Writing Cathedral History

In a special guest blog, Nicholas Orme, emeritus professor of History at Exeter University and an emeritus lay canon of Truro Cathedral, writes about his new book, The History of England’s Cathedrals. The book is published by Impress Books, in paperback and hardback, and has over 90 maps and illustrations. On sale at £20, our supporters can get a 35% discount by visiting http://www.centralbooks.com and typing in the code FRIENDS.

Every so often, books appear about England’s cathedrals. Their authors follow a well-trodden path. Essentially they write about the buildings: when they date from, the interesting features they have, and what you can see when you go there. They always have beautiful photography. But there is something missing.

 

9781907605932

The book’s cover depicting John Constable’s 1823 version of Salisbury Cathedral.

The standard cathedral book is about beginnings and ends. It explains the cathedral came into being as a building and what it is like now. It does not usually tell you the story in between, or say much about people. What went on in the building in, say, the Middle Ages, or under Elizabeth I, or George III, or Queen Victoria? What would you see if you could go back, and whom would you see as well? Who would be leading the worship? Who would be coming in, and why would they do so? To pray, to listen to music, to look around, or even to steal? All these things have happened in the past.

From Roman Britain to the present day

A couple of years ago I set out to write a history that would cover those kinds of questions. It was only when I finished it that I realised it had never been done before. The reason is, perhaps, that you need to be rather stolid to try to tackle a topic that runs for 1700 years, from Roman Britain to the present day! But having done it, I am glad that I did. It revealed things about cathedrals that you never discover by studying them one by one, or by dealing only with their architecture. Let me show you what I mean by taking you back in time, very briefly, to show what cathedrals have been like at various stages of their history.

It is the early 1400s. We visit what we think of as ‘the church’ or ‘the minster’ or, in London, ‘Paul’s’. We cannot call it the cathedral, for the word does not exist. That is because as well as cathedrals there are great monasteries, which look much the same. All that marks a cathedral is a bishop’s throne and some bishops’ tombs. We enter the church through the nave. In front of us is a great stone screen – the pulpitum – shutting off the choir from view. We can listen to the services inside it but not take part in them.

There are side altars, all screened off, where Masses are said, and images that we can venerate. There are probably two dozen statues of Christ, Mary, and various saints. We can kneel before them, we can walk around, but there is hardly any seating. We experience religion in a spiritual rather than an intellectual way. The services are in Latin. If we say prayers ourselves, they are in Latin too: the Paternoster, the Ave Maria, and the Creed.

JP Norwich 1925 - Copy

The Ethelred Gate. Norwich Cathedral.

Now let us move on 150 years to the 1560s. The Reformation has happened. But the building is still here – amazingly so. All the monasteries have disappeared. Cathedrals might have gone the same way, but Henry VIII liked them. He protected them and their lands, and he added five more to their number. People now think of them as special places. The word ‘cathedral’ comes into use for this reason. Inside, there is still a pulpitum and a choir, but all the images have gone. Some have been removed; others have been smashed and left to warn us against superstition. We can no longer do any private devotions because there is nothing to venerate. There are only morning and evening services in the choir, with sermons on Sundays, all now in English. The building is emptier. It has lost the images, side altars, and chapels. The vacant spaces are being filled with tombs of the nobility and gentry. This shows us that the Church is now under the control of the crown and the powerful laity.

Greece and Rome

Another 150 years or so now pass, and we are in the eighteenth century. This is an age that takes its standards from Greece and Rome: in architecture, art, and literature. The medieval Gothic building seems an anachronism. We would prefer it if our cathedral was like St Paul’s, but there is no money to replace it, so we have made the best of a bad job.

The choir, where services happen, has been made as classical as possible. There are square horse-box stalls to sit in. The holy table is neatly railed in. There is modern painted glass in the windows and sometimes painted curtains on the east wall. An elegant organ case sits on the pulpitum. If you come for a Sunday service, you walk through a cold empty nave. When you reach the choir, you are in the company of well-dressed middle-class people from the cathedral city. Make sure that you bring a shilling, or you will not get a seat. The stalls are locked, and you must tip the verger to open one.

If we leave this time behind and continue another 150 years, we are in the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign. This is an era of change: of industrialisation, rising population, and political reforms. Cathedrals have also been reformed. Since 1840, most of their property has been taken away to fund new churches in the industrial towns and to improve the stipends of the poorer clergy. The cathedral now has only a dean and four full-time canons. We have regained a love of the Middle Ages, and the Georgian furnishings have come to look tawdry and dull. So we have refitted the choir with stalls of a Gothic design. These are still usually occupied by the clergy, the choir, and respectable people, but the vergers are now paid and do not ask for tips

JP Rochester 1906

Rochester Cathedral: rebuilt at the time of the Conquest.

The nave and choir have changed again. The great stone pulpitum has often been replaced by an open-work screen designed by Gilbert Scott. There is seating in the nave for the first time, and the nave is no longer cold and dim because there are gas lights and huge Gurney stoves to give warmth. This allows more people to watch the worship in the choir, and in the evenings there are nave services for the ‘artisan class’ who would not fit well with the Sunday morning and afternoon congregations. Cathedrals are trying to reach out to the population, more than they have done in the past.

The Twentieth century

Another century and half pass, and we are in the present day. If we know about cathedral history, we can see how things have changed in the twentieth century. The choir is still used, but it no longer houses a sung service of matins except perhaps on Sundays. That is because the adult choir members are no longer full-time cathedral employees, and the choristers cannot miss school for the purpose. We have kept sung evensong, however, and this allows the Anglican tradition of prayer and music to be maintained. Otherwise, the main area for services is now the nave, to house a larger congregation. Additional stalls are provided there for the clergy and the choir, and since the 1970’s there has been a nave altar because the main Sunday service is now  celebrating the Eucharist.

JP Wells

The Vicars’ Gate, Wells Cathedral, demonstrating their importance as a property owning group.

Ornaments which were ruled out after the Reformation and were still controversial in Victorian times have come back, and cause no surprise. Candles on altars. Vestments for clergy. Images of saints and even Orthodox icons. The furnishings and services remind us that we live in an age of equality. There are now women deans and canons, and most cathedrals have girl choristers – sharing with the boys, and allowing them to spend more time at school. Lay people take collections, bring up offerings, and read lessons (something hardly imaginable in 1870). Nobody has a personal seat; you sit where you like.

All around us there are signs of how cathedrals are reaching out to society. Chapels are dedicated to social work, the Mothers’ Union, and the armed services. Display boards feature cathedral work, or that of a charity, or an African diocese. And after the main Sunday service, there are refreshments. The congregation mingles more equally than it could ever have done in the past.

Not only buildings but communities

To go back in this way is valuable. It reminds us that cathedrals are not only buildings but communities. They exist, and always have done, because of people: those who run them and those who visit them. Because they are communities, they change as society changes. The religion of the Middle Ages changed drastically at the Reformation, and more gradually in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Cathedrals have done well in adapting to change. Through studying their history, we can appreciate not only what they are like now, but what they were like in the past; what they once meant to people, and how they were cherished. Our ancestors passed them down to us. It is an awesome inheritance, but history gives us confidence that problems can be overcome, change can be beneficial, and the wonderful legacy we have inherited can be passed on to be precious to those who come after us.

 

 

Advertisements

New art gallery in Plaistow church

The Tower Gallery in Plaistow officially opened its first exhibition, Art Arising, on Thursday evening 3 October. Nearly 100 people attended the opening, including Councillors Brian Collier, Marie Collier and Kay Scoresby.

Tower  Gallery photo 2Created in the east tower of the historic Plaistow Memorial Church building, the gallery is a partnership between Memorial Community Church and Rosetta Art Centre, which has curated this inaugural exhibition of 63 works by 16 local Newham artists. The project is supported by grants from Community First Canning Town North and Let’s Get the Party Started.

Plaistow Memorial Church has received funding from the National Churches Trust over the last two years to help fund major repairs and improvements, including improving access and repairing crumbling brickwork.

Sanaz Amidi, Director of Rosetta Art Centre said:
“Rosetta are proud to have collaborated with Memorial Church to transform their tower to offer an alternative contemporary art gallery to platform the exciting, bold and diverse work by Newham`s talented creative community! We look forward to a continued relationship to ensure our artists have access to a range of opportunities to empower them and acknowledge the important role arts and culture plays in the continued regeneration of the area.”

The exhibition is free and is open until 20 December from 11 am – 2 pm on Tuesdays-Fridays, 1 -3 pm on Saturdays and on the first Thursday of each month from 6-9 pm.

The gallery makes use of the tower stairwell to display the artwork rising up to four floors, which means there is no step-free access. However a video tour was shown at the opening event and will be available to view by arrangement.
Tower Gallery is located at Memorial Community Church, 395 Barking Road, Plaistow E13 8AL.

The exhibiting artists are: Anne Brown, Antonietta Torsiello, Daksha Amin, David Ross, Dimitrios Oikonomou, Frank Jennings, Karen Colley, Klaus Pinter, Mairi Bugg, Michael John Wills, Parvin Khoshdel, Rayna Nadeem, Ricardo di Ceglia, Ricky Aitchinson, Steve Marriott, Tim Timewell.
For more information see the gallery’s Facebook page  telephone Rosetta Art Centre on 0207 511 1117 or email development@memorialcc.org

Timothy Betjeman at All Saints, Margaret Street

In a guest post, artist Timothy Betjeman writes about his new paintings of All Saints Church, Margaret Street in London’ s West End.

I was born and lived most of my life in America, so I have come to know England, and especially London, where I now live, through painting parts of it over the last seven years. 

Timothy Betjeman All Saints Margaret Street

Timothy Betjeman All Saints Margaret Street

It is a frequent occurrence for me, as a primarily ‘plein air’ painter, to be working in a place that has caught my interest for whatever reason, and to discover that its history at some point entwined with that of my grandfather, Sir John Betjeman, especially if the place happens to be a church.  All Saints , Margaret Street was no exception.  When I began painting at All Saints, I was quickly informed by a parishioner who took note of my surname that he had enthused about the church in a series on Victorian Architecture for the BBC in 1970.

I somewhat wished I’d discovered it myself—and it really does feel like a discovery, hidden like a treasure between tall buildings, invisible save for its spire until one is practically in its courtyard.  But my jealousy soon gave way to a comforting thought, that this building, designed for a purpose by William Butterfield in 1850, and still used for that purpose today, could attract our mutual admiration.

I was very young when my grandfather died, so I never really knew him.  When I come upon buildings like All Saints, that I know he touched, or was touched by, and if I feel the same thing, there is a sense of knowing him through that.  I think that my engagement with these places develops in a different way than it did for him, but the initial attraction to great architecture and the atmosphere it affords is a major source for me as an artist as it was for him.

I liked the ritual of working in the church

My introduction to All Saints Margaret Street was in 2012 by my friend Alistair Fletcher who brought me to a service there, promising it had a very good choir (it did), and urged me to do a painting of its eccentric interior.  After the service I spoke to the vicar, Alan Moses, and he was enthusiastic about the idea, so I started showing up 3 or 4 times a week.  I would set up my easel in the morning near the back of the church and work through the 1:10 Mass, and pack up when the electric lights came on just before Evening Prayer.  I liked the ritual of working in the church so much that I ended up doing ten paintings instead of one, and a series of etchings as well; so I spoke to the vicar again at the end of it all, and we decided to do a show.

Timothy Betjeman, All Saints Margaret Street

Timothy Betjeman, All Saints Margaret Street

I’m accustomed to painting on the street, where people are moving about me very quickly and their movement must be integrated with the relative stillness of the architectural forms.  Painting at All Saints was unique in that the dynamic was reversed.  The people (and usually there were one or two, even between Masses) stayed perfectly still while the wild zigzags and gilded decoration on the walls and floor seemed to turn on and off and shift with the light as it came in sudden streaks through the high chancel windows.  I spent a long time studying the way natural light came in and competed with the invented light of the designs covering the inside of the church.  There was a kind of weather system to the place that related to but was wholly different from the one outside.  One feels this as soon as one enters the dark quiet of the church and inhales.

In the course of the 6 months or so that I spent painting at All Saints, and the time I have spent there since, I am very thankful for how kindly I was received by the priests, wardens and all of the parishioners.  It is a rare place, and truly a living church.

Timothy Betjeman At All Saints’  exhibition, will be open daily (12 – 6pm) from  22 – 27 October at 7 Margaret Street, London W1W 8JG.   A portion of the sales will benefit All Saints Church

More information about the exhibition 

More about All Saints,  Margaret Street

Not just a children’s corner…

Yorkshire, MONK FRYSTON, St Wilfrid (Sarah Crossland 2012) #002Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful church of St Wilfrid, Monk Fryston near York.

I was there to help assess their application for funding from the National Churches Trust, for repairs to the stone tile roof of the church. However, whilst there I was struck by the warm welcome I was given by everyone there to meet me, and by the obvious community involvement with the church – particularly the close relationship between the church and local children.

The evidence of their work and involvement with the church is all around the building, quite literally when you realise that around the walls of the nave are drawings and paintings of the Vicar by local schoolchildren.

Yorkshire, MONK FRYSTON, St Wilfrid (Sarah Crossland 2012) #045Revd John Hetherington told me ‘The pictures were part of a competition by the Year 1 & Year 2 children to see who could paint the best picture of ‘Me’. It was done in November of this year and there were prizes for the best three and these were presented in school a couple of weeks ago. Many of the kids from school also attend the St Wilfrid’s Sunday Club’. What was especially lovely was the care with which the drawings were displayed… neatly but with pride of place, and adding to the warm welcoming feeling within the building.

Yorkshire, MONK FRYSTON, St Wilfrid (Sarah Crossland 2012) #038Looking more closely, at the east end of the north aisle is a wonderful ‘reredos’ created from fired clay tiles – each created by a child from the Church School (Monk Fryston Church of England Primary School). They were completed two years ago in the summer of 2010, with each child did an image of what ‘God’ meant to them personally. Once the slides had been kiln-fired they were divided, with half were placed in the church and the other half in the entrance to the school.

These projects are brilliant, one permanent and one temporary but both enhancing and confirming the relationship between the church and local children. This is one of the most important things a village church can do. Local children will form the backbone of the community who will one day care for the building, encouraging them to see it as ‘theirs’ is vital.

So, if you are ever up near Monk Fryston why not pay a visit to this beautiful and engaging church.

Church History:

There is evidence that there was a pre-conquest church on the site and in all probability Archbishop Thomas re-built the church around 1080. Building work continued into the 15th century and  on the 12th May 1444 the then Archbishop issued a commission to John, Bishop of Philippopolis to dedicate and consecrate the parish church and churchyard at Monkfriston. There is documentary proof that would suggest the church was originally dedicated to St Mary. In two 16th century parishoners’ wills they state – William Wheldale in 1547 desired to be buried “in the church yerde of our ladie in Monkfriston” and Ralph Horsman in 1553 “within the churche of oure blessed ladie at Monke Friston”.

You can pick up a full history of the church when you visit, as I did.

Church Roof Project:

With such a long history, it’s not surprising that the church roof and parts of the tower have now developed more leaks than there are buckets to contain them and essential restoration work needs to be carried out to rectify this. Of course, this does not come without a considerable cost implication, and whilst English Heritage have generously offered a grant of £110,000 towards the repairs, an additional amount of around £50,000 is still needed.

Unfortunately the National Churches Trust was unable to offer St Wilfrid’s a grant as our grant programmes are always greatly oversubscribed for the amount of funding we have available to distribute.

But, the church has established a fundraising and events group ‘Wilfileaks‘. If you can help with their efforts please get in touch with them directly.

Yorkshire, MONK FRYSTON, St Wilfrid (Sarah Crossland 2012) #025

%d bloggers like this: