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Things I never knew about churches

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THERE is a sort of Christian whose creed is Spiritual good, Material bad. I say sort of Christian, for that idea is not Christian at all, but Gnostic. Gnosticism was many different things in many different times, but a handy description of a Gnostic might be someone so heavenly-minded that he is no earthly use. Some forms of Gnosticism were all about diets – which foods we should eat and, more usually, which we shouldn’t. That obsession hasn’t gone away, has it? Our newspapers are stuffed with health fads, fancies, self-obsession and hypochondria. And don’t go near the butcher: he’ll only try to murder you with a piece of belly pork!

A friend has sent me a book which has diverted my mind from these thoughts: Unlocking the Church: The Lost Secrets of Victorian Sacred Space by William Whyte. Well, churches are about spiritual things, but Whyte’s book opens our eyes and all our senses.

This alarmingly learned and constantly entertaining book might well have been subtitled The Disappearance of Whitewash, for its theme – no, one of its many rich and interlocking themes – is the transformation of British churches in the 19th century from unornamented meeting houses to the gorgeous splendour of the Gothic revival. Whyte, in one of his numerous well-turned phrases, tells us that, since the Reformation, churches had been designed for the ear to hear the preacher and take in spiritual truths. But, from the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign, they became places for the eye. Vision replaced audition and the church was no longer merely a place for listening in.

On almost every page this book told me things I never knew but, as an Anglican priest for nearly 50 years, I ought to have known. For example, that most of our churches were either built in the 19th century or so substantially restored that the restoration amounted to a fresh building. This transformation of the parish churches from functional, galleried halls into the full splendour of the beauty of holiness was not without controversy. Let me not mince words: sometimes disagreements expanded into disputatious exchanges in the ecclesiastical magazines, full-blown rows, acid-drop sarcasm and punch-ups in the high street. Whyte tells these tales deliciously:

‘The incumbent of the High Church St Alban’s Holborn was forced to deny rumours that a donkey had been processed around the church as part of the Palm Sunday celebrations. He said, “I have been Vicar here since 7th December 1882 and during that time there has been no ass – that is at least one with four legs – in our church or led around it!”’

Here we find characters ornate as any over-the-top reredos produced once the ritualistic revival had entered its demented stage. Francis Close was a perpetual curate so ultramontane that Tennyson dubbed him the Pope of Cheltenham. So idolised by his parishioners that ‘he was the recipient of no fewer than 1,500 pairs of slippers embroidered by grateful members of his congregation’.

An archetype of the 19th century theological and liturgical renewal was Newman’s church at Littlemore near Oxford, designed by Henry Underwood ‘who was later cut short by a nervous breakdown which led him to slit his own throat’. 

I knew that Newman was the theological genius who inspired doctrinal thought first in Anglicanism and then in the Roman Catholic Church. But I never knew he was also the spiritual architect responsible for radically new ways of understanding church buildings. At Littlemore, Newman preached a sermon in which he said: ‘What I shall say will turn this church into a book, a holy book, which you may look at and read and which will suggest to you many good thoughts of God and heaven.’

Theologically, Newman developed his famous teaching about the analogy of faith, and he put this into practice – incarnated it, you might say – in his meticulous analogy of the church at Littlemore: ‘The three windows represent the Trinity.’ He didn’t stop there. These windows also typified ‘the three sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion and the three virtues of faith, hope and charity. The seven arches under the windows were the seven days of creation’.

He went on to offer a complete symbolic inventory of the church interior. No wonder his burgeoning congregation were so thrilled to have Newman as their parish priest and distraught at the parting of friends which took him to Rome in 1845. This allegorical understanding of church buildings greatly displeased some Protestants who claimed that it was a form of idolatry, displacing the pure reading and teaching of the word. Prominent among these was Peter Maurice, the frantic polemicist of the purple passage who described the sublime Littlemore as ‘debased with the peculiar garniture of the old superstitions of Antichrist, Papal and Pagan’.

But Maurice was the sort of fanatic who could not hear mention of Our Lady without breaking into a rant about the Scarlet Woman. It was said of him: ‘He was a man incapable of enjoying the Great Exhibition for fear that the Crystal Palace somehow signified the approach of the Apocalypse.’

As in all controversies, there were faults on both sides, but if the offence of the Catholics and the Anglo-Catholic ritualists was too much in the way of gaudiness and Kitsch, the fault in the Protestant Evangelicals was that they could not see that a book, the Bible, no less than a statue, can become an idol. Whyte touches on the Grand Narrative, that intellectual and aesthetic revolution which reacted against the excessive rationalism of the 18th century by so avidly embracing Romanticism. Religion was as much about feelings as dogma.

And, in their own way, the Protestants came to accept this too. We think of the Methodist preachers beguilingly described by George Eliot as so emotionally carried away that they were ‘either bilious or ecstatic’. Aye, Marian, and some were both!

Let me put away all sectarianism and understand that there is a Protestant piety that is just as sensual as the giddiest Baroque. I treasure John and Charles Wesley’s passionate hymns such as:

Love Divine all Loves Excelling

Joy of heaven to earth come down

And the tunes go straight to a part of the anatomy very far from the ear.

Then there is Isaac Watts:

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died. Watts’s original line was toned down because it was deemed to be too erotic: where the young prince of glory died.

Or that favourite of all the tin tabernacles:

Blessed assurance Jesus is mine

O what a foretaste of glory divine!

And – ahem! – its third verse:

Perfect submission, perfect delight

Visions of rapture burst on my sight

In the 1950s at Armley Congregational Chapel, Leeds 12, Superintendent Elsie Illingworth used to blush and tremble all through that one!

And paradoxically, the Protestants – even the Unitarians – also began to build their own churches and chapels in the Gothic style. The Gnostics are missing something, and so are the Puritans, for we are neither brute beasts nor disembodied minds, but incarnated human beings made in the image of God.  

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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