“Church Going,” a poem of seven nine-line stanzas, is a first-person description of a visit to an empty English country church. The narrator is apparently on a cycling tour (he stops to remove his bicycle clips), a popular activity for British workers on their summer holiday. He has come upon a church and stopped to look inside. Not wishing to participate in a worship service, the visitor checks first to make “sure there’s nothing going on. ” He will eventually reveal that he is an agnostic and that his interest in churches is not derived from religious faith.
This church is empty, so he walks in, observing all of the usual accoutrements: “matting, seats, and stone,/ And little books. ” His irreverence is captured in his tone as he observes “some brass and stuff/ Up at the holy end. ” Yet he is not totally irreverent. He knows that he should take off his hat, but he is not wearing one. Instead, he removes his bicycle clips. As he moves around the building, he touches the baptismal font, observes the roof, and climbs into the lectern to look at the large-print lectionary.
He even plays church for a moment, speaking the words (“Here endeth the lesson”) that are usually announced at the end of each scripture reading. Clearly, he has some familiarity with religious practices. He also knows enough to leave an offering in the alms box at the door of the church. All he leaves, however, is an Irish sixpence, a coin worth less than its English equivalent. After the narrative/descriptive beginning, the poem changes direction. The narrator wonders why he stopped at the church, why he often stops at churches. What is he looking for?
Before answering that question, however, he asks another. What will happen to church buildings when we stop using them as churches? This is not an entirely irrelevant question for a man who has lost his faith and who assumes that others will do likewise. He imagines that some churches will become museums, while others will fall to ruin. They might be avoided as places of bad luck, or approached as places for magical cures. Certainly, there will be superstition associated with these places for a time, the narrator observes, but even superstition will eventually fade.
Who will be the last to remember what church buildings were used for, he wonders: an archaeologist perhaps, who would know the name for the rood-loft, the high beam between the choir and the nave that held a cross or crucifix, or someone looking for an antique or a decorative artifact. It might be a “Christmas-addict,” assuming with comic irony that the celebration of Christmas will go on long after Christianity has been forgotten. Or it might be someone like the narrator, someone who comes to “this cross of ground” (traditional English churches are laid out like crosses) looking for something.
This last thought returns the narrator to his original question: What is it that he is looking for? And now he is ready to venture a tentative answer. This place has held “what since is found/ Only in separation—marriage, and birth,/ And death, and thoughts of these. ” The importance of these moments was recognized here. Furthermore, church buildings have been places for serious thoughts, and even when they are no longer used for worship, they will still be sought by people who need to be serious. It is a place that is “proper to grow wise in,/ If only that so many dead lie round. Forms and Devices “Church Going” looks and sounds almost casual in its structure, but that appearance is deceptive. The poem is, in fact, an expertly constructed work. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is complexly intertwined: ababcadcd. The middle lines (lines 5 and 6) reverse the expected alternating rhymes. Furthermore, the rhyme is so subtle as to be almost unnoticed in the reading. Only a few of the rhyming words are exact rhymes, and these are often very ordinary words (for example, “door” and “for” in stanza 2, and “do” and “too” in stanza 3) that do not call attention to themselves.
Other rhyming words are half-rhymes (also known as imperfect rhymes, near rhymes, or slant rhymes). These words have similar vowel sounds, or similar consonant sounds, but not both. Some of the many half-rhymes in “Church Going” are “on,” “stone,” and “organ,” and “silence” and “reverence. ” The other dominant structural device in the poem is rhetorical. “Church Going” carefully follows the structure of the meditation, beginning with a detailed description of a place, leading to an internal debate, and finally reaching a tentative conclusion.
Larkin’s place, a church, is evoked in sufficient detail to let readers re-create it in their minds and imagine themselves there with the narrator. The internal debate begins in stanza 3 and continues through the beginning of stanza 6. Here the narrator raises many questions, answering none of them. The questions explore the possible significance and uses of church buildings once people no longer use them for religious worship. What will happen when their purpose has been forgotten? The questions lead inevitably to considering why the narrator himself is drawn to these places.
His conclusion, which begins halfway through stanza 6, remains tentative. The narrator discovers some important purposes for church buildings, at least for himself, and he offers them for his readers to consider. True to the meditation format, the poem does not seek to prove a point logically or solve a problem absolutely. Instead, it allows the mind to take direction from the external environment and consider various aspects of an issue, letting the discussion lead to a new discovery.
That discovery may be a momentary resolution, not the final answer. Themes and Meanings “Church Going” records the spiritual longings of a man who has lost religious faith. It may be seen as representing the spiritual longings of a generation of British citizens for whom the church has ceased to be important. That religion has lost its central position is assumed. After all, the narrator would have observed the serious decline in church attendance in England since the nineteenth century.
He would also, perhaps, think of Stonehenge, a religious site whose purpose has been forgotten. The narrator does not wonder if churches will fall out of use. Instead, he wonders what will happen when they do. Understanding the rest of the poem requires the recognition of that assumption. The discussion about what will become of the unused church buildings is, in fact, an exploration of what has caused religion to be so important to so many for so long. Uncovering those reasons also reveals the needs that must still be met in the secular world.
The church, the narrator discovers, “held unspilt/ So long and equably what since is found/ Only in separation—marriage, and birth,/ And death, and thoughts of these. ” People have always turned to the church for these major life events. Weddings, baptisms, and funerals are conducted in churches (or at least by ministers), and even in an age that lacks religious faith, people need to affirm the special significance of these events. They want God to take notice of them, even if, paradoxically, they don’t believe in God.
Love, birth, and death all transcend the ordinary and must be “recognised/ And robed as destinies. ” Finally, the church is a place that is “proper to grow wise in. ” The secular world, the world of work, bicycling holidays, suburbs, and sheep, can do very well without the influence of the church, but “someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious. ” That hunger, a spiritual longing, can be met only by going to a place where it is valued, where it has been valued for centuries.