the parson. The one at Gissing became, in 1696, a lodging for an ejected rector.

At St. Wulfram's, Grantham, the parvise was a library and still holds over two hundred and fifty chained volumes.

In many parishes, including that of Massingham, Norfolk, the porch chamber was a school. At Oxford, the porch of the University Church was used for examinations. Undergraduates who call the Responsions examination `Smalls', have probably long forgotten the howler which somebody made when he first thought that the examination in parviso - in the porch-was something to do with parvus - the Latin small.

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