Where the saints have once trod

03 May 2007

Kenneth Leech muses on the sad closure of London churches

Empty Tabernacles: Twelve lost churches of London
Michael Yelton
Anglo-Catholic History Society £12

MICHAEL YELTON, who has already written a fascinating study of Anglican papalism, has produced this valuable study of important churches in London, all Anglo-Catholic in a broad sense, that have now disappeared. Some, though not all, were papalist. They include some well-known churches such as St Francis’s, Dalgarno Way, North Kensington, whose first vicar was Bernard Markham, later vicar of St Benedict’s, Ardwick, in Manchester (also now closed), and then Bishop of Nassau. Later priests included Edwyn Young and Gresham Kirkby.

The demise of some of these churches, and of the tradition, pastoral dedication, and sacra-mental ethos they reflected, is very sad. Yet any attempt now to re-capture the “glory days” is doomed. The story of St Columba’s, Haggerston, is particularly depressing. By 1964 it had a congregation of about six, of whom several seemed to live in the vicarage. There is no mention of the nearby St Augustine’s, Haggerston, famous for the Haggerston Catechism, which closed in the late 1960s and had declined in a similar way.

What went wrong? Why did these great shrines, in the end, fail miserably? There has still been no serious study of this tragic history.

The magnificent shrine of St Michael’s, Shoreditch, which appears on the cover, is also discussed. In March 1964, I was asked by Robert Stopford, Bishop of London, to accept a curacy there, and had to point out that the church had been closed, by the Bishop himself, on 31 January.

It is a little surprising to find St Paul’s, Whitechapel, included, with inevitable references to my old friend and colleague Fr Joe Williamson. Joe was not really an Anglo-Catholic in the “party” sense, although he was inspired in childhood by Fr Dolling. He had no interest in the niceties of ceremony, nor in attitudes to the Church of South India. He was an intensely prayerful priest, committed to the daily mass, and the care of the people; but the neighbouring Anglo-Catholics did not know what to make of him, for their concerns and connections were different.

Also included is the saga of St Andrew’s, Carshalton, and the part played by Mervyn Stockwood, then a new Bishop of Southwark. Yelton concedes that Stockwood’s behaviour in this episode was “certainly tactless” (he is, after all, a lawyer). Some of us might have used stronger language. It was a pity that he did not include the poem of the late S. J. Forrest about the Carshalton affair, which ended:

  So call the bobbies, bar the door,

  Raise high the churchyard wall,

  For those who won’t be C of E

  Shan’t worship God at all.

I hope that we may have learned something from these years, andfrom the sad story of the “empty tabernacles”, but I am not sure that we have. All the same, we should be deeply grateful for this study.

The Revd Dr Leech was formerly Community Theologian at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, in east London.

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