A Little History of the English Country Church, by Roy Strong
I grew up in a Long Island town that was predominantly Catholic and Jewish, but with a small smattering of Protestants. The church I went to (as a Catholic) was a grand gothic affair (though I suppose it was really a kind of faux, neo gothic) complete with flying buttresses, a spire, a choir loft, stained glass and side chapels dominated by sculpture and painting. There was an Episcopal Church down the street – a plain white clapboard building. I was never inside (why not?) but it was, for my limited experience, the embodiment of New England simplicity that represented one tradition of Protestantism. There were several temples – all of them modernist in style, low-slung and squat with odd, idiosyncratic abrupt angles.
Though no one in my childhood ever talked about aesthetics or architecture, I figured out very young that these buildings represented something of the theology of their sects. The fact that the Catholics had a gothic cathedral and the Protestants had a white clapboard meeting hall meant something, even when I was unclear what it meant. This was reinforced by later study of the Reformation, by visits to New England to see more authentic clapboard churches and travels that let me experience more authentic gothic architecture. I never really thought any of this was so important, but realized it was a physical sign of the variations of community that surrounded me.
As a result, Roy Strong’s A Little History of the English Country Church is not a book I would have read under normal circumstances. I thought I already understood what I wanted to get out of church architecture. I picked up the book because it was given to me as a gift. I will be travelling to England and Scotland this summer and my son bought me this book as a preparation. I thought it was a travel book and expected quaint descriptions of churches worth visiting. I was wrong. It is a dense, scholarly history of the physical structures and accoutrements of the English church over the period of 500 years that saw the splintering of the old Catholic hegemony, the rise of Puritan separatism, the Glorious Revolution, the Restoration of the monarchy and the dawn of the industrial age.
When I realized how dense and specific it was, I almost put it down. I am glad that I did not.
I realized while reading this that I have approached this question of architecture and theology in a very American way: we live in a pluralist society and there is a plethora of architectural manifestations of ideas. Not surprising. I realized early on in Strong’s narrative that in England (the book almost exclusively focuses on England, though Strong acknowledges that bringing in Scotland and/or Ireland would complicate his narrative in fascinating ways) this is not the case. England was, in 1500, an entirely homogenous society. Particularly outside London (and the emphasis here is on the “country” church: we never hear a word about London), the church was a dominant community force in every English person’s life – second only, in some communities to the manor house and the family it housed. Even in the case of villages dominated by a wealthy landlord family, that family often controlled the church.
Of course, when I say that the church was a dominant force, I am talking about the church as an institution – its communal, educational, financial and spiritual place in the community. But I am also talking about the church as building. Mass and religious services were held there, but so were naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals – Everyone in the village went to the same place to mark the important moments of transition in their lives. The church was the center of annual holidays and festivals. The community was physically centered on that building. That building bridged the spiritual and secular needs of the community. While Strong is clear-eyed about the abuses of the pre-Reformation church, he also is clear that many of the abuses grew from this role as a bridge: feast day celebrations were important times for the community to come together; churches brewed their own ales (priests being among the most scientifically minded in those days) and sold them at festivals and in rooms that were similar to pubs.
This divide was represented in the physical church: medieval churches had a “porch” that may have been highly decorated with religious icons, but did not have an altar and was not consecrated. For the most part that porch is where weddings, funerals and community events took place – the consecrated, religious sanctum of the interior of the church building was off limits to most of the congregation.
That built environment embodied theological and institutional ideas about the relationship of the church to the community. As the Reformation took hold, those ideas changed radically, and for 500 years the relationship of the church to the community has undergone fairly regular, radical changes. There was a natural need for those changes to be reflected in the built environment, but even communities that were prosperous enough to build large, elaborate churches could not afford to build or rebuild several of them. So the history of violent and spiritual conflict is embedded in church buildings all over England. Strong tells the story of these violent and chaotic changes through examining what the buildings would have looked like in each period, what was destroyed as the trends in architecture, design and decoration changed, and what survived despite the changes.
From this he speculates on the lives of parishioners and their feelings about these changes. One value he finds in these churches is that these changes (or many cases, refusals to change) offer insight into the reactions of ordinary parishioners to changes in the church that were largely played out without their input. He discusses stained glass, the inclusion and position of altars, the use of decorated screens in front of or behind altars, the size, shape and positioning of pews and lecterns. He discusses places where church interiors were destroyed with enthusiasm and attempts to hide icons and art works in hopes that they could be brought back later (hopes that were often realized). His work on the evolution of church music is fascinating. Often the community church was the center of musical culture and when music was banished from churches, or churches took control of music, the whole community’s relationship to art was affected.
The prose was dense and specific enough that I am not sure how well I will remember it when I am in England next week. I will undoubtedly see specific details that Strong discussed and not remember their significance. But the sweep of history he finds located in these buildings will surely be powerful.