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