A series of talks will take place at St Mary’s Church this month exploring the building’s history. Canon Professor Mark Chapman, Professor of the History of Modern Theology at Oxford University, is one of the speakers.
In the middle of the 19th century church architecture was big business – there was a wholesale rebuilding of medieval buildings and many celebrity architects. Only about a hundred churches were left untouched by the Victorians. Our ideas of what a church should look like come from their rather vivid re-imagination of the Middle Ages.
When the Victorians built or ‘restored’ church buildings they had a particular set of ideas they wanted to put into practice: almost always they used Gothic forms, which they felt were properly ‘Christian’ (rather than pagan) and they tended to emphasise ritual, symbolism and colour. This was quite different from earlier church layouts in the Church of England, which emphasised preaching and offered few distractions to the eye. Victorian architecture is just one aspect of a bold and confident social vision, a way of trying to rejuvenate a past with the church at the centre. Nearly all the architects of the Victorian period were deeply conservative and feared the disintegration of society that would come from industrialisation and the rise of cities. Their vision was one in which everybody fitted into the social fabric and would be cared for.
But their predecessors were often very different: churches were built without too much recourse to the past – the forms were functional rather than historical. A church was first and foremost a fitting place for a sermon to be preached so everybody could see and hear. Its ideal form was determined by the practicalities of acoustics and visibility. St Mary’s stands well within that tradition: it might be a very unusual building because it was built during a time of conflict, but it stands in a tradition that reached its climax with the flurry of church building after the Battle of Waterloo. Large numbers of new church buildings were constructed with the aim of ensuring the growing population in the cities might have somewhere to sit and hear the teachings of the Established Church to ensure greater social stability in the era of the Peterloo massacre and political unrest.
In Wanstead there are fine examples of these two very different types of church – the one a Victorian recreation of something medieval and the other modelled on a Greek or Roman public building. Both were originally expressions of the mission of a church which was deeply embedded in the wider society.
We are always left with the same questions as our predecessors. How is our architecture related to the mission of the church and its relationship to the world? And that requires thinking, not about buildings, but about mission and what on earth the church is for in our post-Christian society.