Thurifer considers some Comper
Ninian Comper, great architect of ‘unity by inclusion’ said, ‘the atmosphere of a church should be such as to hush the thoughtless voice.’ That can equally be achieved in the beauty of simplicity and austerity, or the beauty of opulence. By bringing people to their knees, inspiring in them the impulse to worship, prompting the capacity for awe, suggesting, however fleetingly, the contemplation of something above and beyond self, a church building will have done its work. It is God’s work. ‘A church building is but an echo, an articulation in stone, glass, wood, an outward expression (a sacrament almost) here on earth of the Church built of living stones, the Bride of Christ, urbs beata Jerusalem, which stretches back to the foundation of the world and onward to all eternity.’ That is why churches should look like churches, not aircraft hangers, supermarkets, fire stations, swimming pools. One Basil Spence church in the Midlands was only distinguished by a campanile. About a mile away there was a similar structure that was the distinguishing feature of a fire station. These are buildings contingent of their time. Not the product of a religiously confident age. That most stimulating of architectural critics, Jonathan Meades, made the point. He is not drawn to the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ of religion but commented that Post-War ‘New Elizabethan’ architects ‘made buildings that attempted to rationalize the irrational’ and, consequently, dissipated the mystery. In fine polemical form he wrote, ‘new churches might be architecturally appealing to fans of the meek and…conform to the canons of timidity and good taste. But they didn’t do their job: they didn’t put bums on seats. They smelled of Arts and Crafts wordiness rather than incense and guilt.’ The buildings of the great 19th century architects express something of God, of his eternal promise which inspire awe and wonder, touch our soul. The fundamental purpose of a church is emphatically not to express the concepts and concerns of the age in which it was built, nor the intrusive individuality of its designer. It is to move us to worship, ‘to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land.’ Reactionary? I hope so.
For aficionados of funerary architecture a visit to Brookwood Cemetery,Woking, a Valhalla, ought to be on any wish list. It is the largest cemetery in the United Kingdom, 500 acres. Once the largest cemetery in the world, it no longer has that distinction but has much to fascinate. As parish graveyards in central London became full the London Necropolis Company was formed and the cemetery opened in 1854. There was a dedicated railway station near Waterloo from where trains transported coffins and mourners to the Brookwood Stations, one for Anglicans, the other for nonconformists. A section is now dedicated as a War Cemetery and there are areas specifically dedicated to other faiths. In the Zoroastrian section can be found the grave of Bapsie, Countess of Winchester. Several London parishes had or have dedicated sections. That of St Alban’s, Holborn has a row of distinguished graves, among them Frs Mackonochie, Stanton, Suckling, Dolling, Bishop Brian Masters. A place of pilgrimage.
The Mortuary Chapel and associated buildings house an Orthodox monastic community. In the Chapel the Liturgy is chanted and located there is a shrine to St Edward the Martyr, King of England. He was born c. 962, succeeded to a contested throne in 975 and was murdered in 978. Interred in Shaftesbury Abbey in 979, his tomb soon became a focus of pilgrimage and miracles were attributed to his intercession. At the dissolution of the monasteries, his remains were secreted and avoided sacrilegious abuse and destruction. They were found during an excavation in 1931 by John Wilson-Claridge and were offered to King George V, who declined the gift. After years of uncertainty Mr Wilson-Claridge wished them to go to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (White or Tsarist Russians) but his brother wanted them to return to Shaftesbury. For several years the relics resided in a bank vault in Woking until the legal tussle was resolved in favour of the Orthodox. They were enshrined in September 1984, a service which I attended. I was a friend of one of the lay Trustees who wrote the Litany of St Edward that was chanted during the procession through the grounds into the church. It was a splendid occasion with one amusing slip. At the door of the church after the procession and Litany, whose refrain was Holy Edward pray for us, the presiding bishop momentarily forgot the name of the saint.
The St Edward Brotherhood exemplifies divisions within Orthodoxy. When I knew them they were part of the Russian Church Outside Russia, looking with disfavour on the Moscow Patriarchate. Following the fall of the Soviet Union a rapprochement between the two Russian churches caused the Brotherhood to leave and ally themselves with the Greek Old Calendrists True Orthodox Church in 2007. They follow the Julian calendar and are not in communion with most of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Requiescat Nicholas Parsons. An elegant mainstay on television and radio for so long his life came to an end in January. For many of us he was synonymous with Just a Minute on Radio 4 since 1967. Perhaps he is now in a place where there is no deviation, no hesitation but some repetitions of alleluia.