Prince Charles suggests the Millennium Commission should support religious architecture. Fr Stephen Trott agrees
PRINCE CHARLES has called for Millennium money to be used for spiritual purposes, to mark the anniversary of Christ's birth in a more fitting way than mere partying. His suggestion ought to be taken up urgently, for an opportunity is at last here to restore to the nation some historic part of the pre-Reformation architectural glory which once dignified England.
Each time I visit one of the ruined abbeys and priories which dot every corner of the kingdom, I visit the site of the high altar and pray for the restoration of the Church in England. And having prayed for spiritual restoration, my mind then turns to the fallen stones around me. How wonderful it would be to see one of these great houses rebuilt and restored to the Order from which it was taken! Imagine seeing Fountains Abbey once again serving as a religious house, or even Glastonbury, with its association with Joseph of Arimathea.
I spent a great deal of time as a child playing in and around the ruins of Furness Abbey on the edge of Barrowin-Furness, a dramatic sandstone monument to a monastic age which came to an abrupt end four centuries earlier. It is not the best preserved of the bare ruined choirs of which Dom David Knowles wrote so movingly, but enough remains to stir the imagination and the soul, even of a child. I longed to hear the choir singing the Gregorian music for which the building was designed. I imagined the processions of monks, several of whose graves are still marked at Furness Abbey, making their way into the darkness into the choir for Compline. I halfhoped to meet their ghosts, as I sat on the fallen stones, and to learn more about their lives spent in the service of God.
Since then, as a student of church history and as an Anglican priest, I have seen many such ruined choirs, from Bede's monastery at Monkwearmouth to Glastonbury in the West country, Valle Crucis on the Welsh borders and Rievaulx in Yorkshire. There are too many to name, each with its own special grandeur. A few fragments of this lost world survive as Anglican churches and cathedrals; the lonely arch which remains of the Augustinian abbey at Walsingham holds a special place in the hearts of Anglicans and Catholics, and draws both in pilgrimage to Our Lady.
Up to now, such a project has been well beyond the means of any conservation trust, and maintaining what survives has taken up substantial sums of money. But the Government has decided to make available from the National Lottery a very large amount of money for the Millennium celebration. There should be no qualms about applying for grants from this source, which would otherwise have had to come from the general taxes. One would rather the money could be raised, in an ideal world, by a general subscription, but since the Millennium is to be celebrated as a national project, and the Government has provided the funds by one means rather than another, let the money at least be used fittingly, for the benefit of the nation.
And what could be more fitting and appropriate than that one of these great monuments to spiritual dedication and commitment should be restored, as a symbol of the central role played by the religious orders in English life during the past millennium, and the continuing contribution of the Church to the nation during the next thousand years? We owe so much of our national identity to the work of the religious orders during the first half of the present millennium. Their role in education, government, art and architecture, over and above their tremendous spiritual work and witness, shaped the England which we still inhabit today.
Henry VIII and his supporters enriched themselves greatly out of the proceeds of the dissolution of the religious houses. A third of the wealth of Peterborough Abbey went to the new Bishop of Peterborough, a third to the new Cathedral Chapter, and a third to the King. Down the road at Pipewell, where there was to be no foundation, the enormous proceeds were all secularised. All over England, the despoilation of the Church was justified by the foundadon of a modest number of new dioceses and churches, while the bulk of the money, land and artefacts was simply taken by the King for himself and his allies.
The loss of the great abbeys and churches was not only of consequence to the Orders which owned them. The spiritual and practical welfare of many who depended upon them was left all too often to chance. Many former religious were left to fend for themselves in the new order introduced by Henry VIII, and a considerable number were executed on trumpedup charges for treason, for refusing to collaborate in the destruction of their life's work. The destruction of the buildings and their contents was an act of incalculable vandalism and robbery.
Rather than build a new cathedral for some diocese, somewhere, as has been suggested, the best use of the Millennium money for the benefit of our spiritual heritage would be to make good a symbolic and significant part of the loss inflicted upon Church and nation at the dissolution of the religious houses. Let some of the money be used to restore Glastonbury, Valle Crucis, Fountains or Furness, and the Orders which built them be invited to resume their possession. The sound of those choirs echoing once more to the sound of plainsong, and the work of God in their living communities, would be a moving reparation for crimes committed long ago. More important, it would speak volumes to future generations of the place of prayer and service to God in the spiritual life of the nation and of the significance of the Church in the past and future history of our lives.