The constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium was solemnly promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on 4 December 1963. It is surprisingly full of good things. “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (Article 36.1); “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Article 115); “Ordinaries must be very careful to see that sacred furnishings and works of value are not disposed of or dispersed; for they are the ornaments of the house of God.”(Article 126).
One wishes that “the Spirit of Vatican II” had actually followed thedecrees of Vatican II.
On 25 January 1964, Pope Paul VI through the apostolic letter Sacram Liturgiam set up a Council for implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium. The dreaded Archbishop Annibale Bugnini (who may have been a freemason) became its secretary. Various instructions were issued, the first of these being Inter Oecuminici in September of that year. This was undoubtedly a more radical document. Chapter V was headed “Designing Churches and Altars to Facilitate Active Participation of the Faithful”. Inter alia it said: “The main altar should preferably [NB not mandatorily] be freestanding… Its location in the place of worship should be truly central… There are to be fewer minor altars… The Eucharist is to be reserved in a solid and secure tabernacle, placed in the middle of the main altar or on a minor but truly worthy altar… It is lawful [NB but not mandatory] to celebrate Mass facing the people.”
This instruction was fairly nuanced. It was however taken as an excuse by many priests and people to embark on a campaign of the most violent iconoclasm. It did not help that most Catholic churches were built in the 19th century; in the second half of the 20th century, Victorian art and architecture was held very much at a discount. Reredoses, altars, altar rails and statues of saints were all destroyed although none of this was actually required by the documents emanating from Rome. The Abbot of Belmont was rumoured to have attacked the EW Pugin fittings of his abbey church with a sledge hammer before moving the main altar to the west end.
James Lees-Milne wrote in 1977: “Bishops and priests adopted a policy of aggressive iconoclasm. They set about despoiling the churches themselves… they turned upon the church treasures… which contributed to the beauty of the buildings and help sustain religious faith.” He had become a Catholic but scuttled back to the then relative safety of the Church of England. (What he would make of the modern Anglican penchant of destroying the beauty of their churches does not bear thinking about. He lived in Bath but did not survive to to see the destruction of the George Gilbert Scott pews in the abbey church. I have now added “O God, please end Ecclesiastical Exemption” to my nightly prayers. I would urge others to do the same. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?)
To paraphrase and echo Betjeman:
“The Church’s Restoration
Has left for contemplation
Not what there used to be.”
All Catholic dioceses rushed to damage their churches, ignoring the fact that the Vatican documents aimed for “noble simplicity” in the liturgy but “noble beauty” in the buildings. The former instruction lodged in the minds of priests and people but not the latter. One of the worst dioceses was the Archbishopric of Birmingham under the leadership of Archbishop George Dwyer from 1965 to 1981. Thankfully he was not translated to Westminster, which seemed a possibility at one time.
The diocese where the architectural effect of Vatican II will be looked at in more detail is that of Nottingham. The diocese was one of the 12 set up at the restoration of the hierarchy in 1850 and originally comprised the complete counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland. In 1980 it lost bits of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire to the new diocese of Hallam to the north. The Bishops of Nottingham at the period were Edward Ellis (1944-74) andJames McGuinness (1974-2000).
The diocese of Nottingham had a certain réclame among would-be Anglican clerical converts in the early 1990s when it was known as “the Cruel See” because of its general unhelpfulness towards them, particularly to those who, in the words of “advanced” Anglo-Catholic advocates of clerical celibacy, had broken the 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not commit matrimony.”
This cruelty also extended to its treatment of buildings. The cathedral of the diocese is St Barnabas, Derby Road, Nottingham. It was built in 1841 by AWN Pugin for his patron, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, of stone in Early English style with a conspicuous 150-foot spire. The original interior was one of great colour and lavishness. In 1962 there was a major reordering of the inside of the church, Weightman and Bullen being the architects, anticipating the documents to be issued by the Second Vatican Council. Many of the fittings were stripped away and the decoration painted over. Pevsner, in his county guide for Nottinghamshire (second edition, 1979), wrote: “The whole effect could hardly be further from the richness of decoration and atmosphere that Pugin intended.” Thorold wrote in his 1984 Shell Guide for Nottinghamshire with greater fervour: “Unfortunately much of Pugin’s interior decoration has been swept away – it is all sterilized, according to modern fashion – and with it much of the numinous has gone; a stark, central, holy table stands at the crossing; the tyranny of ‘fashion’: poor Pugin, poor Nottingham.”
Fortunately, in 1993, the cathedral was further reordered. The figures of St Mary and St John on the rood were put back. A new high altar and encaustic floor were installed. Some of the Pugin decoration was exposed to view and repainted.
Another church which received the full Vatican II treatment was St Mary the Immaculate, North Parade, Grantham, Lincolnshire. This was originally a pleasant post-Emancipation classical church built in 1831-3, with a charming cupola. In 1964-5, Gerard Goalen got to work. He removed the north wall and extended the church in that direction. A new altar was set up on the north side. The pews were arranged in a fan shape. All the other fittings seem to have vanished. The old sanctuary became the baptistery.
Opinions obviously differ on the church. Taking Stock, the architectural and historical review of Catholic churches in England and Wales, says (to me unaccountably): “the 1960s extension is successful and draws the eye”. The interior in my eyes has always seemed hideous. I have a particular grudge towards it. In 1990 when I was first considering “crossing the Tiber”, I went to Mass there. The interior of the church and the liturgy so horrified me that I returned the next Sunday – with the greatest relief – to the incense-laden, biretta-wearing, Anglican St Mary’s Bourne Street in London, with its baroque liturgy. It was to be a further five years before I was finally to “pope”. It was a relief to discover that Westminster Cathedral and other Catholic churches in central London (St James, Spanish Place, The Oratory, even Farm Street) had been spared the attentions of the Catholic architects of the time.
Michael Hodges is a contributor to the Catholic Herald.
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund