The English cathedrals and monasteries: new DVD-ROM


I’m very pleased to see the recent release of this DVD resource, on The English Cathedrals and Monasteries, from the Christianity and Culture project at the University of York.

My own contribution to it is two case studies, of Chichester cathedral and of Guildford cathedral. My thanks are due to Dee Dyas for the opportunity to be involved. There are some reflections on writing cathedral histories in this earlier post.

Where were the churches after the Blitz ?

This week I made my debut as a reviewer for the LSE Review of Books. Since the Review is admirably free in the reuse it will allow, I republish it here under a Creative Commons licence. It is a review of an highly suggestive study of the lived experience of blitz conditions during the Second World War and patterns of planning and reconstruction afterwards. edited by Mark Clapson and Peter J. Larkham, and published by Ashgate.

From the point of view of my own research, there is one aspect of the question which the collection only touches very obliquely, at least in relation to England. These discourses of reconstruction turn on themes of modernity, efficiency, revolutionary change, the future, looking forward. How should we understand the rebuilding, repair or demolition of bomb-damaged churches: often ancient and mostly inefficient buildings, symbols of continuity and the presence of the past in urban spaces ? The collection very deftly opens up the complex processes in which national planners, local government and local opinion interacted in the creation of new urban centres such as Plymouth. Where, if anywhere, were the churches ? This article of mine from 2008 (available Open Access here) tried to open up some of the debates at national level; this collection reminds me of how many local stories there are still to tell.

Review, from LSE Review of Books, 1st October 2013

Mark Clapson and Peter J. Larkham (eds)
The Blitz and its Legacy. Wartime destruction to post-war reconstruction
Farnham, Ashgate, 2013

‘One of the most cherished popular myths of the Second World War centres on the London Blitz: a story of stiff upper lips, social solidarity and unity of purpose in the face of a terrifying onslaught; keep calm and carry on. Although this interpretation of the ‘People’s War’ has taken as intense a pounding from historians’ artillery as did London from the air, elements of it are left standing. This collection of essays examines two of them.

‘The first of these was that, at least in Britain, the experience of war turned the people into a ‘nation of town planners’. The utopianism that lay behind the nationalisation of key industries and the foundation of the National Health Service also produced a consensus that cities should not merely be repaired, but reimagined, and created afresh on clean and rational lines. The second myth refers to the reconstruction process itself, in which all the subsequent problems of urban Britain, all decaying concrete and thin social fabric, can be laid at the door of ‘the planners’. The contradictions between these two myths have not shortened their life or restricted their apparent explanatory power.

‘Britain was hardly alone in experiencing such damage, of course, and academic interest in destruction and reconstruction has been heightened in part by more recent conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East. The editors, academics from the disciplines of history and of planning, have brought together an interdisciplinary team of specialists in history, planning, architecture and urban geography. There are valuable perspectives also from France, Germany and Japan, but two thirds of the papers relate to Britain, on which this review will concentrate.

As the editors acknowledge, the fourteen essays are highly diverse, on subjects ranging from the evacuation of disabled children from London to architectural style in a post-Hiroshima Japan. But there is design in this assembly of fragments, which points the way towards a reconnection of previously disparate literatures. The preoccupation of the book is to suggest how connections might be made between the lived experiences of individuals in blitz conditions, and the processes in which local populations interacted with local and national government to plan and then build. The social history of the People’s War has seldom been connected with the study of post-war planning. This collection begins to form those connections.

‘One such starting point is Mark Clapson’s essay on the London blitz and the dispersal of the London working class to the out-county estates within greater London, and the new towns beyond. Far from causing the fragmentation of the London working class, the Blitz only interrupted and then shaped and accelerated a longer-term process which can be traced back to late Victorian slum clearance and the Garden City movement. Part of that acceleration was caused by the experience of evacuation to the country, which to some extent prepared Londoners for suburban living. As Sue Wheatcroft shows, the evacuations also led directly to the post-war establishment of a system of residential special schools for children with disabilities.

‘Susanne Cowan provides a salutary note on the limitations of public enthusiasm for planning in the immediate post-war period. Whilst the enthusiasm for a ‘better Britain’ was genuine, it was short-lived; and the desire for change was at least as much directed towards older, more basic needs, such as for better housing, than any longing for more far-reaching change. Cowan shows that planners were proactive in shaping public opinion; but were ultimately mistaken in believing their own propaganda.

‘Catherine Flinn provides a wryly downbeat assessment of the real influence of “the planners”. Far from being set free to design new urban environments without constraint, the planners were in fact hemmed in by planning law itself, and by the inability of local authorities to agree amongst themselves. Reconstruction was also low amongst the priorities of those who controlled the supply of scarce building materials, particularly outside London; the members of the Investment Programmes Committee of the cabinet were clearly not among the ‘nation of town planners.’ Instead, much of the building took place slowly, and largely on private initiative, and so few post-war city centres bore much resemblance to the grand plans prepared for them. If later public opinion disliked these centres, it was not the planners who were to blame.

‘There are also case studies in which all these themes combine. Particularly interesting are those by David Adams and Peter J. Larkham on Birmingham, and on Plymouth by Stephen Essex and Mark Brayshay. Plymouth was perhaps the most fully realised modernist scheme for a new city centre, in which even those Victorian buildings that survived the bombing were demolished to allow the complete remodelling of the centre, with little of the street plan surviving. However, to view Plymouth as a straightforward victory for the ‘planners’ obscures a more complex and more interesting story. The site of a key naval dockyard, Plymouth was hit very hard by the bombing, and an early statement of intent to rebuild was felt necessary for morale. The initiative was seized very early by a tight knot of the elite, including Lord Astor, the mayor, and John Reith, minister of Works and Building. The Plan for Plymouth (1943) became as it were a local Magna Carta, which the objections of neither the local council, nor of city landowners deprived of their freehold, nor of the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning in London could amend. With a pleasing irony, the modernist scheme which allowed nothing old to remain, in recent years has itself become an object of conservation.

‘The editors have unfortunately been let down in the preparation of the text for the press. One essay contains the longest sentence this reviewer has ever read (running to some 75 words), and another so mangled as to be nonsensical. This is a shame, as this fertile collection promises to provoke and stimulate much fresh thinking about the connections between the experience of the blitz and later reconstruction. It deserves a large and diverse readership.

What did modern theology look like in the Sixties ?

What did modern theology look like ? An odd question perhaps; but I’d like to look at some of the cover designs of books of theology aimed at a popular readership between 1963 and 1970. This is no exhaustive study (being based mostly on the books on my own shelves), but it would seem that at least some of those responsible for publicising the ‘Death of God’ theology thought there was a connection between it and modern art.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Undoubtedly the most famous such book of the period was John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, published by the SCM Press in 1963, in its series of cheap pocket paperbacks. Its cover is a minor masterpiece of cover design, showing a young man deep in thought, wrestling perhaps with precisely the kind of radical rethinking of his religion that Robinson was proposing. Image and message seem to be in perfect interplay. Interestingly, the image is of a rather older work, and from a different context. ‘Seated Youth’ (1918) is by the German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and Lehmbruck’s experience of working in a wartime field hospital is translated between nations and over time to become a symbol of a more spiritual crisis.Lloyd-Ferment in the Church - cover 1964 - blog

After Honest to God, ‘Seated Youth’ seems to have become iconic of Robinson’s book, such that it appears again on a follow-up book from Roger Lloyd, The Ferment in the Church, published in 1964, also by SCM. This time the sculpture is overlaid on a background of Winchester Cathedral, signifying the clash of old and new.

Ramsey - Resurrection of Christ - fourth imp 1966 - blog

I must stress again that this post captures an impression, and is not based on a systematic study. As such, there isn’t much in the way of a control group – of works of more mainstream theology published for a mass market, for which the economics of a cover design with an image added up. But there were some, such as Michael Ramsey’s The Resurrection of Christ, first published in 1945 but reissued by Collins in the Fontana imprint. The impression here is the fourth, from 1966, and whilst it too uses a work of art, Collins’ designer opted for an unidentified work in a much older style. This perhaps matched Ramsey’s work, which was by no means conservative in the broader scheme of things, but looked to be so when set against Robinson.

Newbigin - Honest Religion for Secular Man 1966 - cover - blog

There was one artist who seemed to appear often, and that was Jacob Epstein. Lesslie Newbigin’s Honest Religion for Secular Man (SCM, 1966) featured ‘Risen Christ’, a work made between 1917-19 and, like ‘Seated Youth’, an imaginative product of the First World War. A sepulchral Christ shows the viewer his wounds, against the backdrop of the type of multi-storey office building in vogue at the time, although the particular building is not identified. Modern Man needed to work out the appropriate response to the call of God in a secular, “technological” environment.

Laymans Church - 1963 - cover - blog

All three SCM titles I’ve discussed so far were in the same series; but other publishers were not slow to see the connection, and at about the same time. In the same year as Honest to God, the Lutterworth Press published Layman’s Church, a collection of essays introduced by Timothy (later Lord) Beaumont, and including essays from several of the figures associated with ‘South Bank religion’, including Robinson. Its cover features Epstein’s ‘Christ in Majesty’, made for Llandaff cathedral in 1954-5. The new Coventry cathedral has on the exterior of its porch Epstein’s ‘St Michael and the Devil’ (1956-8), featured on Stephen Verney’s Fire in Coventry (Hodder, 1963).
Verney - Fire at Coventry - 1963 - blog
So it would seem that publishers of popular theology in the early Sixties thought there was a connection between the kind of modern theology that seemed to be leading the market and the kind of modern sculpture (and it is mostly sculpture) that was finding its way into churches. Or, at the very least, those publishers thought that their likely readers would find the designs meaningful. I doubt I will have the time to pursue this idea any more systematically; but there’s a great Ph.D. subject in here for someone.

Writing the history of the modern cathedrals. Part One

I recently had occasion to think about cathedral histories; and in particular, the clutch of volumes that appeared over the last few years for the major medieval foundations. There is a prevailing model: a large general volume, with multiple authors under the general editorship of a senior scholar, with often some sort of relationship with the cathedral chapter itself. York Minster blazed the trail (Gerald Aylmer and Reginald Cant, 1977) and since then Chichester, Canterbury, St Paul’s, Norwich, Rochester and Winchester have all their own histories. (See the list at the foot of this post if you’re interested; I doubt it is complete.)

It struck me then how very thin the coverage for the more recent foundations is in comparison; and some recent work I’ve been doing on Newcastle cathedral (St Nicholas) has confirmed the impression. Coventry is a unique case, as are the other newly built cathedrals (Guildford and Liverpool). For those medieval parish churches given cathedral status to serve a new diocese, there seems to be almost no scholarly historical writing. None of the cathedrals of Blackburn, Birmingham, Bradford, Chelmsford, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield or Southwark  has (as far as I know) its own single-volume history, nor indeed very much in the way of shorter pieces of work. They all, of course, have their guidebooks, which by and large include a potted history, but little more. (I should say that I am primarily interested in these buildings as cathedrals; and so I’m setting aside work done on their previous history as parish churches.)

Why this neglect ? There is, of course, simply less history – a little over a century, if that, as set against 900 or more years for Chichester or Canterbury. But it may be to do with the comparative neglect of modern religious history (as opposed to medieval), and to a sense that the Church of England got the timing wrong, creating a host of new cathedrals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, just as its own significance was beginning to wane and they became less and less relevant. There may also be less of a readership to buy such books (fewer tourists), and they lack a 900-year anniversary on which to hang the publication.

Whatever the reason, there is some very interesting work to be done on these churches, individually and as a group. How did the growing self-confidence of cities such as Manchester or Newcastle shape the formation of new dioceses and their cathedrals ? If they were expanded and/or newly decorated, who paid ? How significant was the presence of an older Roman Catholic cathedral (as in Newcastle or Portsmouth) ? How did cathedral ministry in the urban environment differ from life in Ely or Salisbury ? Were these buildings of local symbolic importance during the Blitz, as St Paul’s was for London ?  I should be delighted to receive any references that bear on these and related questions.

In Part Two:  writing the history of the Roman Catholic cathedrals (Arundel), and of a new building (Guildford).

Recent cathedral histories (additions welcome)

Atherton, I., Fernie, E. Harper-Bill C. and Smith, H. (eds) Norwich Cathedral: Church, City and Diocese, 1096-1996  (London, Hambledon, 1996)
Aylmer, G., Cant, R. (eds) A History of York Minster (Oxford, Clarendon, 1977)
Burns, A., Keene, D., Saint, A. St Paul’s. The Cathedral Church of London, 604-2004   (New Haven, Yale, 2004)
Bussby, Frederick Winchester Cathedral, 1079-1979    (Southampton, Bussby and Cave, 1979, 1987 reprint)
Collinson, P, Ramsey, N., Sparkes, M. (eds) A History of Canterbury Cathedral    (Oxford, OUP, 1995)
Welander, David The History , Art and Architecture of Gloucester Cathedral    (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1991)
Yates, N.,  Welsby, Paul A. (eds) Faith and Fabric; A History of Rochester Cathedral, 604 – 1994 (Woodbridge, Boydell, 1996)
Mary Hobbs (ed) Chichester Cathedral. An Historical Survey (Chichester, Phillimore,1994)

A new life of Pevsner

This blog can’t really ignore a new biography of Pevsner by Susie Harries: a figure both peripheral to its central concern, but to be found everywhere in the background. Reviews have appeared in most of the papers, including the Guardian and by Frances Spalding in the Independent. There is also an extended piece in the TLS by Stefan Collini which doesn’t seem to be online as yet.

The Compassion Teepee

Interesting report in the Observer about an art installation in Liverpool, in which the public can leave messages, including many relating to the recent riots. What is most interesting is where it is: in the bombed church of St Luke, destroyed in 1941 and now in the hands of the city council. The church seems to function as an unofficial war memorial, and has a memorial to the victims of the Irish famine in the grounds. I’m interested that a site of memory should be used for the current installation. See the church website for more; on bombed churches in general, see my article on the subject

How to memorialise 9/11 ?

Interesting article of a few weeks back from Rowan Moore, the Observer’s architecture critic, on what it is that is being built at Ground Zero. Although Moore doesn’t address the issue directly, there are many artistic assumptions that have to be made if a memorial is to be intelligible; and I wonder how easy that is, in a time of very limited consensus on ‘national’ art forms and styles.

God and Mystery in Words – Review

David Brown
God & Mystery in Words. Experience through Metaphor and Drama
Oxford, OUP, 2008: 978-0-19-923183-6

[A review first published in Anvil 26;2 (2009). It is republished here by kind permission of the Reviews Editor.]

Natural and revealed theology, argues David Brown, are in a state of crisis, and the only way out of that crisis is to pay greater attention to the cultural embeddedness of both. The volume under review is the third in a series which examines religious experience as mediated by culture in general, and by the arts in particular. God and Enchantment of Place (2004) considered the ways in which religious experience has been found in religious architecture, in the urban built environment and in gardens. God and Grace of Body (2007) continued the investigation, and the present volume concludes the series with metaphor and drama. Brown notes the tendency in recent religious history towards a narrowing of the spheres in which religious experience might be found, and advances ample historical evidence that it was not always so.

Both parts of the book employ the same approach: to begin with a broad historical examination of metaphor or drama, and to proceed to an examination of their use in specific contexts of worship. Part One, on metaphor, seeks to recover the potential of language to function sacramentally. Part of the legacy of the confrontation between ‘science’ and biblical criticism in the last two centuries has been to force much theology into a defensive reduction of language to its literal descriptive function. Brown would like to see the church recover the power of verbal image to point beyond itself, and lead us to further reflection. Water, for instance (68-9) can be symbolic of cleansing, but also of inundation and destruction, or of refreshment and the quenching of thirst. There is much to be lost in the flattening-out of metaphor, and in the rush to premature closure. Along the way, Brown has stimulating and at times trenchant things to say to hymn writers; to those charged with revising hymn texts; to preachers; and to biblical translators. Brown is however careful to stress that such an acknowledgment of the ‘inexhaustibility’ of metaphor need not necessarily be mere obfuscation; a cloak behind which to avoid doctrinal commitment.

Part Two proceeds in similar manner to examine drama. Brown argues for regarding church music not only as a vehicle for words, but as having an important dramatic and structural function in liturgy in its own right. Liturgical dress and movement, church architecture and internal ordering are all considered, reinforcing Brown’s plea that these all be allowed the space in worship to function sacramentally. The impulse to explain and define ought not to be allowed to force an important minority of potential worshippers to seek a sense of the numinous almost anywhere but in church.

In sum, this volume handsomely repays attentive reading, being elegantly written, lucid and admirably concise. Specialist historians of worship or language are unlikely to be surprised in matters of detail; however, the range of material employed, across genres, periods and countries is dazzling and some highly suggestive historical insights are offered. Brown is scrupulously even-handed in his treatment of different artistic styles, and there is no trace of any particular churchmanship being brought to bear. For this reviewer, it suggested questions about how to understand the work of the Spirit through created things; questions sometimes sidelined through distrust of an over-powerful natural theology and for fear of possible idolatry or creeping immanentism. Although Brown does not address the work of the Spirit directly, he provides a fascinating basis on which to begin doing so.

Westminster Abbey

Some early reactions to the proposals made by the Dean of Westminster to add a corona to the Abbey, in connection with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2013; see the Times report, and material on the Abbey’s own site.

So far the reactions have been predictable: that money shouldn’t be spent on frivolities while anyone is still homeless (see comment on the Times article); that it should be left as it is (editorials and columns in the Guardian and the Evening Standard.) I anticipate further wrangles about style when the competition to design it begins.