Though you would not guess it from its exterior, an historical document sits snugly amid the manicured lawns of this suburb, for it was here that Ninian Comper was first able to recreate a medieval altar in a parish church.

His restoration of Cantley church in 1894 overturned the Victorian norm by banishing the choir from the chancel to free up liturgical space, and provided a High Altar without flower vases, equipped with a low reredos and riddel posts topped with gilded, taper-bearing angels.

Comper went back to the Middle Ages for a hanging pyx to reserve the Sacrament over the High Altar, as well as introducing parcloses and statues round the walls of the chancel and in the nave. Needless to say, the building is equipped with glass by the architect. Comper’s roodscreen here relies on the green and gold colouring typical of the later Middle Ages, and lacks the gilding and the wheeled angels that characterize twentieth-century Comper screens. Lacking in gilding maybe, but Comper’s St Wilfrid’s is touched by Stardust.

Since the balance and atmosphere of Cantley church have been upset by the large N. aisle added in 1989, it is hard to recapture what this building conveyed in 1894. Since that time, of course, Comper’s ‘English altar’ concept has been sanitized by the Warham Guild, and Comper’s ideas pirated by Percy Dearmer, an Affirming Catholic born out of time. And therein lies the difference that has bedevilled the Catholic movement, as Dearmer was an aesthete with High Church Protestant leanings, whereas Ninian Comper was an architect believing with every fibre of his being in the Catholic Church and in her Sacraments, and in church buildings as vessels of grace.

Think: the holiness of beauty or the beauty of holiness? Map reference: SE 618014

Simon Cotton