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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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