Anglican (and some Catholic) friends usually regard post-war Catholic churches with a degree of horror. The Catholic Church in this country tended to be the major patron of ecclesiastical buildings throughout this period, the Church of England being overendowed already with churches; Coventry Cathedral is an obvious exception to this rule.
After the end of the Second World War there was a hiatus in the building of new churches because of the shortage of materials. Such Catholic churches as were built in the 1950s tended to retain a traditional rectangular shape with altar and sanctuary at the east end. St Mary and St Joseph, Poplar by Adrian Gilbert Scott (1954) falls into this category, as does The Most Holy Trinity, Dockhead, Southwark with its wonderful polychromatic brick west front by Harry Goodhart-Rendel (1959).
In 1957, Cardinal William Godfrey (Westminster 1956-63) argued for the preservation of traditional church architecture: “Our aim ought to be to preserve all that is precious in traditional art while keeping in mind the needs of the age in which we live… It would seem that some of the buildings of today have departed too much from the traditional style of architecture… the barn-like church has nothing sacred or symbolic to commend it. It does not lift the mind to God.” Sound words.
The same year, Peter Hammond set up the New Churches Research Group with a young membership sympathetic to Brutalism. The first near circular church built in Europe in the 20th century was that of St Engelbert, Cologne-Riehl in 1928-32 by Dominikus Böhm; this style was followed by a considerable number of other churches in France and Germany. In 1960, Hammond published his polemical, Liturgy and Architecture, which argued that the basilican form of church (in fact established by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century) from the Middle Ages onward had developed to enshrine a deeply “clericalist” liturgy.
The first church for which modernism was adopted was the Church of Our Lady of Fatima, Harlow by Gerard Goalen for the Canons Regular of the Immaculate Conception in 1958-60. It was built as a T-shaped church with a central altar.
The real turning point for modern Catholic ecclesiastical architecture as far as the wider world was concerned was the award in 1960 by Archbishop John Heenan (Liverpool 1957-63) of the completion of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral to the non-Catholic modern architect Frederick Gibberd. The budget of £1m precluded traditional materials and the essentially circular building was built out of concrete. The cathedral has had to receive large sums from English Heritage to remedy the architectural problems it has suffered from since its completion.
The constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium was issued in September 1963. Inter Oecumenici was issued a year later. This clearly stated in Chapter V that the main altar should preferably be freestanding to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people.
Henceforward virtually all new Catholic churches were to be built on a fan- or T-shaped basis. The country became littered with what one Cornish Catholic priest rather rudely referred to in my presence as “flying saucers”.
Early examples were the hexagonal church of The Good Shepherd, Woodthorpe, Nottingham (1964) and the oval church of St Gregory the Great, South Ruislip (1965), both by Gerard Goalen. The exteriors of these to me lack beauty but the interiors are redeemed by good stained glass by Patrick Reyntiens and Dom Charles Norris.
These churches have not always worn well and considerable sums have had to be raised by the parishes for repairs. Our Lady of Fatima has had a slightly chequered history. It was closed 2001-5 for £500,000 of repairs to be made to its stained glass. In 2017 it had to be closed while repairs were made to its spire. The Good Shepherd was awarded £119,000 in 2019 by English Heritage to resolve issues with concrete cancer and reinforcement decay.
Most of these churches seem to be locked outside the times of Mass.
Two cathedrals were built in this modernistic style. The first was that of St Peter and St Paul, Clifton Park, Bristol (1969-73), replacing the Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Apostles by Charles Hansom, now in secular use. The second was that of St Mary, Middlesbrough (1985 onwards), replacing a building of 1876-78 by Goldie and Child. The latter building was essentially (and disgracefully) abandoned. As it was listed Grade II, permission for demolition was refused. In 2000 it was gutted by fire started by children inside the building and had to be demolished, doubtless to the delight of the diocesan authorities who were able subsequently to sell the site to Cleveland Police.
The antithesis of the concept of beauty in ecclesiastical architecture is probably St Margaret, Twickenham by Austin Winkley (1968-9), an unflinchingly modern building. The exterior is uncompromisingly utilitarian, “the building’s ecclesiastical function deliberately made barely discernible” (Taking Stock).
I am aware these churches have their architectural and liturgical supporters, but I cannot confess to being one of them. The churches mentioned are also of course at the top end of the scale.
The best of the churches in this style is probably Our Lady Help of Christians, Kitts Green, Birmingham by Richard Gilbert Scott (1966-67). The green copper covered roof rises above the local streets. The interior has a soaring quality and wonderful stained glass by John Chrestien, much of it celebrating the Christian victory over the Mohammedan Turks at Lepanto in 1571, in whose memory Pius V established the Feast of Our Lady Help of Christians – all rather politically incorrect nowadays.
In 1989-91, when the Cathedral Church of St Mary and St Helen, Brentwood needed expanding, Bishop Thomas McMahon chose the classicist (and Protestant) Quinlan Terry as architect to replace a clumsy extension of 1974 by Burles, Newton. While retaining the central altar, the building rejects the modernism of the 1960s and is built in a light, white, airy Baroque style in the manner of Christopher Wren. A portion of the original Gilbert Blount building of 1861 survives with the old sanctuary now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. We are a world away here from Clifton and Middlesbrough Cathedrals.
Possibly the last fan-shaped church to be built was that of the Annunciation, Walsingham (2005-6) by Anthony Rossi, replacing a rather touching brick-faced rectangular hut. The exterior is acceptable, with a red and brick Norfolk round tour, although I personally do not think it improved by the metal statues of the Annunciation. The interior which is entered through an automatic door is less than successful. The exposed girders of the roof lack beauty and there is an extraordinary wooden contraption (a baldacchino?) above the very modern altar. The equally modern font has the Holy Oils displayed behind it in coloured glass containers. The benches are light coloured and rather harsh. Two statues at least thankfully survive from the earlier church.
One remarkable new building which works is the new Stanbrook Abbey at Wass in North Yorkshire. The previous EW Pugin chapel in Worcestershire (pretty much wrecked by reordering) was abandoned with the abbey buildings. The new Yorkshire chapel was built by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios in 2015. The exterior is austere and upwards sloping. The interior is simple with the nuns’ stalls facing each other. It has a wonderful quality of light with views of the moors outside. The big fault is the siting of the Blessed Sacrament in a chapel behind the altar, invisible from the main part of the building.
Michael Hodges is the author of Parish Churches of Greater London (2015). He is currently working on a county gazetteer of some 900 plus Catholic churches.
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.