Architectural Notes: The salvation of the City churches

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The Independent Culture
LOVERS OF London's City churches can relax for a moment, for they are safe again. Only four years ago, the Templeman Report threatened the 40 or so Anglican churches remaining with closure en masse. Templeman proposed a kind of triage system for the buildings, under which they were divided into active churches (those with big congregations), a second group of less active churches, and a third category, the largest by far, which were to be kept locked and weather-proof while their future was decided.

Templeman did not propose that any churches be demolished - such hurried redundancy would have been an ignominious fate. After all, the churches had survived much more aggressive foes than ecclesiastical down-sizing: Nazi air-raids, Victorian asset-stripping, clearance for new roads, even in some cases the Great Fire itself. Furthermore, the report showed amazing insensitivity to London's architectural tradition by insisting that not one of Sir Christopher Wren's famous City churches be kept in parochial use.

It went unremarked at the time that such plans for mass disposal were nothing new. The first attempt to weed out churches was in 1834. This was howled down, but a similar scheme was enacted in 1860. As a result, many little-used churches were demolished. Losses were fewer in Edwardian times, but another clean sweep was proposed in 1919. One City employee dismayed by this plan was a clerk of literary inclinations at Lloyds Bank, a Mr T. S. Eliot. His famous evocation in The Waste Land of St Magnus the Martyr, with its "inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold", gains poignancy from a footnote to the poem drawing attention to the demolition scheme: another instance, for Eliot, of the spiritual malaise of the times. What changed attitudes for good was the Blitz, when the remaining churches, like St Paul's itself, became icons of national endurance. More than half of the 21 burnt-out churches were therefore restored when peace came. Many became the headquarters of Church organisations, under the so-called Guild Church scheme: an enterprising way of preserving them in use while keeping them as places of worship.

Richard Charteris, the new Bishop of London, has recently announced a return to the spirit of the Guild Church scheme. He regards the churches as an asset rather than a liability and is keen to see them being used not just for worship but also for any other worthwhile functions and purposes. He has, therefore, established the City Churches Development Group, which is steadily finding new uses and new tenants for the churches and for the offices and vestries attached to them. One church, Wren's needle-spired St Margaret Pattens in Fenchurch Street, will provide an appropriate home for the Friends of the City Churches.

What is remarkable is that this is being achieved without sacrificing the historic interiors of the buildings themselves. Whether their fittings date from before the Reformation or merely from the restorations during the Fifties and Sixties, almost all the City churches correspond inside to the traditional idea of a church interior. This is worth remembering as more and more churches elsewhere come up for "re-ordering" on the grounds that their interiors do not fit exactly the demands of the moment. In all too many cases this means ripping everything out in favour of fitted carpets and stackable chairs. Not every church interior is as rich in furnishings and atmosphere as those of the City, of course, but the City churches are worth bearing in mind as a model of how present uses can work in harmony with the fabric of the past.

Simon Bradley is the co-author, with Nikolaus Pevsner, of `London: the City churches', published by Penguin, pounds 9.99