Vision of glory for the citizens of Romford

by
29 November 2006

The reordered chancel and sanctuary with Peter Eugene Ball’s Christus Rex and the lancet windows with glass by Patrick Reyntiens

The reordered chancel and sanctuary with Peter Eugene Ball’s Christus Rex and the lancet windows with glass by Patrick Reyntiens


THOSE diligent enough to care for the architectural and the ecclesiastical heritage of the nation’s churches usually begin a search in a volume of Pevsner’s definitive Buildings of England.

Compendious as those books are, omissions occur. There are still no entries, for instance, for Holy Trinity, Reading, or for St Paul’s, Ellor Street (Salford). By introducing artefacts from other, often redundant, buildings, two outstanding priests there had been able to offer a glimpse of the holy in unexpected surroundings.

The late Brian Brindley, during his Anglican ministry, turned an otherwise “undistinguished Gothic box” (as Gavin Stamp averred) into something of a gem in a dull Thames Valley town. In the heart of a post-war estate in Salford, Canon David Wyatt similarly transformed his church. But that is to celebrate the old. Reading, for instance, has salvaged the great Scott chancel screen from St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham.

In the suburban backstreets north of Romford, in Essex, however, the reordering of a small Victorian brick church (1880) over the past dozen years has afforded the Revd Roderick Hingley the quiet opportunity to invite contemporary artists of international stature to challenge the passer-by and to encourage the true believer. It is no surprise that St Alban’s, Romford, is not in Pevsner’s Essex.

From the outside, there is little to suggest that once inside we will find ourselves transported to the very gates of heaven. Looking more closely, the densely and attractively planted memorial garden offers a hint of what is to follow and stands testimony to the dedication and determination of those who have made for change. A Portland stone bench by John Pitt (1999) and a stone column of remembrance (Jamie Sargeant) are deeply English (although the choice of an engraved pillar would not have been mine).

The engraved inner-porch glass doors are too cramped and too decorated for my taste, but beyond them the church itself opens out. The artistic roll-call is impressive, and the overall achievement has already been recognised by a range of awards and commendations, proudly framed on the inside west wall as if we are in the lobby of an entrepreneur’s showroom.

Clearly, the Chelmsford Diocesan Chancellor has been kept busy with faculty petitions. How a small parish has been able to afford all this work, and how it has come to a common mind, is none too obvious. During my visit, I was itching to ask the incumbent how the parish was still able to meet its quota.

The engraved inner-porch glass doors are too cramped and too decorated for my taste, but beyond them the church itself opens out. The artistic roll-call is impressive, and the overall achievement has already been recognised by a range of awards and commendations, proudly framed on the inside west wall as if we are in the lobby of an entrepreneur’s showroom.

Clearly, the Chelmsford Diocesan Chancellor has been kept busy with faculty petitions. How a small parish has been able to afford all this work, and how it has come to a common mind, is none too obvious. During my visit, I was itching to ask the incumbent how the parish was still able to meet its quota.

The dominating effect is one of light (not readily achieved in a brick purpose-built church of its period), owing to the sensitive reordering of the chancel and sanctuary, as much as to the subtle painting of the wood panelling throughout and to the Stations of the Cross (1999), carved on jigsaw-like panels along the north and south walls (Charles Gurrey).

In particular, the lancet windows in the sanctuary, on the theme of angels — Patrick Reyntiens at his best and most recent (2002) — offer an elevated sense to the whole building. The Roman Catholic Reyntiens worked extensively with John Piper, and their realisation of the baptistery chapel in Coventry Cathedral and the windows for Robinson College Chapel (Cambridge) remain among their best work. Here, red and gold angels bearing symbols of the eucharist stand attendant above the Real Presence in the high altar.

Equally powerful is the Peter Eugene Ball Christus Rex (2001) that perches above the chancel arch like some majestic rood sculpture of the high Gothic age. Depicting Christ robed as the supreme and eternal high priest is as much a statement about the Year of the Lord’s Jubilee when it was commissioned as it is of the churchmanship of this faithful congregation. 

Until the parish priest explained that the figure is reaching out in welcome and transcending the arch, I had the unnerving sense that it was about to fall forward. Unlike, say, the famed Volto Santo in Lucca, this is not an image I would find easy to contemplate for long without fear for the consequence of gravity.

Equally powerful is the Peter Eugene Ball Christus Rex (2001) that perches above the chancel arch like some majestic rood sculpture of the high Gothic age. Depicting Christ robed as the supreme and eternal high priest is as much a statement about the Year of the Lord’s Jubilee when it was commissioned as it is of the churchmanship of this faithful congregation. 

Until the parish priest explained that the figure is reaching out in welcome and transcending the arch, I had the unnerving sense that it was about to fall forward. Unlike, say, the famed Volto Santo in Lucca, this is not an image I would find easy to contemplate for long without fear for the consequence of gravity.

To link both the new sanctuary glass windows and this uncompromising figure of Christ, the parish more recently has commissioned another RC artist, Mark Cazalet, to provide a large mural (25 ft by 25 ft) for the chancel and sanctuary roof. A staggeringly generous grant from the Jerusalem Trust has realised The Angels of the Four Elements of Creation, and also allowed Cazalet to paint the east wall and provide a trompe l’oeil sunburst in reds and gold behind the tabernacle.

I have liked Cazalet’s work elsewhere. Here, he has appealed to Sir Ninian Comper’s obiter dictum that the atmosphere should have “the effect of silencing the thoughtless voice”. In this church, which is so busy with so many artistic styles, this is not easy.

From a distance, I was won over. The canopy-like sky heightens the chancel space, which is blessedly clear. It accentuates the verticality of the lancets and of Reyntiens’s own angels, and it clearly has been rendered with enthusiasm.

But — and this I cannot explain — up close, the naïve pictorial style that Cazalet uses to such good effect in smaller drawings and engravings fails him here. It may be that the scale of the building has disadvantaged him. Although the artist firmly had Psalm 8 in mind, reminding himself of our smallness in relation to the whole of creation for all that we are “little lower than the angels”, his lumpish angels seem unhappy beside the sublime Reyntiens figures, and the chromatic colour clash between the windows and the roof fails to bring about the harmony that the commission sought.

The lower register of the mural is a clever conceit, as it contains local scenes and recognisable persons and landmarks, and helps earth statements that we often make carelessly about the incarnation. I was grateful for that. But then, once back at the west end, standing at the font, I turned around and was once again transported by all that the heavens can offer us here on earth. 
 

The lower register of the mural is a clever conceit, as it contains local scenes and recognisable persons and landmarks, and helps earth statements that we often make carelessly about the incarnation. I was grateful for that. But then, once back at the west end, standing at the font, I turned around and was once again transported by all that the heavens can offer us here on earth. 
 

Gentle reader, your critic has failed you. But this I know for a truth: the church is worth travelling many hundreds of miles to see (but contact Fr Hingley on 01708 473580 to ensure that the church can be opened). It should be required visiting for all archdeacons, Diocesan Chancellors, and those who chair diocesan advisory committees.

Churchwardens who are considering introducing good quality, hand-crafted work should sit up and take note, if only of the wood carving by “Mousey” Thompson of Kilburn (Yorkshire) for the simple hymn boards and roll of incumbents.

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