“The most functional of all our cathedrals”

One of my two contributions to the new DVD on the English cathedrals and monasteries was a summary history of Guildford cathedral, by the architect Edward Maufe. Interrupted by the Second World War, the project which began in 1932 came to fruition at the church’s consecration in 1961. Having written just 3,000 words for this particular piece, I anticipate coming back to Guildford at greater length a bit later. There is plenty to be said about it yet; but here is an adapted extract.

Unlike the other study of mine, on Chichester, there was almost no secondary literature on which to build. This is odd, as Guildford is a significant building in recent religious history for several reasons. Of the five new dioceses created in 1926-7, only for Guildford was a new building planned. In the other four cases, existing parish churches were taken over and (as in Portsmouth) expanded. Guildford is also one of only two newly built Anglican cathedrals to be placed on an entirely new site (the other being Liverpool). With Coventry, it is one of the two cathedrals built in modernist style, although it has suffered in critical appreciation by comparison.

Guildford Cathedral, by stevecadman (Flickr), CC BY-NC-SA

Guildford Cathedral, by stevecadman (Flickr), CC BY-NC-SA

The building is an essay in the Church of England’s idea of itself, particularly at the time that the building was approaching completion. Guildford shows the desire to be a church that preserved those elements of the past that were most important, whilst at the same time moving with the times. The desire that the building be ‘of its time’ was particularly strong, and this felt need for a contemporary expression of the faith was common across all the religious arts. But it also needed to acknowledge and incorporate the language of the historic buildings of which it would be a counterpart: in short, it still needed to look like a cathedral to the non-specialist observer.

Part of the reason Guildford suffered in comparison to Coventry (in critical opinion) was Maufe’s failure to embrace the modernist style more fully. For those looking on sympathetically from outside or from the fringes of the church, the church was an antique in its worship, in its religious art, in the dress of its clergy. Only a whole-hearted embrace of a new contemporary language could reach those with whom the church had ceased to communicate, it was thought. But the building retains the medieval conception of sacred space, its design leading the contemplation of the worshipper upwards and out of the self. In this it owes little to the leading trends in liturgical theology of the time, which emphasised the communal element to being the Body of Christ.

At the same time, in the 1950s and 1960s the Church of England was revising its canon law, beginning to revise its liturgy, and looking to rationalise its organisation and its finances. In Adrian Hastings’ phrase, the completion of Guildford seemed to signal the arrival of a church that was ‘efficient, sophisticated, progressive.’ Maufe’s neo-Gothic designs artfully conceal, and indeed rely upon, the most modern of techniques. Maufe’s ‘conquest of space’ is achieved only by means of building techniques unknown to the builders of the medieval cathedrals. The scourge of the death watch beetle is no scourge at all for a roof made of reinforced concrete. Beneath the soaring spaces are the heating pipes embedded in the floor, another effective yet unobtrusive measure.

Outside Maufe could build purposely to accommodate the new technology of the moment in the 20s and 30s: the motor car. There was an imposing approach road from the newly completed by-pass road to the west (now the A3). The drive would bring bus- and coach-loads of visitors to a wide turning circle by the west door, and there was ample parking for private cars. Here was a forward-looking, modern, efficient church, planning for the future traffic growth which was sure to come. It was ‘the most functional of all our cathedrals’.

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