A Lecture given in the 1980's by an unknown person
I must admit that I feel slightly apprehensive about addressing these few words to you in the church. Sir Ninian Comper, who designed it, once wrote that "the atmosphere of a church should be such as to hush the thoughtless voice", and he used to describe how Disraeli, showing Hughenden Church to visitors, used to give a full account of the building before they entered it and then, if asked a question once inside, would withdraw to the porch in silence before giving an answer. But I expect that you are happier here than outside on the pavement.
Imagine if you will a warm midsummer's day at the turn of the century; the 30th of June 1903 to be exact, the day of the consecration of this new church of St. Cyprian, Clarence Gate. The church is so much a product of its time that I would like to reconstruct the atmosphere of the second year of the reign of King Edward VII. Mr. Peter Anson writes that "a brief decade of dazzling seasons had started which in their splendour were to recall if not recapture the days of Louis Phillipe and the Second Empire." He quotes from Cecil Beaton the description of Court Drawing Rooms where "ladies with Prince of Wales feathers in their hats wore trains that swept for many yards the floor". "The overpowering richness of Comper's ecclesiastical decor," he continues, "was as opulent as the setting of Edwardian dinner parties where the masterpiece of decoration, most usually sweet peas, was saved for the centre of the dining table which would be dotted with olives, salted almonds, sugared green peppermints and chocolates in cut-glass bowls or silver dishes. Pious Anglo-Catholic ladies of the upper middle classes or the nobility drove to St. Cyprian's on Sunday mornings in Hansoms or the new taxi cabs - a few in their own electric broughams. Their bosoms were laced into corsets that gave them pouter-pigeon bosoms and protruding posteriors. Perched on their heads and elevated by a little roll just inside the crown were hats which had grown as frivolous as the milliner's trade could make them - enormous galleons of grey velvet with vast plumes of ostrich feathers sweeping upwards and outwards, or trimmed with artificial flowers and fruit."
And what did this magnificent congregation from the affluent areas of the West End expect to see? One thing is certain, and that is that they did not expect what they found - a spacious whitewashed church of beautiful proportions and restrained detail, with as yet few furnishings but with an altar, screens and part of the east window already filled with coloured glass of a richness quite out of the ordinary. There is no doubt that when this church was built it was quite outside the experience of any churchgoer of the day. People accustomed to the gloomy richness of Butterfield's churches at Margaret Street, St. Alban Holborn (before war damage) or St. Augustine's Queen's Gate were familiar with heavy oak furnishings set against a background of red and blue brick or polished marble, all suffused with dim light from heavily painted windows. Those who went to St. Paul, Knightsbridge, St. Peter Eaton Square or Christ Church Albany Street on the far side of the park knew big churches like riding schools with galleries all round and chancels adapted for proper ritual but hardly in keeping with the rest of the building.
This church is founded on principles quite foreign to those of Victorian churches built in the fifty years since the Oxford and Cambridge Movements had re-introduced Catholic teaching and theology to the Church of England. But the basis for the appearance of St. Cyprian's lies much deeper than mere interior decoration - or even the mere architecture. During the nineteenth century many elements of the liturgy which we take for granted were actually illegal in Anglican churches, and some priests even endured prison sentences for such things as the liturgical use of incense, using the mixed chalice, bowing to the crucifix, baring the Table on Good Friday, making the sign of the Cross, kissing the Gospel book, facing eastwards at the prayer of consecration, using wafer bread and reserving the sacrament. All sorts of ornaments were forbidden (though that did not stop people using them), and the proscribed items included lights on the altar, lights at the Gospel, lace on fair linen cloths, coloured altar cloths, crucifixes on altars, the display of an image of the infant Jesus at Christmas and the use of almost any type of vestment by the officiating minister beyond a surplice and scarf. Stone altars, baldachinos, decorative reredoses, subsidiary holy tables in side chapels, stations of the Cross, chancel gates, flower vases on the altar, a cross on the altar, a tabernacle on the altar and curtains behind or at the ends of the holy table were all forbidden by decisions in the ecclesiastical appeal Court of the Arches or in the House of Lords.
In the face of such antagonism from the church authorities the Catholic wing of the Church of England had to establish that the liturgy and the ornaments required for it were justifiable, and this could only be done convincingly by an appeal to tradition - in other words, to the Book of Common Prayer. If it could be shown that the ornaments complied with the Prayer Book, all well and good. If not, they could only be considered as later Romish interpolations and must be avoided. Some of the items in the lists I have just mentioned passed the test; others did not. Liturgiologists such as Sir William St. John Hope and John Wickham Legg approached the problem from a theoretical point of view. It was left to Comper to put the arguments in an architectural context, and this church in which we are now sitting is the perfect embodiment of the results of his scholarship.
The arguments of what was or was not allowable hinge on the so-called "ornaments rubric" which until the mid nineteenth-century had been totally ignored for the two hundred years since its formulation in 1662. In itself an effort to reach back beyond the grim days of the Great Rebellion and the Puritan interlude in worship, it stated that "the chancels shall remain as they have done in times past" and that "such ornaments of the church and of the ministers thereof ... shall be retained and be in use as were in this Church of England by the authority of Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth." Many were the discussions and disagreements over the exact interpretation of these words, since there was little evidence to show what had actually existed in churches and on the backs of officiating ministers in 1548. The matter was one of the utmost importance, which we in these post-ASB days may find strange almost to the point of amusement. We are not used to uniformity in worship, but if the Catholics at the turn of the century were to justify themselves, it was vital to prove that their usages and ecclesiastical ornaments fell within the canon of the Prayer Book. Such matters formed topics of conversation round the dining tables of churchgoing households, over the cut-glass bowls of salted almonds and sugared green peppermints. Manuscripts were earnestly studied under magnifying glasses and there was much ferreting about in dusty cathedral libraries. Pontificals were scanned and illuminated documents scrutinised for illustrative material, and the rites and uses became of prime importance. At all costs nothing Roman was to be countenanced. If a case was to be made out, for example for the reservation of the sacrament being common in mediaeval England, it must equally be made clear that adoration of the sacrament had not been permitted. Thus not only was Benediction eschewed, but tabernacles on holy tables were discarded in favour either a hanging pix, the traditional English method, as we have it at Grosvenor Chapel, or an aumbry in the wall to the north of the altar, which was more usual in Scotland before the Reformation and which was re-created here at St. Cyprian's.
Comper was particularly keen to find actual illustrations of the furnishings of churches and the ceremonial enacted within their walls. English illustrations were few and far between, but by collating the miniatures which he found in manuscripts in the British Museum with Flemish paintings, with their scrupulously detailed representations of sixteenth-century ceremonial, he was able to formulate a fairly accurate picture of a late mediaeval English parish church. And that is what we see here at St. Cyprian's - the scholar's dry researches transformed into brilliant reality in stone, timber, glass and metal in a way achieved hardly anywhere else before or since in the history of the Gothic Revival.
It is as though the Reformation had never happened. Perhaps when you came in you had the impression that inside a slightly drab red brick shell you had entered a perfect fifteenth-century church as though some fourth dimension had transported you to the rolling fields of Norfolk. That was exactly what Comper intended. In 1895 he visited the great church at Salle in Norfolk and thought it "perhaps the most lovely and typical parish church of average dimensions in all England". A church, he said, succeeded or failed by its capacity to bring a worshipper to his knees, and he was fond of quoting the Doyen of Fécamp's sensitive suggestion that his glorious Abbey church "prays for itself'. Here he sought to achieve that end by a scholarly exercise complete down to the last detail. He not only designed the bricks and mortar, but every furnishing down to the smallest candle prickets.
Before we look at the church in detail I would like to give a brief summary of the origin of the parish and the work of its founder, since it has considerable bearing on what I have been saying about the need to establish here firm grounds for ceremonial practices. Briefly, then, the parish originated in a mission church founded by the Revd Charles Gutch in this area in 1866. Gutch was a Leicestershire man who, after attending Christ's Hospital, pursued a brilliant academic career at Cambridge. After his ordination in 1845 he served two curacies in his home county and then at St. Saviour's Leeds, where in the course of six years he managed to still some of the storms of that troubled parish. But he refused the offer of the living and moved instead to Norton St. Philip in Somerset and thence to London at the age of thirty-six — first to St. Matthias, Stoke Newington and then to St. Paul's Knightsbridge and All Saints Margaret Street, before coming to the parish of Christ Church, St. Marylebone, in which he was to spend the rest of his life. There is no doubt that he was a forceful character who could be difficult with anyone who crossed him, and at the age of forty-two he doubtless wished at last for a church of his own.
This ought to have been easy enough at a period when churches were springing up all over London, sometimes on the flimsiest of pretexts save that the funds and the desire to build were there. Some were never needed and therefore never filled. They have now mostly been closed. But there is little doubt that a church was greatly needed in this part of the parish of Christ Church, and it is painfully ironic that for the next thirty years Father Gutch was not allowed to build one. As a result of the opposition of a number of people, principally the landowner, Viscount Portman, the Vicar of Marylebone and the Vicar of St. Paul, Rossmore Road, Father Gutch was never to see his own but instead spent the rest of his life ministering in the humble mission chapel which George Edmund Street created for him in 1866 out of two houses in New Street, just off Dorset Square. The architect of the Law Courts managed to produce a place of worship, but it can hardly have been what either he or Father Gutch would have wanted, and in photographs it looks miserable indeed compared to the present church.
Even the dedication of the chapel ran into difficulties. Father Gutch had strong reasons for choosing St. Cyprian, the third-century Archbishop of Carthage, as his patron. He was trusted leader of his people who always took particular trouble to explain to them what he was doing and why. His position as a leading citizen of Carthage and a prominent lawyer noted for his gifts of oratory made his advocacy of Christianity after his conversion highly compelling, and it is clear that the forthright Father Gutch formed a fellow-feeling for him. In the end, after the Bishop of London had said that he could not allow the church to be dedicated to any saint other than one of the apostles and Father Gutch had pointed out that he had himself already consecrated others within the diocese to non-apostolic saints, Father Gutch won, but it was a tedious incident characteristic of the difficulties which he had to face.
Parish work prospered thereafter, but still no church could be built even though the mission church was packed to overflowing because Lord Portman disapproved of Father Gutch's churchmanship and expected to thwart him by refusing a site for a permanent church on his land. Gutch was offered other livings but he stayed the course, at first hoping to have a permanent church within ten years. But 1876 came and went. In 1881 Street, his architect, caught a chill in the cellars of the Law Courts and died, and in 1896 Father Gutch himself died, still without having achieved a permanent church. Irony laid upon irony, eventually a building committee was set up in 1898 to erect a church in memory of Father Gutch, and Lord Portman agreed to sell a site for the purpose when leases fell in in 1901. Still he was not prepared to give in gracefully for, while admittedly offering the site for £1,000, a sum far below its market value, he imposed several conditions, of which the two most substantial were that upon the signing of the contract the money for the land and for the building of the church should be in the hands of the bankers, and that the building should be completed by 1st June 1904. Amazingly both conditions were fulfilled —Comper drew up his plans and the church, though admittedly with few furnishings, was ready for consecration on 7th July 1903.
I asked you at the beginning to imagine the congregation on that day, and there are some details which I ought to add to the mental picture. You already know what the congregation wore, but the Bishop of London outshone them all in a magnificent cope of Russian cloth of gold, which had been worn at the King's coronation in the previous year, and a richly jewelled mitre. The ceremony itself was one which had not been used since the Reformation — it was in fact adapted from the Pontifical of Egbert, the idea presumably being that you could get no more truly traditional form of service, free of all taint of post-Tridentine Romanism, than to go right back in the English succession to the first Archbishop of York who held the See from about AD 736 to 766. It was indeed described at the time as "the real, true ceremonial of the Church of England", which suggests special pleading. To add to the romantic idealism of the building and the form of service, the floor was strewn in mediaeval fashion with scented flowers and rushes. In the nave were pine, box and rose petals, and on the chancel steps were laid crimson roses and snow-white lilies. There could hardly be any greater contrast between the form of avant-garde which this represented in 1903 and what we recognize as avant-garde today, yet in his concentration on the altar as the principal focus of worship, Comper prefigured the current idea of the altar central among the people and indeed himself achieved this design in some of his later churches.
Although I would like you to wander round the church and look at it for yourselves, I would like to point out a few features before you do so. Let us begin with the High Altar, for Comper the centrepiece of the church, which should be richly appointed to rivet the attention, however simply the rest of the building might need to be treated. Here the altar is very long, the same width as the east window, and it is of stone, thirteen and a half feet long, more than a yard deep and about a foot thick. It is vested with a frontal of gilded linen and backed by a complementary dossal. On the former the Old Testament is traced from the Fall of Adam and on the latter our eye is led through the New Testament to the central image of the Crucifixion on the Tree of Life.
Round the altar are riddel posts, from which hang the dossal behind and the curtains at each end. These posts and curtains are derived from the ciborium which in these years Comper was forbidden by law to erect in any churches in this diocese, as we know only too well at Grosvenor Chapel. There he managed to give the whole Lady Chapel the feeling of a ciborium or canopy of honour by reserving the sacrament in a hanging pix and gilding and colouring the roof above. Here, however, the riddels represent the lower part of the ciborium and the ceiling or tester is hung from the roof above. It was provided early in the church's history, but it was not coloured and gilded until 1948. It is painted with a representation of Christ the Light of the World enthroned and surrounded by flaming rays.
In the service sheet at the opening of the church, Comper wrote that "the other most important ornament of a parish church is the font, and that occupies a position of special prominence in the centre of the west end; thus the Holy Table at the east and the font at the west set forth the two great Christian sacraments. This was the ideal of the English parish church before and after the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer and it is for the realisation of this ideal that the new church of St. Cyprian is prepared. Its design neither seeks nor avoids originality; still less is its aim to reproduce any period of the past, but only to fulfil these and other needs which are ours today, and to do so in the last manner of English architecture, which for us in England is the most beautiful of all."
The sill of the east window comes low so that the dossal does not dominate the altar but draws the eye to it, and above it is a sea of shimmering glass against which we see the figures of the Risen Lord, represented as a beardless classical figure, flanked by St. Cyprian and St. Cornelius. In the context of Comper's desire to recreate a perfect mediaeval church you may wonder about the illusion of a totally unmedieval figure of Our Lord, but all that I can say without long explanation is that the church is an early work of his and that, not long after, he discovered that unity by excluding all non-Gothic details was too limiting and that unity in a building could also be achieved by blending features of different styles and dates, as is well exemplified in his work at Grosvenor Chapel, which, only ten years later than this church, was carried out in 1912. The east window here is much later - of 1930, with other panels inserted even later. Above Our Lord is Our Lady with the Holy Child flanked by St. Peter and St. Paul and St. Augustine and St. Athanasius. The style of glass painting is derived from fifteenth century examples.
You will notice that unlike churches of the Victorian Gothic revival, this one has an altar set on very few steps - only two steps and a footpace, in fact, above the chancel floor. This was to make it easily visible through the chancel screens, for, while one characteristic of the Old Testament was the seclusion of the Holy of Holies within a darkened chamber where even the priests might scarcely penetrate, the overwhelming character of the Christian church is the centrality of the altar. The absence of steps also allows an open space for the seemly performance of the liturgy, and it is notable that when the Alcuin Club produced a handbook of Ceremonial Illustrated by Photographs they chose to use this sanctuary.
The architectural features of the chancel are the same as those of the nave, but everywhere they are enriched. Look, for example, at the roof, where lavishly carved flowers at the bosses are gilded, and the choir of angels is coloured. The chancel has stalls, but these are not for the choir. They were brought from the old chapel and are for the ministers, in particular for the daily office. When the church was first built the choir and a small organ were placed in a loft above the Jesus Chapel where the brother of Sir Cyril Cobb, the liturgical scholar and first churchwarden, used to accompany an "old organ of sweet tone (now replaced by a loud instrument in the west gallery) with his cello every Sunday and festival." The music was plainsong with chorales arranged by G.F. Woodward from Bach and Wagner. The fussiness of an Anglican robed choir should never be allowed to interpose itself between the congregation and the altar. Comper records sadly that the Cobb brothers left the congregation after the second vicar came because he wore a biretta.
To the south of the chancel is the Lady Chapel, enclosed by coloured screenwork. On the base of the screen are eleven figures of female saints including St. Anne, the mother of Our Lady, and even St. Joan of Arc. In the chapel the eye is drawn to the splendid glass in the east window, depicting the Annunciation flanked by St. Margaret of Scotland and St. Etheldreda. There are various smaller scenes in the tracery lights, and four panels along the base of the window show scenes from the life of Our Lord which relate to his mother. The window dates from 1931, but the carved and gilded pinewood figure of Our Lady has been in the chapel since 1925. The chapel stands on the site of the Mission Clergy House in which Father Gutch lived and died, which is why his memorial tablet refers to his death "here at his post".
In the equivalent position on the north side, decorated with the IHS monogram of Our Lord instead of the crowned Ms which symbolise his mother in the Lady Chapel, is the Chapel of the Holy Name, or Jesus Chapel as Comper preferred to call it. It contains Father Gutch's altar from the mission chapel. On the base of the screen are six Old Testament worthies together with St. Michael weighing the souls of the departed. Nearby is a statue of St. Cyprian vested as an archbishop.
As Comper wrote in 1933, "the whole church has become a lantern and the altar is the flame within it. The high chancel and the side chancels are separated from the nave and from each other by coloured and gilded screens which, seen against the silver and jewels of the painted glass, greatly enrich the beauty of the altar but obstruct the view of it no more than a lantern hides the light it is made to contain." On the panels of the screen are fourteen saints, and above is a loft in which the singers may stand. Over the front of the loft is the great rood, depicting the crucified Christ in the eternal beauty of youth, as the Passiontide hymns sing of Christ reigning from the Tree. He is attended by His Mother on His right and St. John on his left. Then, high in the roof, a dominating presence in the whole church, is Christ in Majesty, bearing to the rood the same relation as the reserved sacrament bears to the altar.
The nave furnishings are mostly later - the pulpit of English oak was given in 1914, the lectern in 1906 and the west gallery with the organ was not achieved until 1930, the same date as the font whose beautiful spire-like cover is two years later. By this time, of course, Comper was perfectly prepared to use classical as well as Gothic features, and you can see pure Greek columns supporting the Gothic-inspired steeple.
I have mentioned the name of Comper many times this afternoon, and how he would have hated that! Towards the end of his long life (he died as recently as 1960, aged 96) he wrote "is an artist, the instrument of the creator spirit, to express himself in the building of the Temple of Christ? Is there such a supremacy of goodness, beauty and truth in the present age to mark it as distinct from the past and demand that we invent a new expression of it? The purpose of a church is not to express the age in which it was built or the individuality of its designer. Its purpose is to move to worship, to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land. The note of a church should not be that of novelty but of eternity." In other words, we should not see this as "a Comper church", but as a building dedicated to God in which, through the response of our senses to art and architecture, we may taste and see something of how gracious the Lord is.
So, to avoid leaving you with the person of Comper before your eyes, let me finish with his description of the impact of the mediaeval parish church on the average parishioner; the vision which inspired this church, which Comper wrote in 1895, eight years before he designed the building. Having cast holy water in his face, the worshipper glances round his parish church: Straight his eye went to the pix, which told of the presence of God, its gold and snow-white linen glittering in front of the expanse of the silver glass, "clear as crystal" like the sea before the throne, bearing its jewelled imagery of the saints that ever surround that Presence.
The holy place was no longer, as in the old Covenant, shut off to the eyes of all but the high priest, who entered once in the year; he sees it through the screen as it were through a beautiful garden of paradise, for its mullions and tracery were painted with a thousand flowers; and overhanging it was the vault of blue, spangled with stars, on which stood the loft where those English boys, S. Gregory's angels, sang and played instruments of music. And on the parapet of the loft he sees the cherubim of burning gold that once kept the gates of Eden with flaming swords, but now hold up their empty hands in praise of the Redeemer who has opened those gates by the wounds which He shows as He stretches out his arms in benediction on that glorified rood. For what to him is the rood in the centre of the church, before which burnt the flame of the lamp "watching to God" night and day, but the very tree of life, under the shadow of whose leaves stand Mary, the second Eve, in resigned acceptance of the prophecy, that her seed should bruise the serpent's head, and S. John who clasps the book of witness to the twofold stream that flows from our Saviour's side?
And as "the mery orgon, on masse daies," * or the plain chant, broke the silence, he sees the ministers in their gorgeous vestments, priests and Levites, gather round the altar, and the gleam of the tapers on the gilded carved work; and smells the perfume of bruised herbs and the incense smoke that filled the air.
* Chaucer, The Nonnes Prestes Tale. Lines 31, 32
We regret that the details of the occasion at which this lecture was given in the 1980's and the person who wrote and delivered it are, as yet, unknown to us. We would be grateful for any information.