Luke Miller commemorates the death of Sir Christopher Wren 300 years ago and his living heritage in the City of London’s churches
It is said that Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) climbed to the gallery on the Spire of St Martin Ludgate to look at the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral as it was rising. Famously he achieved a whole cathedral in his lifetime. St Paul’s was completed in 1710 and is a rare example of a single architect and his team creating and finishing such a building, which therefore has all the hallmarks of a unified design rather than the organic development over centuries of the great mediaeval cathedrals elsewhere in the country.
St Mary Aldermary, with its gothic style and fan vaulting, points to the sheer variety of his oeuvre which stemmed from the variety of the communities for which he built. Like anywhere, the City of LOndon is not one place. Each Ward, every parish, has its specific human geography. The great glory of the Church of England is that there is no place which does not have its church. It may not be far from Barbican to Billingsgate or from Temple Bar to Tower Hill, but within its square mile there is a vast variety of community and a church for them all. Wren did not build them all, but his response to the requirements and requests of those for whom he did build was richly varied.
Two centuries after Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Ninan Comper coined a phrase to describe his own architectural style: ‘Unity by inclusion’. This was the Catholic vision of each different community reaching towards Christ, and finding unity with one another in him. Each architectural element in a building, each building in a group, coming together in an harmonious whole, just as each member of the Body of Christ is united with the others in the profound common identity we know in the shared life in Christ.
Variety tending to unity in the common response to Christ’s call on our lives, and our growing conformity to him which his grace works in us is a characteristic of the life of London’s City churches in all the diversity of theological outlook and ecclesiastical styles. All make their contribution to Ward and City. Their churchyards, cultural activities and economic contribution are crucial to the livability and workability of the City. Wren’s St Mary Aldermanbury is now in America, but the churchyard is one of the essential green spaces which mean workers can breathe: seventy five percent of the public open space in the City is churchyard. St Lawrence Jewry and St Nicholas Cole Abbey are just two of the Wren churches from which chaplaincy is offered to offices. This church has its café; which church does not host concerts? Anonymous groups meet in church rooms in places like St Vedast and St Margaret Lothbury; counselling and care is ubiquitous. From the CEOs of the largest corporates to cleaners and key workers, via the young people who staff startups and fintechs, the City’s communities engage with its churches.
We want them to come to Christ as a result, and we are confident in our proclamation. Wren built these churches with lots of windows so that the Word could be read and expounded, the sacraments celebrated, and worthy worship offered. But we do all that, and offer our service to our neighbour in response to God’s claim on us, and his command that we should love our neighbour. He is calling us to a deeper conversion of life, and through that he is calling them. London is better as a result of the offer that we make; and in His grace, so are we made better.
We do this from an extraordinary suite of buildings not just Wren’s, but often is. They are beautiful, and his churches help explain that beauty is not just ‘nice to have’ but that it makes a profound difference to our ability to make a difference.
Wren’s first training and activity, before he took up architecture, was as a mathematician and astronomer. He was known for visualising abstract mathematical and astronomical ideas by drawing diagrams and making models. The recent restoration of St Andrew Holborn reflects this in the geometric patterns which have been incorporated into the design of the floors. Wren’s churches are mathematics in stone, as the columns and curves of the interior of St Stephen Walbrook demonstrate, as do his towers, spires and domes – and especially the great triple dome of S Paul’s.
Beauty, such as the beauty of a soaring building or a lovely carving or an elegant equation, reflects the Creator. This means earthly beauty is always partial and contingent, because it points beyond itself to the one who made it. We cannot comprehend the infinite. We must catch it by glimpses: the way that these architectural features interplay with one another; the light on these windows, the effect of this decoration. One of the churchwardens of one of the City churches, T.S. Eliot, famously spoke of how St Magnus Martyr holds inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold. It is inexplicable because it touches on the infinite. Glimpses of beauty give a pang of joy; but also of sorrow, because pointing beyond itself as it does, beauty leaves us wanting more, desiring the eternal, which it can signify and point towards but not fully give to us. Perhaps that is another reason why Wren may have a style but eschews repetition, for he is always striving towards that which cannot be fully expressed in any one telling: the glory of God reaching through these places to our souls.
This is another gift of the churches to London, which is not simply a jungle of glass boxes containing air-conditioned offices, but a place which has soul and numinous depth. The churches are an embodied reminder in their life and in their architecture, that London is not simply about economic growth for its own sake nor money for selfish ends, but for a purpose which has meaning. Those who live with purpose and meaning are happier, less stressed, richer in the things that matter. This is part of what Wren gave and gives to London.
God does not live in temples made by human hands. These churches are not ends in themselves. We could do without them. There used to be more of them. If St Benet Fink is now in Tottenham and St Peter le Poer in Friern Barnet, where now are St Mildred Bread Street or St Mary le Stocks or St Olave Old Jewry? Today’s churches are places which in their variety enable us to serve our complex and varied communities. They are bases from which a most extraordinary and important work and mission is offered for the benefit of the whole city. But they are also beautiful: and it is by their beauty that they reveal God, and help the City of London to be just a little bit more like the City of God.
The Venerable Luke Miller is the Archdeacon of London and has lived in the ‘Square Mile’ of the City of London since 2016.