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)