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What Victorian churches did for us

13 October 2017

That understanding of buildings as open and active still holds sway, argues William Whyte


Sublime: the sanctuary of All Saints’, Margaret Street, London W1, which was built between 1850 and 1859

Sublime: the sanctuary of All Saints’, Margaret Street, London W1, which was built between 1850 and 1859

VICTORIAN churches are, as we all know, a disaster area. They are too big; they are too inflexible; they leak. Worse still, they attract enthusiasts: people who campaign to keep them as they are. Talk to the incumbent of a great 19th-century minster, compliment his many pews, praise his lofty, immovable marble pulpit, mention the Victorian Society — and then run away. Fast.

This profound dislike of Victoriana has many sources. Partly, it is to do with fashion. In a bid to make churches more homely, carpet tiles are in; encaustic tiles are out. Partly, it is a theological matter. The structured, hierarchical, hieratic churches of the 19th century no longer seem to fit with our more demotic faith. We want a gathered community, a vernacular liturgy, an experience of the everyday rather than the transcendent.

There is also simple practicality. Faced with falling numbers and a cripplingly expensive barn of a building, which parish priest would not curse his or her predecessors and regret the ambition that led to a church that was probably always impossible to fill?

Above all, perhaps, there is a persistent myth abroad, one most cogently and persuasively purveyed in Robin Gill’s hugely influential Myth of the Empty Church (SPCK, 1993): a classic text reissued and revised as The “Empty” Church Revisited (Routledge, 2003). Gill’s books argue that there are too few Christians because there are too many churches. The Victorians, he seeks to show, bankrupted congregations and diminished morale by building expensive white elephants that would remain half-empty at best.

Although pitched as explicitly revisionist, this myth is as old as the Victorian churches themselves, and draws especially on arguments advanced in the 1960s and 1970s, when fashionable, forward-thinking clergymen, such as the Revd Nicolas Stacey, Rector of Woolwich (Obituary, 26 May), called for the demolition of three-quarters of Anglican churches and the conversion of all the others into multi-functional community centres. “If there is one simple method of saving the Church’s mission,” another radical wrote in 1974, “it is probably the decision to abandon church buildings.”

Many of our current concerns — and much of our present dissatisfaction — grows out of this longstanding sense that the Victorians have bequeathed us a regrettable, even detestable, legacy: churches that actually repel worshippers.


WE ARE right to think that the Victorians did something different with their churches. It is not just that they built more: a new Anglican church was consecrated every four or five days by the middle of the 19th century. It is not just that they built bigger and more elaborately, as contemporaries celebrated the “red brick, and yellow brick, and black brick . . . granite, serpentine, and encaustic tiles” that they now found fitted in churches all over the country.

The Victorians, above all, understood their churches differently. While the Georgian Church had assumed that its buildings were essentially receptacles for preaching in, the Victorians believed that churches did things: they were capable of conveying ideas, moving emotions, and evangelising in their own right. Georgian churches were locked in the week and opened only for Sunday services. They were places for listening; they came alive only when someone was speaking. Victorian churches, by contrast, were designed to delight the eye and lift the spirits; it was believed that their very existence had an effect on visitors and passers-by.

True enough, the Victorians were never satisfied with their buildings. Although churchgoing increased, the number of ordinations went up, and the tone of public life became ever more inflected by a certain conspicuous piety, their churches were never quite full enough, and their reach — especially into poorer communities — was never quite deep enough. The anxieties about church building articulated by Nicolas Stacey and Robin Gill had their origins in the Victorians’ own doubts.

But the effects of this church-building programme — and, still more, of the new way in which the Victorians came to understand these buildings — were transformative. The great, echoey edifices that they created were designed to give a glimpse of the sublime. Their solid and substantial furnishings, their stained-glass windows, their marble, and their tiles were all intended to impress and over-awe. The success of the mid-Victorian campaign to unlock the church — to open it to visitors — meant that this encounter with the numinous was now available to everyone, every day.


ABOVE all, the Victorians bequeathed their understanding of the Church to us. We still see these buildings as active. We still expect them to do something to us. It is one of the great paradoxes of the modern Church that our arguments about buildings are couched in exactly the same terms, and draw on precisely the same assumptions, as the Victorians’.

When that radical reformer Richard Giles argues, in his influential Re-Pitching the Tent: The definitive guide to re-ordering your church (Canterbury Press, 2004), that we need to rip out the Victorian clutter in our churches, he does so because he believes that, unless we do, these places will continue to communicate the wrong ideas.

When parishes seek to remove their pews, they do so because they hope that stacking chairs will somehow generate new worshippers, or new and more vibrant sorts of worship. These notions — of the Church as a theological text, and of buildings and furnishings as active agents in fostering faith — are all inherited from the 19th century.

As this suggests, even our hatred of these 19th-century churches assumes that they are bad not because they look bad, but because they do bad things. Even in the way that we attack them, we show just how powerful the Victorian understanding of the church remains.


The Revd Dr William Whyte is Senior Dean, Fellow, and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

His new book, Unlocking the Church: The lost secrets of Victorian sacred space, is published by Oxford University Press at £18.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.10).

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