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St Mary, Stebbing


Stebbing Stebbing Stebbing
cowled woman vomiting blocked ape gargoyle

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  Just to the north of the A120 Dunmow to Braintree road is the large village of Stebbing, a delightful mile or so of high street that leads you to a sharp bend at the southern end of the village, and here is St Mary. Stebbing is one of my favourite villages in Essex, and such a setting for such a church! St Mary is one of Essex's best examples of a mid-14th Century church, almost entirely complete other than the not unhappy accident of the east window presumably being replaced a century later, the building as a whole seeming too early for it to be an early example of the Perpendicular style. In terms of size, only nearby Thaxted beats it in this part of the county.

A huge, endearing, ramshackle giant then, like an eccentric maiden aunt. This church always seems to be open, and it is always cluttered up with what ever various village and youth groups were in the middle of doing, and I love it for that. It always feels lived in and loved. But it is not without its treasures, the finest of which must be Stebbing's stone screen, contemporary with the mid-14th Century rebuilding and much resembling the stone screen nearby at Great Bardfield. Memorably, figures crawl downwards on the uprights. One is a lion, but the other three are grotesquely grinning human figures which put me in mind of the creature in the M R James story The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.

Stebbing screen lion Stebbing screen man Stebbing screen man Stebbing screen man

A K Wilkinson's 1920s glass of the Risen Christ is a pleasing feature at the east end of the south aisle, and there are some very fragmentary pieces of 15th Century glass in some upper lights, but otherwise the windows are filled with clear glass, and the church interior bathes in white light. A reproduction of a Rubensesque Blessed Virgin and Christ child hangs in an overly ornate gilt frame above the curiously small tower door. The early 17th Century brass inscription to the memory of Isaac Bernard nearby attempts to give us all a lesson in life:

Learne so to live by faith as I have livdd before
Learne so to give in fayth as I did at my doore
Learne so to keep by fayth as God be still thy store
Learne to to lend in fayth, as I did to the poore
Learne so to live to give, to keep to lend, & spend
that God in Christ at day of death may prove thy freind.

Perhaps this all makes it sound as if Stebbing parish church was a bit of an ecclesiological junkshop, and that would not be untrue or unfair I think. Some churches have a unity, a harmonious interior greater than the sum of its parts. Despite the almost entirely single campaign of its building, Stebbing doesn't do this. It is unusual (though perhaps not so much in Essex) to find such a large church with so few monuments and memorials to the high and mighty, but here there is rather a feeling of it being a church of the ordinary people, their enthusiasms and offerings over the centuries. And this continues today, for on my most recent visit in 2018, a new feature was a pair of large leather sofas either side of the wide chancel. I had the feeling that perhaps only Stebbing could get away with this.

Simon Knott, April 2018

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looking east sanctuary chancel with comfy leather sofas
font a healing church a growing church south aisle tower doorway The Heroic Dead
nativity crucified Risen Christ Mary and Joseph find the young Christ teaching in the temple (AK Nicholson)
agnus dei learne so to live by fayth as I have livdd infant son
Blessed Virgin and child fragments six hundredth anniversary AK Nicholson window

comfy leather sofa

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