A historic church in Wealden held its first Catholic service in nearly 480 years as part of a range of special activities during the Bank Holiday weekend.
On Bank Holiday Sunday (May 29) Michelham Priory near Hailsham held a celebration of Holy Communion on the site of the old Priory church, which was demolished in the 16th century.
Hellingly and Upper Dicker churches together with the Sussex Archaeological Society staged the service on the site of the church which Henry VIII had demolished in 1537 as part of his process of dismantling the monasteries.
The service came as part of the Priory’s Medieval experience weekend. Amid the archers and people dressed as Medieval folk around 180 people gathered in the glorious sunshine to celebrate and worship.
The Rev David Farey, Vicar of Hellingly and Upper Dicker who led the service said: “There is a sense of reclamation for the land and healing the pain that must have been experienced at the time. It also makes a powerful statement that the Christian faith is still alive and kicking in these parts.”
The event also remembered modern day Christians whose churches have been demolished in response to a call from the Release International organisation, which invites churches to hold open air services as a mark of respect for the displaced.
Writing ahead of the event Revd Fareey said: “The celebration of this Communion service is perhaps in some small way an attempt to bring some sort of healing by bringing God back into a place of pain and division.
“It is so appropriate at this time as this Sunday has also been commended to churches to hold an open air service in response to the countless churches around the world where Christians are still being persecuted and are being turned out of their buildings.
“Organisations like Release International work around the world raising the plight of and seeking to help Christians who are persecuted. In some parts of our world Christians are still being attacked and killed, churches are burned down and leaders are arrested and tortured.
“It is perhaps hard in a country – where people might decide to stop going to church on the basis that it doesn’t play their favourite hymns, or because the pews were taken out – to conceive that there are people worshipping on Sunday in some parts of the world at risk of at best public mockery or at worst death.”
As part of the historic setting, the bread used in the service was baked using flour ground at the mill in the Priory grounds.
Helen Anson, manager at Michelham Priory said: “It was wonderful to welcome the local parish churches to Michelham Priory and once again hold a service on the site of the old church.
“I am delighted that so many people came along to share in this special occasion.
“It was a magical experience and gave everyone involved the opportunity to connect with Michelham in a new way whilst bringing the history and traditions of the site to life.”
Thoughts are already being given to possible future collaborations between the Priory and the churches.
Founded in 1229, the priory served as a place of worship for more than 300 years before its before its dissolution in 1537.
The original church buildings were demolished between 1599 and 1601 while the house was sold to Thomas Sackville the first Earl of Dorset.
Some of the earliest structures, including the imposing 14th centuty gatehouse, still remain.
It was then sold to James Gwynne in 1896 remained in private hands into the 20th century, when it was restored by the Sussex architect and antiquarian, Walter Godfrey.
It was used as a base for Canadian troops during the winter of 1941-42 while they prepared for the Dieppe Raid. Later it was the East Sussex headquarters of the Auxiliary Territorial Service.
Michelham Priory is run by a charity and is open to visitors seven days a week from mid-February right up to Christmas.
The priory is open from 10.30am to 5pm each day.
• For more information about the priory’s packed events programme go to www.visitsoutheastengland.com.
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