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.