Working for the Diocese of London, I rarely have a day I would consider ‘normal’. Today, however, was more strange that most. Joining a parliamentary tour around three London churches, I found myself on a bus with nineteen members of the House of Lords, and Sir Tony Baldry MP. This was definitely not going to be a normal day.
Every year, English Heritage, the chair of which is Baroness Andrews, organises for parliamentarians interested in heritage to be shown places of worship in London. This year the spotlight fell on the Diocese of London, and three churches in particular were chosen to host the visit.
A Vision of St Augustine’s
First we visited the church of St Augustine, Queensgate. This astonishing church, built in towering technicolour, was the work of the Victorian genius William Butterfield. In the 20th century its interior was whitewashed, and the congregation shrunk to around thirty regular worshippers. The condition of the building was such that it was included on the Heritage at Risk register.
However, in recent years the church has dramatically changed. Holy Trinity Brompton has ‘planted’ an evangelical congregation there. Living happily alongside the long-standing Anglo-Catholic parishioners, these two congregations are both growing and have cooperated in the stunning revival of the building. It will soon be taken off the Heritage at Risk register, and the original Victorian splendour of the building’s rich and varied materials has been skilfully restored. What’s more, the ‘practical Christianity’ of St Augustine’s makes itself known through the varied outreach and community works conducted by the William Wilberforce Trust, which includes the use of the church as a night-shelter for the homeless.
St Barnabas By Bus
From there we travelled, in the statesmanlike luxury of a big bus, to St Barnabas, Pimlico. A church with a troubled history, this architecturally distinguished structure was deemed so Catholic when constructed that it was received by riots from outraged Protestants. Today it is hard to imagine this peaceful place so trammelled in controversy, though the sumptuous Tractarian art of the chancel and undercroft are still just as overwhelming as they ever were.
The visiting party listened to Fr David Cherry as he related the history of the parish, and the extraordinary project to completely rebuild the spire in 2006. Work still remains to revitalise some of the nineteenth-century decoration, and to enable the increased use of the church as a performance space and for use by the next-door primary school.
Nothing Less than St James-the-Less
Our final stop brought us to St James-the-Less, Westminster. Grade I listed, and a soaring landmark lurking on the Vauxhall Bridge Road, St James’s is one of the most influential pieces of church design in London. Within this red-brick basillica a warm welcome was waiting. The Rev’d Elisabeth Goddard spoke passionately about the church and the community, referring to the building’s historic reputation as ‘a lily amongst the weeds’ when Pimlico was still a slum area. Today, providing for the diverse social needs of the Pimlico area is still at the forefront of the vision of this church, and the parish seek to open up their building as they continue to care for its distinguished contents.
“Inspiring and Humbling”
It was a day of goodwill and sharing, with many stories exchanged about the challenges of maintaining such demanding buildings in a modern city. Lord Crathorne, Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Heritage, summed up the opinion of many when he described the experience as ‘inspiring and humbling’.
This was, of course, just a glimpse of the vibrant and demanding life enjoyed by church buildings all across the capital, full of highs and lows. It was a real pleasure to see the work which continues to be invested in these cultural and Christian treasures recognised by such an impressive group.