Believers in beauty

England's One Thousand Best Churches

December 24, 1999

This is not a guide book, but an exhortation, addressed to the well-off fraternity of bien pensant philistines, trying to convert us. Weighing one and three-quarters kilos, it is not for consultation when clambering over tombs and climbing towers, but for savouring at home, haunted by the author's enthusiasm.

Faced with the decline of church-going, governments and gurus preach the virtues of the family and public-spirited conduct without the appeal to a God who loves us and our fear of his judgement.

In the same strain, Simon Jenkins urges us to rediscover the sense of awe before the mystery of existence, and our sense of continuity with those who have gone before and made our country great, even though the Christian hope that inspired them has died within us. He does not believe in Christianity but seeks to preserve its cultural aura. "To me a church is not a place of revealed truth, but rather a shrine of impenetrable mystery,symbol of humanity's everlasting quest for explanation." His faith is ancestral and patriotic: the churches "embody England's other story", into them "English men and women have for centuries poured their faith, joy, sorrow, labour and love". The author has already waged a campaign to rescue our English countryside from urban sprawl, and in the cadre of that landscape so many of our finest churches are set. He emerges from the cool classical interior of the hill-top church at Willen: "to stand in the churchyard ... and gaze out on the grid plan of Milton Keynes is to feel the chill of a ghastly mistake. There must be a better way." This is not another journalistic venture from our most judicious and readable commentator on public affairs, but crusading propaganda, a selection of churches whose beauty exemplifies the author's convictions and, pressed upon us, may convert us.

It turned out that the figure could be rounded off at 1,000 (chosen from 16,000). The cathedrals, Oxbridge college chapels and private oratories were not eligible, of course, but in defining "parish" churches self-denial is not taken to extremes. Since the local congregation goes once a year to the Sandham memorial chapel, Stanley Spencer's murals of the lives, deaths and resurrection of first-world-war soldiers are included; so too the austere Commonwealth chapel at Bramhope, on the grounds that although it is not used for formal worship, it could be. The arrangement is by counties, each with its map. The entries follow a common formula: the place (eg Salisbury), the dedication (Saint Thomas), stars awarded (three) and the outstanding feature ("a complete medieval Doom"). Then follows an account of the building and its treasures, beautifully written and with a minimum of guidebook jargon, but with many magnificent photographs, while the introduction contains a brief survey of architectural styles and a glossary of technical terms.

The author's imaginative preferences are revealed in his criteria of selection and style of presentation. The entries abound in exotic curiosities - a stone madonna whose sceptre flowers with roses, wood carvings looted from an abbey in Flanders by Napoleon's soldiers and bought by an English milord, a statue of Louis XIV captured by a privateer,the monarch's features replaced by those of the then-governor of the Isle of Wight. And there is a church that is the most striking curiosity of all,hidden away at Wreay in Cumbria, wholly designed in 1835 by Sarah Losh, its ornate decor of angels and strange flora and fauna anticipating William Morris and, indeed, the style of art nouveau.

Special attention is also devoted to changes and restorations, criticising and evaluating them. So often the inspirations of successive generations blended harmoniously - until the danger period of the Victorian age. There are two contrasting cases of 19th-century "improvements" in Bristol - stained glass that detracts from the majesty of Saint Mary Radcliffe, while in the same era, the civic authorities were adorning the Lord Mayor's chapel with ancient glass from France, Germany and Venice, brilliantly enhancing the 13th and 14th-century architecture.

Not that the author opposes innovation: a mural of 1967 by Hans Feibusch in a vast Norman nave prompts him to ask why there are so few modern enhancements to these ancient masterpieces. Another characteristic of the book is the systematic presentation of the landscape setting, whether urban or rural, of each building. Some are in tranquil countryside, like Salthouse on the seashore, visited "at evensong when a late sun was flaming across the glass and hymns were echoing across the sandy hillside".

Others are on high points: Charlbury looking over the rolling Dorset countryside to the hills and the ocean, visited maybe for the theatrical charm of its Georgian interior, but remembered for the sweeping prospect; or Whitby, on a storm-swept eminence high above the fishing port. Some churches, however, are gems in rebarbative settings: in a back street of Slough a medieval nave adorned in the 17th century by Sir John Kedermister, in Harringay a light and lofty masterpiece of the 1930s. At Hartlepool, it depends which way the observer faces, whether across the wilderness of housing estates or towards the sea.

If Jenkins's crusade is to succeed, local treasures must be accessible. His vials of wrath are poured on the vicars who were not available to let him in. "I set myself a limit of half an hour with the aid of the latest siege equipment" - a car, mobile phone and Crockford's Clerical Directory . My sympathy is with the clergy. Although they are paid only Pounds 15,000 a year, vicars are professional men with a heavy workload. Those of us who want the time of a solicitor make an appointment well beforehand (and take along a chequebook). Our vicar, who gives his time gratis, deserves consideration, perhaps in both senses of the word. The days when Lady Catherine de Bourgh could summon Mr Collins are over. More should be done to make churches available, but Jenkins underestimates the determination of thieves and the irresponsibility of vandals. "No security is as effective as a regular flow of welcomed visitors." Yes - welcomed by a custodian who is actually there, not just a parishioner who will meekly hand over a key. There is only one answer: some organisation of the cultural establishment must pay to have caretakers on duty at certain known times. After all, funds are available to display rumpled beds and farm animals pickled in formalin.

In a new generation, when vengeance reigns in the Balkans as Nato forces withdraw, sniped at by guerrillas of all parties, and southeast England is an endless suburbia, someone may look back and recall the journalist whose advice was not taken. Will this new age be conscious of the magic of our Christian artistic heritage, or will there be yet another example to add to the list of warnings ignored?

Revd John McManners was formerly regius professor of ecclesiastical history, University of Oxford.

England's One Thousand Best Churches

Author - Simon Jenkins
ISBN - 0 713 99281 6
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 822

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs