This is a report from an event organised at the University of Oxford 27-29 January 2016. The event brought together speakers from academia, the heritage sector, and the architectural profession. After an introductory talk by Mark Chapman (University of Oxford), which outlined the main themes to be explored over the weekend, the first speaker was John Harper (Bangor University) whose paper focussed on the Roman Catholic Church and the impact of the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) is generally considered to the most significant change to the liturgy since the Council of Trent (1545-1563). New churches were needed which reflected the new liturgy, whilst existing churches had to be adapted.
In addition to liturgical reorderings, Richard Halsey (Friends of Friendless Churches) highlighted the creation of new Anglican and Roman Catholic diocese in the 20th century as another influence on church adaptation: certain parish churches were expanded to reflect their elevated status as cathedrals. Examples include Bradford Cathedral, extended by Edward Maufe (1940-65), and Blackburn Cathedral enlarged by W.A. Forsyth (1938-60) and Lawrence King (1962-77). With costs typically borne by local parishioners, not the diocese, it is perhaps understandable that the huge crypt of Blackburn Cathedral incorporated community facilities.
The evolution of religion and religious architecture has run parallel and, on occasion, become intertwined. Kate Jordan’s (University of Westminster) research on monastic buildings tackles the problem of how to study different religious groups with varying traditions using theological change as the underlying theme. It was at the Benedictine Christ the King, Cockfosters (1939-40), designed by Dom Constantine Bosschaerts, for example, that the first Catholic mass spoken directly to the congregation took place in Britain. In recent years, the pressure to adapt monastic buildings has stemmed from the aging and numerically declining religious communities who occupy them. This suggests a new era of smaller abbeys and convents beckons: see Stanbrook Abbey, North Yorkshire (2015) Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios.
The theme of religious communities was continued by Robert Proctor (University of Bath) who suggested that the Second Vatican Council was, perhaps, not as central to change within the Roman Catholic Church as is typically held, and that other factors were operative throughout the 20th century. Finances for church building were provided by parishioners, which impacted upon their character. Occasions such as the laying of a foundation stone were a cause for community celebration, and often accompanied by public processions. Once building works were complete, it was common for fitting and fixtures to be donated by parishioners.
This idea of the Roman Catholic churches as an expression of its worshipping community contrasts sharply with early 20th century Anglican attitudes as described by Alan Doig (University of Oxford). Nicholson and Spooner’s book Recent English Ecclesiastical Architecture (1910) was illustrative of a prevalent attitude that the problem of church design lay with style only. For the Anglicans that meant Gothic. The Byzantine-styled Great Chapel at Kelham Hall (1928) by P.H. Currey and C.C. Thompson was a departure from this convention, whilst St Nicholas, Burnage (1932) and St Michael and All Angels, Northern Moor (1937) by N.F. Cachemaille-Day were not only stylistically different, but also liturgically radical.
In Scotland too, denominational identities were expressed through architecture. Following the 1929 unification of the Church of Scotland and the Free Churches, Simon Green (Historic Environment Scotland) described how new churches remained fairly traditional: see Episcopal Church of St John the Baptist, Rothiemurchus (1929) by Ninian Comper, and Reid Memorial Church of Scotland, Edinburgh (1929-33) by L.G. Thomson. In the same period, the Roman Catholic churches of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, such as St Peter in Chains, Ardrossan (1938), were more innovative stylistically, if not liturgically. It was not until 1960 that the Church of Scotland went truly modern with St Columba, Glenrothes (1960) by Wheeler and Sproson; Kildrum Parish Church, Cumbernauld (1962) by Alan Reiach; and Brucefield Church, Whitburn (1966) by Rowand Anderson Kininmonth.
Like the Russian Orthodox Church, the Jewish Synagogue has also, at times, had to operate covertly. However, the emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century saw the synagogue move from the back streets to more prominent city centre locations across Europe. In Britain, this move coincided with the period of the 19th century known in architecture for the ‘Battle of the Styles’. The dominant style for synagogues in Britain was called ‘oriental’ and, according to Sharman Kadish (Jewish Heritage UK), this was encouraged by civic authorities keen to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of its Jewish population and to ensure synagogues were not confused with churches. Exemplar of the style was Brondesbury Park Synagogue, Kensal Rise (1905), now a mosque. See also Leicester Synagogue by (1898) by Arthur Wakerley; Bournemouth Synagogue (1911) by Lawson and Reynolds; and Blackpool Synagogue (1916) by R.B. Mather. Note, in all three latter cases, the architect was also mayor of their respective town.
Overall the conference made it clear that, both within and between the Christian denominations and other faith groups of Britain, there has been a great deal of stylistic and functional variation over time. Geographical location, such as city centre versus suburb, has been a factor, whilst the role of the architect in relationship to a given worshipping community has also varied. Therefore, our understanding of what a places of worship is, or could be, should never be fixed; a pertinent point in this present period of church adaptation for wider community use.
St Michael and All Angels, Northern Moor: Author's own image
Reid Memorial Church, Edinburgh: Image by Jamesx12345 [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons
St Columba, Glenrothes: Image by Mcwesty [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Blackpool Synagogue: Image by Belovedfreak [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Fazl Mosque, London: Image by Ceddyfresse [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Matthew Steele is a PhD candidate at The Open University. His research, being conducted as part of the AHRC-funded Empowering Design Practices project, is concerned with architectural practices in relation to historic places of worship in the post-1945 period