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Hidden from the eye of the beholder

by
12 August 2022

Francis Martin encounters a clash between aesthetics and function in a south-east London church

Lewis Ronald

THE photographs are spectacular: the pure-white stone altar glows against the modernist brick interior, like a lunar monument beamed down into an industrial landscape.

“My instinct would be to fall on my knees,” says the priest who commissioned the work. “It offers you a vision of God. . . It offers you something other-worldly.”

But the Revd Dr Peter Packer has not yet had the chance to bruise his knees before the new stone altar in St John Chrysostom’s, Peckham, in south-east London. He launched and steered the church’s large-scale renovation project during his eight years as Priest-in-Charge, but reached retirement age before the crowning glory of the project — a dazzling new altar by the British designer Max Lamb — was unveiled.

Lewis RonaldThe Revd Dr Emmanuel Adeloye

In a sense, it hasn’t been unveiled. The pure Portland stone is, contrary to the original intentions, usually hidden by a Laudian fall.

The design of the altar is simple, unadorned save for a cross worked ingenuously into each corner and running the length of each vertical edge. Lamb also created a paschal-candle stand to match, with a cross-shaped wooden base that mirrors the detail on the corners of the altar. He added, as a gift, two simple altar candlesticks.

He also resurfaced the sanctuary floor, removed a layer of cork, and polished the concrete underneath, leaving it with a sheen close to the luminous quality of the object he created for the space.

An iron-black statue of Christ, free of the cross, hangs directly on the exposed brick wall behind the altar — a relic, it is thought, of the street memorials that were erected around the city during the war. With the dark figure above it, the white altar seems to shine brighter.

The existing font was a point of inspiration for Lamb, as he told the design magazine Icon Eye: “The church’s Portland stone font was symbolically important, creating a direct link with the prior building, having been carved from one of the columns of the original war-bombed church.”

The luminosity of the materials, which contrast so dramatically with the wood and brick inside the church, was chosen to make use of the natural lighting from the windows in the roof. “When you’re in the congregation, looking at the altar, you don’t see any windows and can’t see where the light is coming from; so it creates this diagonal shaft of light which makes for some spectacular effects and shadows,” Lamb told another design publication, Wallpaper.

His work in Peckham has attracted the attention of the design world. But, in the write-ups, only cursory attention is paid to the function of the objects. To Dr Packer, the synergy of form and function was fundamental: “I’ve always had a belief that an altar should be stone, because it’s a sacrificial thing. And it needs to be pure in itself, and therefore appropriate for the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the mass.”

Dr Packer was the Priest-in-Charge from 2010 to 2018. His was the vision that informed the work, which included rebuilding the inside of the roof, installing new lighting, and remodelling the interior to enlarge the sacristy. (“If you’re going to do Catholic worship correctly, you need the kit.”)

Dr Packer describes himself as an Anglo-Papalist, and his approach to liturgy — and the space in which it is conducted — was forged during his time at Elmore Abbey, near Newbury, where he lived as an Anglican Benedictine. At the age of 62, and after a career as a civil servant and a stint curating an LGBT film festival in Tyneside, he moved to Peckham. It was his first post as a parish priest.

“I was inspired to go to Peckham because of this monastic space, because I felt liturgy could be celebrated there with solemnity but also approachability,” he said. He immediately embarked on the renovation, and beautification, of the church, to make it a fit “stage for liturgy”.

“There is a performative element to liturgy. There has to be, because it’s something into which you need to draw the participants, into both a physical engagement — by standing, by sitting, by crossing themselves, by kneeling — and also, through that physical, bodily presence of the participants, you move into the spiritual dimension of participation.”

 

THE Revd Dr Emmanuel Adeloye succeeded Dr Packer as Priest-in-Charge, and, one afternoon earlier this year, he showed me around the church and explained its history. He was joined by Win Jordan, a longstanding member of the congregation, who remembers the process of moving into the current church building.

The new church replaced St Jude’s, irreparably damaged during the Second World War. It was built in 1966 by the architect David Bush, and is characterised by an asymmetrical upwards momentum: the long slant of the roof rises, almost from street level, until it meets an oblong tower, topped with flat, triangular turrets. The triangular geometry of the church contrasts with the Victorian terraces among which it stands.

Lewis RonaldLewis Ronald

A week or so later, I attended the Sunday mass. The 50 or so members of the congregation included several young families and reflected the demographics of Peckham, where there are large Caribbean and African populations.

It was during Lent, and so the altar was dressed in purple. It was not the only vibrant material on show: of several fabulously dressed women, the prize surely went to the woman who was clothed, from boots to hat, entirely in purple and red. I went to express my appreciation, and asked her what she thought about the new altar. “It’s all right, it’s fine,” she said, “a bit small.”

The old one was bigger, she noted, and now stood in one corner of the church. “Perhaps we can use it for the bring-and-share lunch next week.”

There was not much overt appreciation for the altar, with its stone hidden beneath the fall, but neither was there antipathy. “I think the congregation would accept whatever came,” I was told. This bore out Dr Packer’s characterisation of his former congregation: “They tend to have the view that priests should sort this out themselves. Opinions are not easily given.”

Dr Adeloye, though clearly recognising the beauty of Max Lamb’s work, does not share Dr Packer’s monastic sensibilities, preferring the more traditional use of a coloured altar covering that indicates the changing liturgical seasons. It helps to “focus our minds and worship”, he told me. Following this tradition, of course, the altar was stripped on Maundy Thursday and left uncovered until Easter. Thus the simplicity of Max Lamb’s work is visible at least once a year.

Dr Packer insisted that it was none of his business what goes on now in Peckham, but then he asked: “They’re not covering it, are they?” He now lives in Malta, where he teaches international business, the latest chapter in his varied life.

 

AMID all this, St John Chrysostom’s faces other challenges more familiar to churches around the country, and particularly to those in poor urban areas: how to stem the slow but steady decline in attendance. Dr Adeloye laments that many youngsters stay up late to play video games and are too tired for church in the morning; or they play football on a Sunday morning.

At the end of the mass that I attended, I remarked on the applause and occasional shouts of acclamation. Dr Adeloye beamed with delight. “Moments of joy and moments of solemnity — that is what we try to create,” he told me. His words echoed what Dr Packer had said about his time in Peckham. “The sanctuary is not a dead space: it’s brought to life by people worshipping, people being there and joining together.” Where there might be differences about the fabric of the church, there is fundamental agreement about its purpose.

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