Empire-building with high hopes

by
21 June 2013

In Victorian times, the Church of England exported Gothic architecture with imperial enthusiasm. William Whyte admires a new book on the subject

G. A. BREMNER

All Souls' Kanpur, India, by William Granville

All Souls' Kanpur, India, by William Granville

FOUR or five years ago, I travelled to Ghana with a clerical friend who was being installed there as an honorary canon. It was an eye-opening experience, not least because the cathedral in which he was being installed lacked any stalls - indeed, it also lacked a roof, and most of its walls.

More striking still, however, was a trip we took some days later to a church, several hours away, at the end of a bumpy dirt track. The village lacked water, the church itself was gently rotting, and the smell of drying cocoa beans permeated the air. It was all gratifyingly foreign.

And yet there, in the middle of the church, was a remarkably fam- iliar scene: an Advent crib, with a dazzlingly white-skinned and blond-haired Jesus, surrounded by a group of equally Caucasian attendants. It had been sent out decades before by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). It was a little bit of Ghana that would be for ever England.

My encounter in the rainforest is one that will have been shared by almost anyone who has ever trav- elled anywhere in the Anglican Communion. There you are, smugly celebrating your adventurousness, your unique engagement with an authentic, indigenous spirituality, when suddenly you find yourself face to face with something that looks as though it belongs in Bromley, or Ashby de la Zouch. It is disconcerting, to say the least.

In a remarkable new book, Imperial Gothic: Religious architecture and high Anglican culture in the British Empire c.1840-1870 - the fruit of a decade's research - the architectural historian Alex Bremner seeks to uncover the origins of this common experience.

He traces it back to the mid-19th century, and especially to the generation of High Churchmen who supported the SPG, and, even more important, the Colonial Bishoprics Fund. It was they, he suggests, who exported Anglicanism - its churches, its liturgies, even its Advent cribs.

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The devoutly Tractarian Prime Minister William Gladstone once remarked that the purpose of the British Empire was "the reproduction of the image and likeness of England". In the churches that Dr Bremner describes, we find the apotheosis of this assumption.

 

THERE is, of course, an alternative, Evangelical story to be told: the story of those who worked through organisations such as the Church Missionary Society, as it was then known. But Dr Bremner's focus on their Anglo-Catholic competitors is undeniably rewarding - and so is his emphasis on the years between 1840 and 1870.

It matters that this was the mid-19th century, and it matters that these were High Churchmen. For it was then, he argues, that these men - and, indeed, some women - actually created a particular sort of Anglicanism, one that became dominant in England, and would soon be just as significant across the globe.

Dr Bremner shows that they wanted to build churches that were thoroughly English, and undeniably Christian. Enthralled by the Roman Catholic architect and polemicist Augustus Pugin, and inspired by the Cambridge Camden Society - known as the Ecclesiologists - they thus embraced the Gothic Revival. This, they believed, was properly Anglican architecture. And if it was good enough for England, then it was certainly right for the business of converting the colonial heathen.

 

RESOLVING to build Gothic churches was one thing. Deciding which sort of Gothic - much less actually building it, in the midst of the mission field - was quite another. As Dr Bremner makes clear, the result was a huge variety of imperial Gothics: from the Norman to the Perpendicular; the rough-and-ready St Thomas's, Tamaki, in New Zealand, to the imposing and richly ornamented St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney.

There are some real gems here - and some little-known ones, too. Who could fail to be charmed by the wonderfully whimsical All Souls', Kanpur, in India? Part Romanesque, part Venetian, part Indian, it is an architecturally impure delight.

Or what about the robust and rough-hewn St Barnabas's, on Norfolk Island? The pro-cathedral of Melanesia, it was built in memory of the martyred Bishop Patteson. With its combination of rugged English Gothic, and intricate local craftsmanship, it is a brilliant illus- tration of the hybrid buildings that resulted from the meeting of English idealism and indigenous reality.

Some of the biggest names in Victorian architecture were involved in this massive church-building effort. George Gilbert Scott, G. E. Street, William Butterfield - the list is a self-evidently starry one, and the results were predictably impressive - even when, as was often the case, the plans were radically changed by the people actually erecting the churches.

But many of the most interesting projects were, in fact, undertaken by amateurs, such as the pioneering Australian bishop William Broughton, or the enterprising Sophy Gray, wife of the first Bishop of Cape Town, and architect of 100 or more South African churches.

Yet more intriguing are the minor buildings: the "kit" churches sent out by missionary societies; the wooden, iron, and rush-thatched structures that popped up across the Empire. As William Cotton's drawing "New Zealand Church Architecture" reveals, the outcome of all of this often looked more like a beach hut than a great Gothic fane. It was, Dr Bremner suggests, the disdain felt for such low-grade, low-church architecture that prompted so many missionaries to look to the Ecclesiologists for models of what else to do.

 

IMPERIAL GOTHIC is packed with equally fascinating examples. It is beautifully illustrated, often with colour photographs taken by the author, who has spent much of the past decade travelling between these bastions of overseas Anglicana. As an architect who is also an architectural historian, he is ideally placed to analyse this subject - and the fact that he is an Australian exiled to Edinburgh gives an added emotional resonance to his research.

Dr Bremner is not, however, a church historian, and it is here that there are some questions still to be answered about his argument. Specialists will object that he applies the term Tractarian too broadly, including within it many High Churchmen who profoundly objected to the Oxford Movement. His repeated references to "Nonconformism", instead of "Nonconformity", are also a bit of a giveaway.

Perhaps the biggest - and most surprising - gap, especially given the fact that Dr Bremner works in Scotland, is his lack of attention to the Scottish Episcopal Church. This is all the more striking, given the space that he devotes to the Church of Ireland, which certainly did not think of itself as a colonial institution.

In many respects, indeed, the Episcopal Church in Scotland is the missing part of his story. In this period, it, too, was a missionary endeavour, animated by many of the same Ritualist ideals as Dr Bremner describes being carried out into the Empire. More important still, it was the Scottish Episcopalians who pioneered the building of churches and cathedrals as an act of evangelism, and who also struggled to develop a distinctively indigenous form of Gothic architecture.

 

ANYONE can point out gaps and absences, however. Rather fewer can write an opus magnum of this scale - 170,000-words long, illustrated with some 400 photographs, and the result of many miles of arduous travel. It really is an achievement. Readers will feel that they, too, have achieved something by the end of it; for they will have been given a new way of seeing familiar buildings - and not just those that they encounter abroad.

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As Dr Bremner makes clear, it is not just true to say that the churches built in the Empire shared a common inspiration with those erected at the same time back in England. It is also the case that the colonial churches had an important influence on what was done at home. From the slum missions in London to the training colleges of Canterbury, the Empire kept striking back.

In that sense, although Imperial Gothic tells the story of a comparatively short period of time, nearly two centuries ago, it none the less has some strong contemporary resonances. It forcibly reminds the reader of the family resemblance that still distinguishes the different churches of the Anglican Communion. Here is architecture as a common inheritance that expresses a shared history.

But here, too, is a story that has always been about more than just the export of ideas. From the moment that it became a missionary organisation, the Church of England lost its exclusive monopoly on Anglicanism. As a result, for at least the past 150 years, it has been a global faith - as much the product of the United States, Africa, or Australia as it is of England.

What proved true of architecture between 1840 and 1870 remains the case today. This book is an important reminder for us in England that we can no more dictate the nature of our Church than our predecessors could impose a standard pattern on the church architecture of their time.

Above all, this is a marvellous account of how Anglicanism - even the strict, High Church Anglicanism of the mid-Victorians - has grown and thrived, precisely because of its adaptability. Like the churches that Dr Bremner describes, it is a sort of hybrid - something that reshapes itself to its context. And, like the wonderful buildings that comprise this book, it is surely all the better for it.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Tutorial Fellow in Modern History at St John's College, Oxford, and Assistant Curate of Kidlington.

Imperial Gothic: Religious architecture and high Anglican culture in the British Empire c.1840-1870, by G. A. Bremner, is published by Yale at £50 (Church Times Bookshop £45  - Use code CT426 ).

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