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Unlocking the Church: The lost secrets of Victorian sacred space by William Whyte

24 November 2017

Ayla Lepine on seeing Victorian churches through Victorian eyes


WILLIAM WHYTE’s perspective on the grand edifices of thousands of Victorian churches that punctuate Britain and beyond with their strident spires is not a typical one.

Most architectural historians write monographs on famous architects, or chart the territory of the built environment by focusing on a style of architecture — be it Neo-Classicism, the Gothic Revival, or Modernism — to get to grips with why and how buildings look the way they do, who used them, and why a space that might have been perceived as grim and nasty in 1960 was the height of fashion in 1860.

Instead of this classic approach, Whyte promises his readers “terrible hymns and dreadful novels and excruciating poetry”, and the view of the ordinary churchgoer and pew-renter alongside the grand voices of the architectural and clergy elite whose viewpoints boomed across the land from London to Carlisle.

The reason for this turn towards the church in its context, and the church as a type of space with a history necessarily as connected with laws on liturgy or the gentle turn of a rural lane as it curves round the village green, is that Whyte wants to focus on how people experienced the Victorian church through their own diverse eyes and minds as much as he can.

This book is a social history of the Victorians, taking up the religious experience of church-building, religious writing, cantankerous debating, and even languid 19th-century daydreaming to paint a new picture of why so many of these buildings look the way they do, and why they were important — and, indeed, why they remain such an invaluable cultural legacy for all, regardless of whether the reader of this accessible page-turner is a long-serving PCC member in Berkshire, or would never darken the door of any church in his native Newcastle.

For those familiar with the canon of Victorian architects — William Butterfield, George Edmund Street, and the like — and for those for whom the subject is new, and whose perspective is more generalist, this book is essential reading for anyone who ever looked at a Victorian spire and wondered how it got there, or what it meant to those who paid for it, and the worshippers across a century and a half who have called it their spiritual home.

Whyte’s account also takes the afterlives of Victorian churches seriously, placing the voice of the campaigning poet John Betjeman alongside Michael Winter and those discerning new paths for effective mission. Winter observed: “If there is one simple method of saving the Church’s mission, it is probably the decision to abandon church buildings.”

This 1973 statement is not so far from what many in the Church of England would recommend today. With an eye on both the past and the future, Whyte suggests a different path through the complex territory of Anglican identity as expressed through its buildings.

Drawing on local history, significant developments in theology, and the stories of the churches themselves, Whyte notes that understanding these places afresh “presents an opportunity: to use churches to do what the Victorians intended them to do: to teach, to preach, to move, to convert, to lead people closer to God”.


Dr Ayla Lepine is a Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex and an ordinand at Westcott House, Cambridge.


Unlocking the Church: The lost secrets of Victorian sacred space
William Whyte
OUP £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

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