London’s churches of the mind

Twentieth century British fiction features a good few fictional clergy of the established Church of England, and some (if fewer) accounts of religious life itself. Rather fewer again are the number of church buildings. And those that there are tend to be anonymous and stylised if set in a real town or village. Penelope Lively’s novel City of the Mind (1991) is a rather beautiful meditation on London, and its architecture in particular; its buildings invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them over time. Unusually, the novel is populated with several churches, and although none of them are integral to the plot, they are all but one of them named; all of them real buildings rather than merely symbols.

The blitizd church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

Most iconic of all London’s churches is of course St Paul’s cathedral, and although part of the novel is set during the Blitz, Lively avoids using St Paul’s as other novels have, although her character, an air raid patrol volunteer, is at work in the same area. Instead, it is Christopher Wren’s church of St Bride Fleet Street that he sees, largely destroyed in December 1940, its spire ‘lit from within like a lantern’ (p.10). St Paul’s is a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when her Elizabethan explorer encounters the massive ice floes of the North-West Passage, it is in the shape of St Paul’s that he sees them, a ‘cathedral in the ice’ as ‘time and space collide’ in the imagination (pp.48-9). The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerized in a Charing Cross Road bookshop by a photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night as St Bride’s was gutted by fire, 29th December, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Halland’s London is that of the late 1980s, as the processes of demolition, redevelopment and gentrification are in spate; Halland is an architect rather reluctantly engaged with a tower of glass in the Docklands. Elsewhere, Spitalfields is the shoreline of the tide of change where ‘a reconstructed past and an inexorable future are fighting it out amid the estate agents’ signs and the cement mixers’ (p.92) Here the spire of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church fights for the skyline with cranes and new office blocks. Round the corner is the former Huguenot church on Fournier Street, an immigrant church itself already overwhelmed by waves of later immigration: subsequently a Methodist church, next a synagogue, now a mosque. The churchyard of St Anne Soho is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct, the bodies of generations exhumed and deported to a cemetery further out of the city. Nothing may obstruct the progress of redevelopment (p.36).

Lively’s churches point always to the change that surrounds them, rather than drawing any attention to themselves. The caryatids on the north side of St Pancras’ church on Euston Road are to Halland redolent of the classicism he understands; to his daughter they are nothing so much as ‘ladies wearing bath towels with books on their heads’ (p.87) What these churches never are is alive; places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. There is an implicit contrast between the rural, where such things may well continue, and the ghostly Christianity of the city. The German immigrant Eva Burden, who undertakes an engraving in glass for Halland’s tower, was first inspired to work in glass by the west screen in Coventry cathedral by John Hutton: a declaration in the early sixties that the urban church was not dead; the ‘Phoenix at Coventry’ (the phrase is of Basil Spence) could rise from the ashes of the blitzed city. In the late eighties, her only church commissions are of saints and angels for country churches; in the metropolis her work is mere decoration, decanters for the corporate boardroom. In Lively’s London, the churches are bearers of meanings, objects for the imagination, but without present or future. This is a thoroughly secular city of the mind.

English cathedral music and liturgy in the 20th century: a short review

[A short book notice, destined for the Journal of Ecclesiastical History]

Martin Thomas
English Cathedral Music and Liturgy in the Twentieth Century
Ashgate 2015, xvii +265
978-1-4724-2630-7

The musical history of the English cathedrals has long wanted for a single treatment, being hitherto treated only briefly in histories of individual cathedrals, or as part of the history of religious music as a whole. Martin Thomas’ welcome new study fills that gap in the literature. Based on extensive research both in printed primary sources and in cathedral archives, it documents in detail the shifts in cathedral musical practice and repertoire between 1900 and 2005. Its principal argument, which is effectively made, is that the period saw a divorce between church music composition and the wider musical world. This led to the emergence and indeed ossification of a ‘cathedral style’: consciously archaic in compositional technique and conforming to extraneous criteria of ‘fittingness’ with the work of the liturgy.

Speaking theologically, Thomas is very clear that this was a wrong turn for the cathedrals to have taken. However, the study does not engage to any great extent with the now voluminous literature on secularisation and culture in the UK. As such, opportunities are missed to engage historically with many of the arguments that the study seeks to refute. What was it in the changing understandings of the relationship of cathedrals with their dioceses, city communities and (crucially) with the tourist that disposed them towards the preservation of a particular style? Thomas is sure that the argument that sacred music should be consciously archaic is false, but why was it put forward, at the times in which it was put forward? What view of the relationship between culture and theology did such arguments embody, and whose interests were they designed to serve? Why should critics have tended to value utility in church music over compositional innovation?

There are many such questions of motivation and context that are left unasked. The book provides much welcome material for historians, but there remains much to be done in integrating cathedral music into the story of twentieth century English Christianity as a whole.

Jewish artists and the Bible in America

[Extracts of a review recently published in Reviews in History.]

Samantha Baskind, Jewish artists and the Bible in twentieth-century America
(Pennsylvania State UP, 2014: 978-0-271-05983-9)

Scholars of contemporary religious history, of art history, and of the immigrant experience will find much to interest them in this fine volume from Samantha Baskind of Cleveland State University, Ohio. Specialists in British art of the 20th century have long needed to reckon with the work of Jewish artists such as Jacob Epstein or Hans Feibusch. The England in which these immigrants arrived had an established tradition of religious painting and sculpture. Not so in the United States. Within American art, such a tradition of historical and religious painting and sculpture was almost non-existent; landscape, domestic scenes and portraiture were dominant. The question arises, then (which Baskind answers definitively), of why Jewish artists – recent arrivals and unsure of their place and status in a new society – should wish to adopt artistic subject matter that was not part of the common stock of that society.

There is a striking but convincing paradox in Baskind’s answer to the question as to why these images were adopted, which offers a suggestive angle from which to view the immigrant experience more generally. Young immigrant Jews to America and the first generation born there soon found themselves without any connection to the lived experience of a homeland. ‘For these younger American Jews, their native land, their homeland, was the Hebrew Bible. Their sense of locale was not the towns around them but biblical geography – the only Jewish soil they knew’. (p. 3) This tended, however, to produce art that was certainly not for use in public worship (a Christian idea), or for private devotion, and only very loosely intended for use in the religious education of the devout. Instead, it functioned as a means of reflecting on and making sense of contemporary events and of recent history at large, and of personal circumstance: a secularised form of the ancient exegetical technique of midrash.

Some of the biblical subjects under discussion are those that might be expected from a Jewish artist: those from the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. Of particular interest to this reviewer were the examples where these Jewish artists addressed themes from the Christian New Testament: appropriations of Christian themes, refracted through a Jewish lens and presented back to Christian America.

All this is fine work in its own disciplinary terms, but readers who are first and foremost historians may have wished for more on the critical and public reception that these works received, precisely to illuminate some of the questions Baskind raises. How did Jewish observers understand these works as midrashic reflections on the lot of American Jewry? How did Christian commentators receive these ‘foreign’ appropriations of New Testament themes? None of this is to criticise this volume for not achieving that which it does not set out to achieve (a besetting sin of reviewers); but Baskind has opened up several fresh and important lines of enquiry for others to pursue.

The press, Pennsylvania State University Press, are to be congratulated for a lavishly produced volume which is a pleasure to hold, with copious reproductions of works of art, and at an improbably low price of $40. The writing is clear and concise, and often elegant, and the work as a whole is admirably brief. It should find an appreciative readership amongst art historians, but also amongst scholars of identity and the immigrant experience, and of the religious history of modern America.

The vicar and the Midwich Cuckoos

After an extended break, another post on the occasional series on Anglican clergy in modern British fiction. Today, it is the turn of John Wyndham, and The Midwich Cuckoos, first published in 1957.

The Penguin edition of 1960.

The Penguin edition of 1960.

The Reverend Hubert Leebody is one of the more substantial clerical characters in recent times, and the character functions as a foil to Gordon Zellaby, resident of Kyle Manor: gentleman sceptic, pragmatist, and the closest thing the novel has to a heroic character. Midwich is an archetypal English country village, in which nothing of note has seemingly occurred in a millennium. In Midwich, the old certainties about social leadership are embodied in Zellaby, Willers the doctor, and Leebody, resident of the Georgian vicarage and incumbent of the church: ‘mostly perp. and dec., but with a Norman west doorway and font.’ (chapter 1) And as the bizarre events unfold, Leebody continues to be the social glue that holds the community together. In chapter 6 the village flock to the church for the funeral of the first casualties, and it is Leebody who conducts them along with a service of thanksgiving for the sparing of the remainder. As the girls of the village discover their collective pregnancy, it is to Leebody that they come in their confusion. ‘He had baptized them when they were babies;he knew them, and their parents well.’ (ch.7) As the Children arrive, it is Leebody who baptises them in turn, in a faintly desperate attempt to normalise the hideous fact of their xenogenesis. (ch.12)

Ultimately, however, it is not Leebody who graps the depth of the moral crisis in which the village and the authorities find themselves, but Zellaby. Wyndham expounds much of the dilemma in dialogue between the two in chapter 17. How are humans to account for the existence in their midst of seemingly other beings, albeit in human form? How may they be fitted into a system of law that would allow a co-existence, and restrain the overwhelming coercive power that it is revealed that the Children have? Are they humans at all, or a dangerous other species, to wipe out which would be morally defensible in order to save humanity? Leebody confesses himself ‘in a morass’ about the matter, and the dialogue moves back and forth inconclusively until Leebody is called away to keep the peace as a lynch mob of villagers confronts the Children.

And this is the last the reader sees of the Reverend Leebody. In a manner reminiscent of H.G. Wells’s curate in The War of the Worlds, the reader is left with the impression that the vicar’s frame of reference can contribute no more to the situation. A good man, and socially important, when put under extreme pressure the vicar is found wanting. It is left to Zellaby to lead the village to the point at which a solution can be imagined; and it is the clear-sighted sceptic Zellaby – the only person in the village able and prepared to see the situation as it really is – who has the courage to act.

“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’.

The arts in evangelical history

I’m very pleased to be able to say that I have agreed to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. This is to be one of the first volumes in a new series, Ashgate Studies in Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.

Some of my publications in the past have touched on evangelicals and the arts in twentieth century Britain, most directly in relation to worship music, but also in relation to the theatre and the visual arts. This project will require a much wider perspective, taking in the whole of evangelical history from the early eighteenth century onwards, and across the world.

I’d thus be very pleased to hear of particular issues that readers think I should be addressing, and secondary literature I should be reading, within these broad themes:

(i) evangelical use (or disuse) of the various arts in public, private and domestic worship;

(ii) the use of the arts as means of evangelism;

(iii) evangelical theologies of the created work of art itself, and its right performance, realisation and reception;

(iv) evangelical involvement in the creation, performance and consumption of the arts in situations not associated with worship or evangelism, such as the secular theatre;

(v) evangelical challenge to works of art and/or their performance, on grounds of either their content (subject matter), or their style, or on grounds of their likely effects on performer and/or viewer or listener.

(vi) more generally, all of these matters are intimately connected with evangelical theologies of culture, and the relationship of the church, the individual Christian and “the world”, however defined.

I’m particularly keen to hear of particular matters of note before c.1850, or from outside Europe and North America at any point between about 1730 and the almost-present.

A Clergyman’s Daughter

One of the fullest fictional depictions of rural English parish life in the 1930s is in the first chapter of George Orwell’s A Clergyman’s Daughter. It was first published by Gollancz in 1935, and although Orwell disliked it and resisted reprinting, it appeared as a Penguin paperback in 1964. I’m not concerned here with Dorothy’s odyssey through the social landscape of the England of the Thirties, but with her father, the Reverend Charles Hare, rector of the church of St Athelstan, Knype Hill, in Suffolk.

Orwell’s Rector was born in 1871, and now we find him a widower with a sour temper. He leaves almost every parish duty to Dorothy, after having expected the same of his late wife, with whom he had been ‘diabolically unhappy.’ Orwell gives us an old man out of time, ‘tethered by his poverty to the age of Lenin and the Daily Mail’, who should have been much happier in an earlier time as ‘a happy pluralist writing poems or collecting fossils’ while curates carried the load of the parish.

The tomb of a clergyman's daughter. By Alan Murray-Rust, reproduced CC-BY-SA 2.0

The tomb of a clergyman’s daughter. By Alan Murray-Rust, reproduced CC-BY-SA 2.0

Born a grandson of a baronet, and having joined the clergy as the natural occupation of a younger son, he served a curacy in the East End of London, ‘a nasty, hooliganish place’. In Knype Hill he is socially out of sympathy with the ‘“lower classes”’ who, even if they no longer doff their cap, simply loathe him, while he merely disregards them. His alienation is equally complete from the local Best People, having both quarrelled with his social equals and despised the petty gentry without making any secret of the fact.

His refusal to accept the change in his social position extends to money. Dorothy lives in fear of the town’s tradesmen in the matter of a host of unpaid bills. As far as the Rector is concerned, for a butcher to want his bill paid is the fault of Democracy, a most undesirable development. The Rector’s response to his poverty is to make yet another doomed investment and deplete his assets further. Any thought of making economies is unconscionable.

So in twenty five years the Rector has reduced his congregation from six hundred to two hundred. But the decline is not purely due to social change and the Rector’s own peculiar pastoral gift. Here Orwell shows us a punctilious High Anglicanism which can no longer compete for attention against the available alternatives in the religious marketplace. Most of the Best People now drive their motor cars to one of two churches in a nearby town.

There’s the spiky Anglo-Catholic St Wedekind’s, in perpetual dispute with the Bishop and infected with what the Rector regards as ‘“Roman fever”’. There is also the Modernism of St Edmund’s, where to be successful a priest must be ‘daringly modern and broad-minded and preach comforting sermons proving that there is no Hell and all good religions are the same.’ After a verbal dispute over an open grave, he had not been on speaking terms with the local Roman Catholic priest. As for the evangelicals, Dorothy has been instructed to have nothing to do with ‘“vulgar Dissenters”’ and the ‘braying bald-headed elder who conducted the orgies at Ebenezer Chapel.’

Despite all this, is the Rector in any way a sympathetic character ? The early character sketch shows him merely negligent, if not quite wilfully unpleasant. But Orwell shows us a greater moral failure in his reaction to Dorothy’s appeals for aid in chapter 4, in which the Rector allows his own fear of the social consequences of her Fall to cause him to act in a clearly culpable way. Without this, his laziness and snobbery would have remained merely tragi-comic; as it is, they are positively baleful.

D.J. Taylor in his Life of Orwell has shown the degree to which Orwell retained an interest in the Church of England, if not exactly any adherence to its doctrine. This is borne out by the range and depth of the religious material to be found in his remarkable pamphlet collection, recently listed by the British Library. The portrait of the Rector in A Clergyman’s Daughter is as vivid as the picture of the Kentish hop fields and the streets of London that are to be found in the rest of the book.