Page 5, 24th February 1995

24th February 1995
Page 5
Page 5, 24th February 1995 — In 1895 the plans to build Westminster's new cathedral had
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In 1895 the plans to build Westminster's new cathedral had

a quixotic eccentricity which must have puzzled many. Today, argues Edward Stourton, that vision is entirely vindicated.

MY FAVOURITE VIEW of Westminster Cathedral is from Buckingham Palace. As you turn left out of the Mall in front of the palace gates, the distinctive finger of the campanile demands your attention; a discreet but insistent reminder to the Queen of her Catholic subjects, and both entirely at home and entirely foreign in the centre of London.

It is estimated that 10,000 people watched the laying of the foundation stone in 1895. Some of them must have been drawn by the quixotic eccentricity of the project. Hundreds of years had passed since cathedrals on this scale were in vogue. The age of faith that inspired them had long since passed; by 1895 many found more truth in Das Kapital and the Origin of the Species than in the Bible, and Nietzsche had proclaimed the death of God. Yet a minority religious sect which is how many people still saw Catholics here proposed to build the highest and widest nave in the country at the heart of Westminster. Even the architecture was out of step with the times; to find out how to build in the Christian Byzantine style, JF Bentley had to spend a few months wandering around Italy studying 12th century churches.

A hundred years later the self-confidence of the Catholics who built the Cathedral seems entirely justified. Marxism is history, but that vast nave is full on Sundays. And the choice of architectural style has been vindicated. I remember as a schoolboy confusing Westminster Abbey with West

minster Cathedral there must still be tourists who spend hours searching vainly for Poets' Corner and being told very firmly "the Cathedral is the monstrous redbrick thing near Victoria Station."

Cardinal Vaughan, its founder, chose the Byzantine style for religious and financial reasons. The absence of Gothic pillars and screens allows a huge congregation to participate fully in what is happening on the altar which is essential to the Cathedral's tole as a national centre of worship in the capital.

The financial advantages were explained by the Cardinal like this: "We can cover the whole space, we can erect the whole building, apart from decoration and ornament, which in other styles would form a substantial and costly part of the structure... the decoration may be applied as time goes on, according to the devotion and generosity of succeeding generations".

The generosity of congregations has never been sufficient to complete the decoration, and probably never will be. But the uncovered brickwork has given the building its distinctive character; there is no denying the fact that it can look a little like a railway station, but railway stations were, in their way, temples of the Victorian age.

And unlike Westminster Abbey its principle claim on our affections is religious, not aesthetic or historical. The self-confidence of the founders is reflected in the liturgy of the Cathedral today. Cardinal Vaughan told his clergy that "its religious services should leave nothing to be desired as to solemnity and devotion". High Mass, with its plainchant and incense, is magnificently and unashamedly Roman Catholic.

Part of its appeal is that it does feel somehow "foreign" amid the Englishness of Westminster and Victoria. During a Service at an English parish church the atmosphere is hushed and reverential, and a latecomer attracts disapproving starts. The Cathedral is more like an Italian Church; people wander in and out during Mass, tourists watch curiously from the back, and the occasional drunk can be found praying silently in a side chapel, which is exactly as it should be in a Church for all God's people.

But it now seems entirely natural that what was once regarded as a Papist carryon should be conducted within spitting distance of the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall.

My generation of English Catholics were still conscious of the folk memory of priest holes and secret Masses in private chapels; my children's generation are growing up in a country where the suspicion that Catholics are at least peculiar and probably dangerous has more or less died away.

The great bulk of the Cathedral at the heart of Westminster is a powerful symbol of that change.

Edward Stourton is a BBC newscaster and Chair of the Westminster Cathedral Centenary lectures.

IN 1970, JUST AFrER the upheavals of the Second Vatican Council, I made my First Communion in a church designed rather like a Roman amphitheatre, with its simple wooden benches curving round an altar centrally placed. Unlike the chilly stone flags of traditional churches, there were swathes of oatmeal fitted carpet, and after Mass a huge sliding door rolled back to reveal, at the back of the church, a room for coffee and orange juice.

For the seven-year-olds of 1970, like myself, churches like this one, built in the community spirit of Vatican II, with their emphasis on breaking down the barriers between priest and people, are entirely natural. For my parents, however, brought up with the sanctified aloofness of pre-Vatican ll Catholicism, the carpets, the post-Mass coffee-cup conviviality, all took a bit of getting used to.

That church, thriving still, is St Margaret of Scotland in Twickenharn. It was designed in 1%9 by Austin Winkley, Catholic architect and passionate upholder of the Vatican II vision a liturgical community; a "liturgical architect" he calls himself.

Winkley is a re-ordering campaigner of invigorating zeal, and his firm is responsible, not only for the designing of hundreds of Catholic buildings, but for the re-ordering of nearly 80 churches.

Now, as it prepares to celebrate the centenary of the laying of its foundation stone, he is eager to see England's most august Catholic cathedral seriously re-ordered and calls for its clergy to "bite the bullet" and "break down the boundary between the sanctuary and the body of the church".

Before the congregation of Westminster Cathedral begin to harbour nightmarish visions of demolition men driving their trucks down the nave, Winkley is keen to stress that, in this case, the breakdown will be "psychological" and "strengthening" rather than actually destructive.

"I am solidly rooted in the renewal of the Church in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and what that means to us in architectural terms", he says.

Westminster Cathedral has already been what Winkley calls "temporarily re-ordered". Designed by 19th century architect John Francis Bentley on the model of a Byzantine basilica, its smoky, cavernous atmosphere is more reminiscent of Santa Sofia than St Peter's.

In the late 1960s, as priests stopped saying Mass with their backs to the congregation, its altar was brought forward, leaving its baldacchino with nothing effectively symbolic underneath.

As Winkley points out, this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs: "The purpose of the baldacchino is to reverence the altar, and now the altar at the back is nothing but a candle stand".

Similarly, he feels that the book-rest from which the readings are proclaimed, tucked behind a little projecting bay of the communion sanctuary wall, is quite inadequate as the place for "The Proclamation of the Word".

The point is, for Winkley, that short-term changes like these simply do not adequately address the sensitive issue of "the interface between the conservation of the fabric of our buildings and renewing our churches in the liturgy".

In its present state, Mass at the Cathedral is like a "theatrical performance, something that takes place on a stage, at one end of the building".

The subject of re-ordering is a highly contentious one among Catholic congregations. When the Herald ran an article about the proposed reordering of Plymouth Cathedral, it was inundated witb letters from churchgoers who had witnessed the removal of the familiar fixtures and fittings that set priest "apart" from people.

There were some eloquent and moving letters in support of re-ordering, but it should be pointed out that most of those came from priests. A far greater proportion of the letters were from people who were deeply upset by a process they felt rode roughshod over the sensitivities of worshippers.

What would Austin Winkley, with his infectious desire to see "the spirit of participation" in church communities, say to them? "People don't like re-ordering because they don't understand what it is about. We need to be more educated about the liturgy".

This is, however, unlikely to be the last word in a debate that may well see the Cathedral into its bi-centenary.




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