UK’s Best Modern Church is St Paul’s at Bow Common

As part of our 60th anniversary celebrations, together with the Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association and the 20th Century Society, the National Churches Trust organised a competition to nominate the UK’s best church architecture.

Over 200 churches were nominated for the competition by the public, parishes and architects. It was open to church buildings from any Christian denomination in the United Kingdom which opened for worship after 1 January 1953.

The winners of the architecture competition were announced at an awards ceremony held at Lambeth Palace on 7 November 2013. St Paul’s Church in Bow Common, east London, known locally as ‘The Gate of Heaven’ was chosen as ‘The UK’s Best Modern Church’.

Sherry Bates, President, Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors Association said:

“Top of our list is St Paul’s Church, Bow Common, London E3 to which we are delighted to award the National Churches Trust Diamond Jubilee Award. This church, designed by Robert Maguire and Keith Murray and consecrated in 1960, was hugely influential for church architecture and a signpost for future Anglican liturgy.”

St Paul's, Bow Common

St Paul’s, Bow Common

The judges remarked that the church is ‘Hugely influential and a signpost for future Anglican liturgy. This building is the embodiment of the ground swell of ideas about Christian worship, loosely termed the Liturgical Movement, that swept Europe and the United States after the Second World War. According to this thinking, the church as a building is first and foremost a liturgical space, a house for the performance of the liturgy and the gathering of the community. The design of this church is prefigured by the analysis of George Addleshaw, Dean of Chester and Frederick Etchells in The Architectural Setting of Anglican Worship (1948) and many of its ideas have since been reprised in Richard Giles Repitching the Tent (1996). To many they still seem new.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby presenting the National Churches Trust Diamond Jubilee Award for The UKs Best Modern Church to Preb Duncan Ross, Kelley Christ, Julian Bream of St Paul's Church, Bow Common, London with National Churches Trust Chairman Luke March

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby presenting the National Churches Trust Diamond Jubilee Award for The UKs Best Modern Church to Preb Duncan Ross, Kelley Christ, Julian Bream of St Paul’s Church, Bow Common, London with National Churches Trust Chairman Luke March

Comments from the architect, Robert Maguire (2011):

In the years following WW2, the mainline Churches had to concern themselves with the immense problems of reconstruction after war damage and the provision of new places of worship in the new towns and expanding suburbs.   There was some reworking of concepts related to economy, such as the dual purpose church/hall, but the new buildings simply assumed the continuation of the patterns of worship developed through Victorian, Edwardian and between-wars periods.   These patterns were predominately non-participatory, characterised by private devotion even though communally performed, and exhortation to the individual conscience from the pulpit.”

“There was however a largely subterranean groundswell of theological debate, concerned with what St Paul had defined as the true nature of the Christian Church: the mystical concept of the Body of Christ, in which the full functioning of all members, however lowly or exulted, is essential to the health of the Body.” 

“St Paul’s was the first church in the UK to embrace the concept of an interior which would be immediately recognisable as a ‘place of the Christian people as the Body of Christ’ and also facilitate forms of worship – reformed liturgies – which are the realisation of that oneness. Often such concerns were, and still are, seen in the simplistic terms of people being able to see and hear well what is going on, so that all that is necessary is to bring the altar forward and to plan the building short and wide rather than long and thin as before.   That however is to miss the point, for ‘what is going on’ is not ‘up there’ but the action, the words and the song of everyone.   The very spatial character of the building has to be such that it promotes in each individual person the conviction of belonging: inclusive space.”

“St Paul’s achieves this by a gathering-around of ordinary architectural elements; an outside wall that wraps itself almost literally around the interior; a colonnade continuous around all four sides defining an encircling ambulatory between it and the wall, and accentuating the ‘placeness’ of the central space within; and daylight from above making a gradation of luminance from low at the perimeter to bright at the high centre, the place of the altar and congregation.”

From a shortlist of 24 churches, judges selected The UK’s Top 10 Best Modern Churches.

Photographs of all the churches are available to download at http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalchurchestrust/sets/72157637391772643  The full shortlist can be viewed online at www.bestmodernchurches.org.uk

A specially shot 4 minute video about St Paul’s Church, Bow Common, is available for use and can be downloaded at http://vimeo.com/78714684

The altar at St Paul's, Bow Common

The altar at St Paul’s, Bow Common

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