Sunday, 30 January 2011

In search of the infinite - a tour of City churches

I got into a bit of a funk when I stood at the end of Wood Street in the City of London earlier this week. We were on a City Guides walking tour of churches and the reason for entering the street in question was St. Alban’s, the only Gothic Wren church in the area: only the tower survives, and it’s now a private dwelling. 

On all three sides were examples of the sort of hideous modern architecture of which crass, self-important nincompoops who make a fortune fiddling with other people’s money seem to respond to – big, brutal, arrogant and taking absolutely no account of the sensibilities of the people who have to pass by  every day. 

Our guide, whose distaste for these gargantuan eyesores was evident, rattled off the names of the celebrated charlatans responsible for the various outrages – you will have heard of all of them. (I suggest we all pray for what’s left of their miserable little souls.)

The elegance of St. Alban’s poignantly surviving tower stands like a rebuke to our debased taste, our limitless arrogance, our hatred of the past, our determination to reduce ourselves to the status of lab rats in some cruel, never-ending experiment to see how much of what we cherish and revere can be desecrated before we turn away in weary disgust and simply give up the ghost.

I’m not a massive fan of Wren’s buildings as churches. They seem to lack almost any sense of religious awe: inside, they don’t feel like places of worship, so much as celebrations of the people who worshipped there: they are perfect buildings for the onset of the Age of Reason. But I admire Wren: he strikes me as a true Englishman in the way that he was willing to throw classical architectural principles to the wind in order to fit his churches into the space available (there are an awful lot of weird angles in Wren churches), and the way he never bothered to expend any energy on external walls which wouldn’t be seen, either because there would be shops up against them, or because they were right up against another building – practical to the core, Wren. 

But Wren’s buildings are pleasing rather than transporting: they speak of Christian culture and civilisation rather than religious awe or fervour; they address the temporal rather than the infinite.

Interestingly, on both our walks so far, our guide has drawn attention to the lack of respect shown by the City’s flourishing evangelical groups to the history of the normally deconsecrated churches they’ve taken over. Statues and woodwork have been carelessly chipped and scored as they move tables and coffee urns around to make space for disenchanted followers of Mammon seeking spiritual solace (why they can’t find it in more traditional forms of Christianity, I have no idea – perhaps joining an Evangelical sect is like shouting “Sell Mammon, Buy Christ!” into a celestial cell-phone). Historically significant plaques, busts and paintings are obscured by towers of cartons containing plastic cups and suchlike.

After passing St. Alban’s tower, we entered the Barbican complex and paused for several minutes at a busy internal pedestrian intersection, surrounded by shops and walkways and information points, while members of our group asked stupid questions (why don’t they just listen during the tour?). I immediately felt panicky and jittery – after all, one visits churches to get away from all that crap.
Then onto St. Giles Cripplegate, one of the few surviving medieval Gothic churches in the City, which has been severely damaged by fire three times in its history (the last occasion, inevitably, was during the Blitz), but which has been restored with enormous respect. Stranded like a ship in dry dock amidst the soul-sapping awfulness of the Barbican, it provides another reminder of just how much modern architects don’t understand – or don’t care – about human beings. 

We stepped inside – and at once all rage and irritation and resentment evaporated amidst its Gothic arches as we were wrapped, for the first time that day, in the reverential, soul-quietening peace of a true House of God.

Milton is buried here, as is John Foxe, author of the Book of Martyrs. Daniel Defoe and Oliver Cromwell are believed to have been congregants.The church abounds in reminders of a gloriously rich past.  In a Wren church, that, and the architectural details, would have really mattered – here, those things didn’t seem half so important.  St Giles proves you can revere history without usurping the church’s main purpose: to put us in touch with the infinite.

No comments:

Post a Comment