Anglo-Catholic Architecture- 1918-1938: A Study in Liturgy and Style

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013
Anglo-Catholic Architecture 1918-1938
A Study in Liturgy and Style
Excerpts from a Lecture given by Evan McWilliams at St John's College, Oxford - UK - June 2013

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In 1954 W.H. Randoll Blacking authored a pamphlet, the introduction to which perfectly captured the attitude of the majority of church architects of his generation, and to a degree, the entire inter-war period in architecture.



Throughout the ages man’s greatest artistic effort has been exercised in the service of religion and although, generally speaking, this can scarcely be said at the present time, yet for the Christian designer it must always be his prime concern. It is very seldom possible nowadays that a large amount of money becomes available to build a new church or to re-arrange an old one; but this fact makes it all the more important that great care should be given to what is really essential in planning and design. A church is the simplest of buildings; it is the House of God, where He is to be worshipped, and where the two sacraments of the Prayer Book rite are to be administered and the ministry of the Word spoken; the essentials are, therefore, a Holy Table (which should be the focal point of the place), a Font, and accommodation for the ministers and worshippers: all other considerations are of secondary importance.
It is useful to remember, amongst other things, that some of the most beautiful ancient churches are quite simple in design and rely upon a fine sense of proportion for their effect; that a whitewashed interior in which the beauty of gold and colour can be afforded only around the holy table is often more worshipful than an elaborately designed whole; and that a comparatively small building filled with worshippers is always preferable to a large church in which a seemingly small congregation is dispersed in various parts of the place.”
This pamphlet is quoted at length because it lays out a framework for understanding the churches of the three decades between the wars.
Were Blacking’s prose reduced to a maxim, it might be:

'Artistic merit, Appropriateness to function'.

St Alban - Abington - 1938
Blacking, of course, formulated the preceding statement in 1954.

Despite this, the building selected to illustrate this maxim dates from 1938.

The church of St Alban, Abington exemplifies the condition of church architecture at the end of the 1930s.

A nondescript brick exterior conceals a clean white interior - well lit - with a spacious chancel behind an open, classical rood screen.

There is an English altar - two candles only - with its riddel curtains.

A three-seat sedilia stands south of the altar, and a piscina in the east wall.

All is tidy and elegantly simple. 

This church- and many like it- were the perfect stage for the gently regal ceremonial of the Book of Common Prayer with its rolling Cranmerian prose.


Blacking died in 1958, and the next generation of architects were not prepared to continue what they saw as a stagnant tradition.
Given the powerful, long-lasting influence of men like Blacking, is it any wonder that writers of the following generation - such as Peter Hammond - were so dismissive of the condition of English architecture ?
All attempts,’ wrote Hammond, ‘to reproduce the outward forms of another age, however excellent the period chosen, are essentially misguided.”
But one can’t help but wonder if Hammond really understood the architecture he spoke about so dismissively.
Furthermore, in following Hammond’s course, the architectural and art historical establishment have left a whole period of significant, and sometimes excellent, architecture to moulder away, unstudied and unloved.
The underlying assumptions of Blacking’s generation about church building are immensely important if the inter-war years are to be understood as a period of dramatic change and new vitality in the art of church building, in direct response to a galaxy of fresh liturgical ideas revolving around the golden year 1928.

Archbishop Davidson - 1927
The New English Prayer Book - Punch
Archbishop Randall Davidson
1928 is the year the combined Convocations of Canterbury and York proposed a 'Prayer Book' revision, which could have set an entirely new trajectory in the worship of the Church of England, anticipating the Alternative Service Book of 1980 by some fifty-odd years.
A revision proposed in 1927 had failed and it was hoped the newly improved Book would fare better, however, due to opposition from extreme Protestants, extreme Anglo-Catholics, and, significantly, to the votes of non-English members of the House of Commons, the proposed Book - widely accepted by the Church leadership - failed to become legal and remains to this day ‘the Deposited Book’ not authorized for general use.
However, failure of the 'Prayer Book Measure' to pass muster in Parliament should not be understood as the end of the liturgical matter.
The research and scholarly production necessarily involved in producing a new version of the Book of Common Prayer brought into a clearer light the history of the 'Prayer Book' itself and its relationship to the other Western liturgies, both Catholic and Protestant.

Walter Frere - Bishop of Truro
Some Principles of
Liturgical Reform
Among those many scholars involved in such exploration of the Church’s tradition was Walter Frere, Bishop of Truro from 1923-35, whose writing on such diverse topics as medieval music in the city of York and Franciscan influence on religious services demonstrated a commitment to a fuller understanding of Western Christianity and an attempt to contextualize Anglican worship within the wider life of the Church universal.
That the wide dissemination of this type of scholarship resulted in a broadened vision of the Church of England and, to a degree, its Catholicization is borne out in the 1936 report Doctrine in the Church of England.
The report was commissioned in 1922, and its thoroughness accounts for the length of time lapsing between then and its publication fourteen years later.

On the sacraments in particular the divergence of opinion from the Protestant position articulated in the 'Book of Common Prayer', when interpreted in its most literal sense, is noticeable.
The Commission described ‘real presence’ and ‘receptionism’ as “types of theology admissible in the Church of England” apparently unconcerned that these theologies were mutually exclusive due to contradictory Biblical exegesis.
The evolving nature of belief in the Church of England was partially a result of the manner in which her ordinands were trained.
The 1924 Lichfield Manual, published for use at Lichfield Theological College, included the entire cycle of monastic offices and private prayers for the priest at the Holy Communion. 
These prayers were entirely out of character with the theology of the Prayer Book, as then in use, but represent the shift, even in the more moderate theological colleges, to a catholic understanding of the sacraments.

Lichfield Cathedral
Theological College
Such an influx of Catholic doctrine invariably informed liturgical practice and, in addition to influential individuals such as Percy Dearmer, whose ‘The Parson’s Handbook’ had run to twelve editions by 1932, organizations like 'The Alcuin Club' continually pressed for acceptance of broader liturgical standards and more opportunities for reviving the rites and ceremonies of the pre-Reformation English Church.
The architectural implications of such a new expression of theological and liturgical variety were many and here Blacking’s requirement that a church be of artistic merit and suited to its intended function comes into focus. In truth, ‘Artistic merit, Appropriateness to function’ as a defining statement on church architecture could date from any year.
Merit and appropriateness are naturally evolving terms; they accommodate themselves to the prevailing climate.
So it was that in the three decades between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second, the changing theological and liturgical world fostered a change in the aesthetic world.

First, ‘appropriateness to function’ came to mean ‘designed to accommodate full catholic ceremonial’ now, if not entirely legal, at least broadly accepted as part of the Anglican heritage.
On a practical level this required more open chancels, greater prominence for altars and fonts, and larger sacristies and vestries to accommodate more priests and more ceremonial accoutrements for use at various times of the church year.
Second, ‘artistic merit’ evolved from a limited, purely Gothic, vocabulary to include Classical elements, and even fully Classical buildings.
Tudor-Gothic window types came into greater use, as inter-war churches were generally smaller and less elaborate than their pre-war counterparts.
Gone were the days of complex Decorated tracery - but for the east widow perhaps.
Here economic considerations played a strong part in aesthetic change but lack of funds did not stop architects from wild flights of fancy.

All Saints’ 1926 - Mortlake
J.B. Tolhurst
St Katharine Cree (1631)
J.B. Tolhurst’s extraordinary 1926 proposal for All Saints’, Mortlake recalls the seventeenth-century St Katharine Cree (1631) in its striking combination of Classical nave with Gothic vaulting.
But for the east window, the tracery is vaguely fifteenth-century French. 
It also reflects the continuing fascination with late-medieval furnishings in its sumptuous rood screen.
The new stylistic synthesis seen with Tolhurst at All Saints’ was championed by more famous architects like Ninian Comper and represents the most bold approach to church design since the Caroline period when the Church of England was at its most theologically and liturgically creative.



St Andrew and St George - 1920 - Ninian Comper
St Andrew and St George - 1920
Ninian Comper
His 1920 church of St Andrew and St George is an exciting combination of near-Tuscan columns, Gothic vaulting, and seventeenth-century Scottish window tracery with a Renaissance rood screen and ciborium over the altar.
The exterior is boxy and slightly naive but striking in its simplicity- a great contrast to the elegant interior.
Even in the work of architects who tended to be rather sedate - such as Charles Nicholson- there was a new openness to experimentation.

St Laurence - Eastcote - 1932
St Laurence - Eastcote - 1932
At St Laurence, Eastcote the nave arcade could be by a provincial architect of the late seventeenth century.
Likewise the Classical brick surround of the south porch is suggestive of a building which has grown accretively, despite its dating from 1932.

All Saints’ - Hillingdon - 1932
Built that same year is All Saints’, Hillingdon which similarly suggests a Caroline milieu - an England of Renaissance learning and a Gothic past still remembered.
More obviously Renaissance in flavour is St George, Newbury.


St George - Newbury
F.C. Eden - 1933
Here, F.C. Eden placed a ciborium over the altar in the manner of an early Christian basilica.


St George - Newbury
F.C. Eden - 1933

The Italian flavor of this design is observable in the unbuilt facade where a Palladian loggia features below a playful scrolled bellcote.


The idea of the ciborium, or altar canopy, runs through the work of many in the inter-war period.






St Anselm - Kennington - 1933
Adhead & Ramsey
St Anselm - Kennington - 1933
Adhead & Ramsey
St Anselm, Kennington by Adhead & Ramsey offers a Romanesque variation on the theme.
Again we see a plain exterior that conceals a plain, whitewashed interior with the altar as its central focus.








All Saints’- Hockerill - 1936
Stephen Dykes-Bower
All Saints’- Hockerill - 1936
Stephen Dykes-Bower
One unusual example of setting apart the altar is seen at All Saints’, Hockerill by Stephen Dykes-Bower where the altar has been magnified by what might be either an enormously over-scaled ‘English altar’ or a ciborium missing its top.

The use of a rose window in the east wall is striking as well, making this church slightly less demure than its period counterparts despite the similarly plain interior clearly intended as a background for the liturgy and not as an object to be admired in itself.

Probably the most ideal example of a ciborium in a parish church is that at St Philip Cosham (1938).

Comper’s St Andrew and St George which we saw earlier was built for the Scottish Episcopal church but this building- a variation on the same theme- is Anglican and demonstrates just how much the building revolved around the altar as its liturgical center.

Observe how the plan seems to grow out from the sanctuary, how the canopied altar is itself a miniature vaulted interior - a most holy place within a holy place.
As with St Andrew and St George the exterior of St Philip is sweetly naive, a sort of cardboard Gothic, with a delightfully elegant bellcote serving as the facade’s crowning glory.
Canopies of considerable prominence also appeared at this time over fonts, in accord with the new emphasis on the conveyance of sacramental grace through baptism.

The cover here at St Philip is fine indeed, a playful tempietto topped by an ogee dome (standing below one of Comper’s characteristically elaborate organ cases).

One of the largest examples of the period dates from 1933 and was designed by W.H. Randoll Blacking for St Alban’s Cathedral- not a parish church but I felt it just had to be included.
Again, the merging of the Gothic spire form with Classical ornament is reminiscent of experiments undertaken in the late seventeenth century. 
On a scale more typical of the time is the cover at St Laurence, Eastcote by Nicholson.

Cool Classicism is exemplified by St Paul, Blackley by Taylor & Young, where a pristine interior gently moves the eye to the east-end apse, and the altar with its unusual Solomonic altar cross.
The crisp, scaled-down monumentality of the interior matches the exterior, where very little ornament relieves large expanses of brick, lending it a stark, classical aspect.
Less pristine are the churches of J. Harold Gibbons.
Experimentation can lead to powerfully beautiful results but it can also open the door to quirkiness for its own sake.

This seems to be particularly the case at St Mary, Kenton where there’s just a lot of everything everywhere. Note, once again, the ciborium over the altar.
Significant for the period is Gibbons’ placement of the sacristy visibly behind the high altar, recalling the similar placement of Lady chapels in the work of Temple Moore just one generation before.
Giving such visual importance to the place of priestly preparation had never before been seen and it appears to be unique in the annals of inter-war church design.
Like many church architects of his day, Gibbons was not a pedantic Gothicist, as his earlier St Francis, Bournemouth demonstrates.

Examples of new ways of thinking about church design in the inter-war period could be multiplied.
One final observation, however.
Hammond, who was referenced earlier, claimed that reproducing the outward forms of another age were essentially misguided. 
Of hat age or ages might he have been speaking ?
Reproduction was far from the minds of inter-war church architects and artists.
Rather than copying the past, they raided it for fresh ways to express a newly developing, Catholicized Anglicanism.
The Church of England’s architectural reaction to exciting liturgical scholarship and doctrinal evolution is itself equally exciting.
In the realm of artistic merit, and that of appropriateness to function, as understood in their time, inter-war churches shine.
The age of the great scholarly experiment of 'Prayer Book' revision can be seen in churches all over the country, and in designs like Tolhurst’s which, sadly, remain only on paper.
The inter-war period in church building was not stagnant.
It was not just “more of the same.
It was a flowering of imagination - albeit limited by financial considerations.
It was a last sparking of vibrant life before a great pall of death spread across Europe for the second time in a single century.



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