Why is St Hilda's special?

In outward appearance and location St Hilda's is a modest church. There is nothing obviously eye-catching about it from the outside and it attracts few visitors. It does not appear in any study of modern church architecture, but it might have done had the vision of its designer been realised. Today the interior of the church appears conventional and unexceptional; almost 50 years ago, when it was being planned, it could claim to be almost revolutionary.

St Hilda's is a Modernist church, that is to say it was designed according to the principles of an architectural movement (which began in Germany and) which argued buildings should reflect their purpose rather than preconceptions about what they 'should' look like.

It is a 'Liturgical' church in that it also embodies the principles of a theological movement (with origins in France and Belgium) which promoted the idea of worship as the common offering of the whole Christian community rather than something performed by the clergy on behalf of the people. This should be clear in the layout and furnishing of the church.

St Hilda's was not the first Modernist Liturgical church in England (although it was the first in the Diocese of Newcastle), but it is a particularly 'pure' example of the form - closely recalling the first examples in inter-war Germany.

Although a local church, therefore, it is one with close links to the continent.

St Hilda's was also intended to express the ideals of the Parish and People movement in the Church of England which suggested a church should reference its locality in its fabric and furnishing.

Perhaps what is most distinctive about St Hilda's is that it was conceived, designed and built by a local Christian community under the guidance of a priest, Fr John Bunker, who was deeply immersed in both architectural and liturgical scholarship and who initiated and inspired his people in new ways of thinking about and expressing their faith.

It is true that because of the departure of that priest before the completion of the church its people never had the opportunity to see St Hilda's functioning according to the vision that had inspired it, and its distinctiveness has been obscured by inappropriate furniture and layout.

On the other hand there is a direct connection between St Hilda's some of the most recent thinking in church design. Richard Giles who as Dean of Philadelphia oversaw the radical renovation of the cathedral to become a place of 'transformative worship' visited the old St Hilda's and in his major work on church re-ordering, Re-Pitching the Tent (1996), acknowledges John Bunker for first opening his eyes to what was possible.

Philadelphia Cathedral

Fr Bunker himself questions whether one would want to build St Hilda's in the same way today and suggests the old church might serve as a better model. The most appropriate way forward for the present church, then, would probably not necessarily involve an attempt to make things as they were meant to be in 1966, but to identify how the building can serve the existing community and its mission.

Father John Bunker

John's obituary from the Evening Chronicle 16 August 2012


The building of St Hilda's

Old St Hilda's (a recent photograph)

St Hilda's began in another building - on the corner of Wallington Avenue and Bavington Gardens, Marden. Marden was developed as a housing estate by the County Borough of Tynemouth in the parish of St George, Cullercoats in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In response the parish built a two-storey hall with a worship space on the ground floor where the first service took place on Christmas morning 1954. The dedication to St Hilda was adopted in November 1955.

As the estate grew the church became increasingly self-sufficient and independent. It had its own curate-in-charge (appointed by St George's) and parsonage in Kirkstone Avenue. It also soon became too small. The building had seating for about 80 people and was nearly always full. A novel way of making space for more worshippers was to move the altar of the church from one end of the church to the other and reverse the seating: this meant additional seating could be made available in the vestibule and vestry.

By 1962 it was clear that a new, bigger, and purpose built church was needed and the development of the Preston Grange estate suggested a location between there and the Marden would be appropriate.

At that time the priest in charge of St Hilda's was Father John Bunker who had trained as an architect at the Northern Polytechnic in London and worked in the architecture office of Odeon Cinemas before training for the priesthood. His liturgical formation had taken place at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb where the worship was conducted with the full ceremonial of the Roman Rite but, studying at King's College, London, John discovered the Liturgical Movement which was transforming worship on the continent and beginning to do so in this country. His first curacy was at St John's, Newcastle, one of the first churches to introduce the Parish Communion to the Church of England.

High Mass at St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb

Nave altar at Saint John's, Newcastle (a recent photo)

At the 'old' St Hilda's Fr Bunker replaced the altar which stood against the liturgical east (geographical north) wall with a free-standing altar on two columns of bricks, with the celebrant's chair and lectern behind it. This style and position of altar had already been introduced at St John's, Newcastle and Fr Bunker had seen it as a student also at St Thomas's, Regent Street in London where the priest (Peter Hammond) even said the eucharistic prayer 'over the altar' facing the people. Conventional as the latter seems today it was considered dangerously radical and unAnglican as late as the 1960s and Fr Bunker did not feel able to introduce it at (old) St Hilda's. Nevertheless he was initiating the people of Marden into the latest liturgical thinking and preparing them for its fuller expression at the new church.

Fr John Bunker at the old St Hilda's

With his wife, Marlene, Fr Bunker took a late honeymoon to Paris to visit the new churches being built there, and the ancient church of St Severin which was being re-ordered in accordance with the principles of the Liturgical Movement. He made contact with the New Churches Research Group and immersed himself in the writings of its founder Peter Hammond.

The building committee agreed that what was needed was a building of "simple beauty and pleasing proportions to contain a Eucharistic Room, weekday chapel [and] parish room". The novel terminology came directly from the work of the New Churches Research Group and represented an understanding of worship which was probably rather in advance of that of the vicar and traditions of St George's.

What Fr Bunker proposed was a single space (a 'Eucharistic Room') in which priest and people together would gather around their altar to offer and share the eucharist. This would be symbolized by a free standing altar across which the priest would celebrate (i.e. facing the people) and around which the people would gather to receive communion. The so-called 'traditional' division of a church into 'nave' and 'sanctuary' would be minimised as the congregation became participants rather than observers.

Fr Bunker's plans were accepted by the committee and transformed into professional ones by the Diocesan Architect (Ian Curry). Tynemouth Council approved the plans in November 1964, building began in August 1965 and the completed church was dedicated in December 1966.

New St Hilda's (shortly after its completion)

In the mean time, in January 1965, Fr Bunker left to become vicar of St Michael's, Byker. His departure meant that the vicar (of St George's) and the St Hilda's congregation never saw the new church used in accordance with its underlying vision, and the building began to be furnished in ways that subverted it. The introduction of heavy second-hand pews and in particular an altar rail, and the failure to construct a platform for the clergy chairs (the sedilia) against the east wall obscured the novel aspects of the design and made the new St Hilda's appear far more conventional and ordinary than it actually was. The 'Eucharistic Room' became two spaces separating priest and people into celebrant and audience rather than uniting them as a single 'people of God'.

St Michael's, Byker

At St Michael's, Byker - where he served from 1965 to 1974 - Fr Bunker introduced a full 'facing the people' rite shortly before Fr Alan Carefull finally did so at St John's, Newcastle. St Michael's was the first church in the Diocese of Newcastle to celebrate the eucharist in this now varnigh universal way. At both these churches of course this was done using rearranged existing furniture in spaces designed for other ways of doing things. The same was also true of Ashington Parish Church where Fr Bunker served from 1974 until 1984.

Holy Sepulchre Church Ashington

Why does St Hilda's look like that?

St Lawrence, Munich (1955) by Emil Steffann

At the beginning of the twentieth century everyone knew what a church should look like. There would be an altar up against the east wall at which the priest would 'celebrate' with his back to the congregation. The altar would be enclosed in a 'sanctuary' which only the clergy and their assistants could enter, although the laity could come and kneel at its entrance to 'receive' communion. Close to the sanctuary, but outside of it, there would be stalls for a robed choir who for 'musical reasons' faced each other rather than the altar. Beyond this, in ranks of fixed pews, sat the people whose role was to gaze on the mysteries performed in the distance by the priest and occasionally respond to his invocations.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century few people had thought a church should look like this. It was the product of the Gothic Revival in architecture and of romantic medievalism in the understanding of worship and liturgy.

St George's, Cullercoats 1882-1884 by John Loughborough Pearson

Most churches built for the Church of England between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century were designed to look like medieval churches, although they rarely did. St George's, Cullercoats is a good example. As Pevsner says, it was built between 1882 and 1884 to "a thirteenth century ideal rarely achieved in the thirteenth century, when a less scholarly approach to design and changes of style (owing to the time which building took) tended to interfere with purity and at the same time created life" (The Buildings of England: Northumberland 1957).

The Modernist Movement in architecture proclaimed that form should follow function. In other words a church should not be built to look like what a church looks like but according to the needs and nature of the christian community. Modernist churches would be modern in their materials and appearance, but their design would be informed both by contemporary requirements and by a closer understanding of Christian origins. In accordance with the principles of the Liturgical Movement the Middle Ages was no longer seen as the 'age of faith'.
Inspiration and authority were was sought rather in the first centuries of the Church's life.

One of the most important architects to reject medievalism was Rudolf Schwarz (1897-1961). He wrote

"We cannot continue on from where the last cathedral left off. Instead we must enter into the simple things at the source of the Christian life. We must begin anew . . .

"For the celebration of the Lord's Supper a moderately large, well-proportioned room is needed, in its centre a table and on the table a bowl of bread and a cup of wine. The table may be decorated with candles and surrounded by seats for the congregation. That is all. Table, space and walls make up the simplest church".

Several churches by Schwarz (and contemporary German architects) were illustrated in Peter Hammond's Towards a Church Architecture (1962) which directly influenced Fr Bunker's design for St Hilda's. The similarities are striking.

Corpus Christi, Aachen (1928-30) by Rudolf Schwarz

St Michael, Frankfurt (1954) by Rudolf Schwarz

In Liturgy and Architecture (1960) Peter Hammond wrote

"It is not enough that the laity should be able to hear and see something done on their behalf . . .

"Churches are [or should be] designed for a communal liturgy in which all are actively involved: not for spectacle in which no matter how good the vision and acoustics may be, there remains a hard-and-fast distinction between actors and spectators.

"While the sanctuary [should be] clearly defined, it is not simply separate from the nave: nave and sanctuary are visible and psychologically one.

"The altar is not simply the principal symbol of Christ: it is also the holy table around which the ecclesia gathers for the eucharistic banquet. This function is inadequately expressed if the altar is set against the east wall of the church. It is a table not a sideboard.

"But the altar . . . is not the sole focus of the eucharistic assembly. the breaking of the bread is preceded by the synaxis, the proclamation of the word of God, and word and sacrament are interdependent. . . . The ideal would be single ambo or pulpit from which the word of God is proclaimed in the lessons and expounded in the sermon. It should be closely related to the holy table.

"The shaping of the eucharistic room thus involves the creation of a space in which the ecclesia is gathered about two closely related focal points: the altar and the place for the proclamation of the word."

St Hilda's was not the first church in England to be designed according to these principles, but it exhibits them with a particular purity. The Church of the Ascension, Crownhill, near Plymouth (1958), for example, which Peter Hammond hails as "one of the most satisfactory buildings for liturgy to be completed in this country since the war" despite its arrangement still has a more conventional feel and sets the people (though on three 'sides' of the altar) at some distance from the clergy.

The Church of the Ascension, Crownhill, near Plymouth (1958)

Father Bunker remembers St Hilda's

Fr John Bunker in 2011

The happiest days of my life as a Christian were spent as Priest in Charge of a small brick building which served as our church in Marden, Cullercoats, North Shields. The reason for this had nothing to do with the people, for the people of all the parishes I have served have always given me cause for rejoicing. But the thing that made us happy there was our freedom. We had so much to do among the people of the housing estate that a church building which required little maintenance, and in which we were able to experiment meant that the Liturgy and Worship were a living thing.

First of all the building was small, it would only seat about eighty and that meant that the church was always full. On good days and especially in summer it was not unknown for the people to be standing outside and taking part in the mass whilst looking through the windows. On other days they had to be accommodated in the vestry after fourteen choir boys (who never missed) and the servers had gone into church. We were able to move the altar where we wished and were probably one of the first churches in Northumberland with a ‘central altar’ with the priest sitting behind it facing the people, although at that time we were not daring enough to face the congregation for the Eucharistic offering.

Above the church or worship room or space, or whatever name the Eucharistic area acquires at any fashionable time, we had the hall. Immediately after mass the congregation would ascend to the parish breakfast and parish business would be done. All would have to be out in time for Sunday School at eleven which took place both up and downstairs. Kindergarten aloft and juniors below in the Eucharistic space. What opportunities for teaching. One week a mass with baptism others mass and teaching. Evensong was at 6pm and we had about 15, which in the small room looked a lot and was encouraging. Numbers were no different then as they are now and were fifty years ago. Empty churches are those which are too big and unnecessary to accommodate the local congregation which is always going to be small.

Parish Breakfast with Fr Bunker upstairs at the old St Hilda's

Upkeep was always an easy problem. If the organ broke down we shoved it on to the rubbish heap and procured one from someone’s house. If the piano bust we chucked it out. Prayer books we printed our own. No need for faculties for the furniture was all moveable and disposable as the priest and people decided. The aesthetics were to be found in the simplicity of detail and worshipping lives of the people themselves. Of course the congregation had the same problems of personal relations with God and among themselves as as the Christian body always has, but they were unencumbered with the need to raise great amounts of money to keep an unnecessary plant no matter how beautiful in operation.

Sunday School with Fr Bunker
What days those were, the church always seemed crowded, with 100 in the Sunday School and 80 - 90 communicants, 14 choirboys and 16 servers we could outstrip the parish church which was a great Gothic edifice by [John Loughborough} Pearson and always a charge on the Vicar’s nerves, always having great turnover on the choir and never having as many servers and servants as the ‘daughter church’.

Mass at the old St Hilda's - Fr Bunker assisted by Fr George Channell

Then of course there were the house groups which met regularly. There was much to get one’s teeth into: Honest to God, Evanstone, the Liturgical Movement, Biblical Theology, New Ways of Looking at the Bible, Men’s Groups for non-believers, groups for questioning believers.

This may seem to be a nostalgic look at the past. But I think not. For what the Parish and People movement now propose as being very radical we worked out as a norm in the situation we found ourselves. The only thing we did not have to do was to demolish ha church building that was unwieldy. And that was the cause of our success.

We did of course build a new church on the avant-garde lines that we had been working out, both liturgically and evangelically. The new church catered for a greater number of bodies at worship. I wonder now whether were right in building such a big building in the hope of a large congregation. Ought our church worship rooms to be smaller than can accommodate the congregation? Far better a full house with people standing than a barn seating 500 with 30 scattered around the area. I am not advocating a community centre with worship room tucked away somewhere but just what we had to put up with Marden all those years ago. A church worship area with a meeting hall on top, plus a toilet and kitchen. No more is needed. It is cheap to run and allows people to put their energies where needed in daily living. Psychologically it gives a congregation hope for the church is always full, and if it is full then they are more likely to turn out to study groups and house meetings because they might be missing from the gang.

See also: Fr Bunker in Halifax (1989) (click on link)

Church Plans 1

The architect (Ian Curry) began in March 1963 by tracing the plans and drawings prepared by Fr John Bunker for the St Hilda's Committee (of the parish of St George, Cullercoats). It can be seen that the church as built remains very close to Fr Bunker's original scheme. The most noticeable apparent difference is the shape of the liturgical east (geographical west) end.

Church Plans 2

In July 1963 the architect produced his own first set of plans and drawings. These are essentially professional versions of Fr Bunker's originals. The 'east' end now has a more distinctive apsidal shape. This was actually proposed by Fr Bunker but not included in his original plan because of the anticipated cost. The altar stands on a rectangular platform and is covered with a 'ciborium'.

Church Plans 3

A third set of plans appeared in November 1963. The 'ciborium' over the altar has become a 'suspended canopy over the altar and choir'. The altar now stands on a platform with a round 'east' end reflecting the shape of the church itself.

Church Plans 4

The final plans from May 1964 as revised in February 1965. Fr Bunker had left St Hilda's in January 1965 but the plan remains essentially his. There is now to be some kind of 'canopy over the sanctuary'.

The Laying of the Foundation Stone

The Laying of the Foundation Stone (a stone from Tynemouth Priory) took place on 23 October 1965.
The Reverend George Chadwick, Vicar of St George's with the Bishop of Newcastle.

The newly built church with Preston Grange Farm

The new church

These rather sad-looking photographs were taken soon after the opening of the church. The light and spacious modern church is overwhelmed by the dark second-hand pews. The sanctuary is cluttered with more old pews, an old fashioned sanctuary chair which clashes with the purpose-made one, and even some hideous cloth and metal hall chairs. The president's chair should be behind the altar but is against the 'south' wall; its place apparently taken by an old harmonium.

The original pews

The church prepared for a wedding in . . .

These photos show the original blue pews which came from Seaton Delaval.