Unless the Lord build the House: conserving spirituality in a busy space











The first in a series of four illustrated articles titled ‘The Equilibrium between Conservation and Spirituality’ by Jonathan Louth with textual contributions from articles by Julian Filochowski

Every cathedral church starts with one foundation and builds over decades and centuries into many facets of faithful devotion. The holy shrine that first seats a cathedral in its place will accumulate many further adherents and will grow, change and adapt to the many journeys in life travelled by the pilgrim people who come into the prayerfulness of the building.

Dedicated to St George, patron saint of England, with ‘catholic’ Blessed Sacrament and Lady chapels, this Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral at Southwark in London was built by AWN Pugin in 1848(1) after a period of three centuries during which English martyrs had more or less covertly nurtured the Roman Catholic faith in a Protestant land.

Drawing on the inspiration of the Sixth Song of Ascents(2), “Except the Lord build the House, their labour is but lost that build it”(3), Jonathan Louth, architect to St George’s from 2003, talks about “conserving spiritual places through the saints and relics”:  these each have a specific meaning to differing communities of worshippers and pilgrims.

In this first of four articles, Louth considers the equilibrium between conservation and spirituality(4): he follows from a reading of the cathedral’s architectural layout, with its traditional response to pilgrims and worshippers, through to the ordering of the cathedral’s spiritual life.  

As any cathedral must, the ‘seat’ of its original dedication has continually evolved over decades and centuries to encompass many manifestations of faithful devotion.  

At St George’s cathedral, over 20 years, the Deans and Fabric Advisory Committee members have progressively defined a sub-division of societal and devotional zones.  That definition now informs each decision about conservation, re-ordering, embellishment and presentation of the fabric and artefacts, to enhance an immediate reading of significance and purpose in the church.  

In order to understand its specific response to the mediaeval requisites for worship and pilgrimage, we must look briefly at its history: with/without rood screen, before/after fire bombing.

After fire bombing in 1941, the ruins of the 19th Century church, designated a Grade II Listed Building, were significantly re-ordered by Romilly Bernard Craze in the 1950s and ’60s, incorporating 5 side chapels, 2 chantries and a baptistery.

The new dedications - SS Peter with the English Martyrs, SS Patrick and Joseph - reflected the prevalent community of English and Irish Catholics living throughout London’s southern hinterland. Since 1963, many further pilgrims have come into London so St George’s has had to grow, change and adapt:  the task of greeting them spiritually is both liturgical and architectural.

Sprituality & place
As guardians of church buildings, we create and conserve diverse interpretations of spirituality for these faithful. If we first frame the equilibrium between conservation AND spirituality into an opposition, Conservation OR Spirituality, an initial question immediately poses itself.
Where in a busy, tourist-dependent context is the balance to be found between visual stimulus for touristic visitors, an encompassing space for public worship, and a calm backdrop
for private devotion?

Writing in Religious Architecture(5), Richard Irvine’s essay, Stability, Continuity, Place, propounds ‘the idea that monastic architecture might productively be treated as “counterfactual architecture” – that is, architecture that raises ‘what if?’ questions about history and social life.’6
Jesus says,(7) “You believe in God, so believe also in me.”   

In his remarkable book, My Tsunami Journey, Mark Dowd(8) tells of his visit to the Buddhist monastery at Samarkee in Thailand. Dowd cites local villagers in the aftermath of the tsunami of 2004 saying, “When all this [destruction of our village, our boats, our livelihood] happened, we thought this temple would be a good place to come to. The monks here are a source of stability.”

Given the world’s 21st Century diversity, my hypothesis is that
spirituality underlies belief,
belief enables confidence,
confidence fosters stability,
and stability warrants conservation.  

In his poem The Dry Salvages, T S Eliot writes
“to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time is an occupation for the saint” (9)

Eliot engenders a second question.
‘Is it possible, through conservation of our churches, to make legible some “intersection” of
the material with the immaterial,
the visible with the invisible,
the temporal with the spiritual?’

Normally, when one starts placing new objects into historic churches, a confusion arises between two further related questions:  
‘is this place a heritage visitor experience, or
is it a living, sacramental building?’.  

The layouts of great churches show how successive  generations respond to physical disaster and religious advancement by adding new ‘places’. Thus, new shrines follow established, evolutionary patterns. One often encounters places of devotion set on some wall with a commemorative or explanatory plaque. Of course, objects readily take up space on walls yet they then become ‘exhibits’ or ‘displays’ and indeed, in a huge church, just inconspicuous and innocuous.  

As the Revd Dr Dee Dyas [Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture in the University of York] states, one really wants to emphasise the immaterial issues around fostering pilgrimage & shrines alongside (or even above) the material issues of design and conservation. Shrines evoke spirituality. Hence one wants to see a shrine adding clarity and something of specificity in the great church.

Considering medieval European churches which developed with
• a Forum in the Nave, for the Town Corporation,
• an ecclesiastical Sanctuary in the Quire, for the Religious,
• and a popular Shrine in the Retro-quire, for Pilgrims, I have come to wonder, ‘what lessons can be drawn about re-ordering our modern churches?’.  

In a medieval cathedral such as Toulouse(10) there is an intersection of four religious rites happening independently of each other throughout the day:

At the interface with the outside world, ‘Church’ meets ‘State’ at the various guilds’ altars;

At the heart of the plan is the Sanctuary: the religious at their daily office;

Beyond these, the side aisles and Retro-quire offer a route of prayer for healing to pilgrims at the shrine.

Surrounding these three rites are chapels and confessionals, for private intentions and atonement.

At St George’s11, the rebuilding was designed to create an illusion of architectural development over many ages:  on re-opening in 1958, the Lady chapel was east of the South aisle, where Pugin first placed it.  Then it was moved in 1963 to its current position to the south-east of the South aisle beyond the Petre chantry.  The Lady chapel’s chancel is an elegant homage to 14th century Early English Gothic, onto which Craze “appends” his Day chapel, a Tudor-style congregational area constructed as if the nave of some mediaeval chapel of ease had been re-developed later.12  
The cathedral thus presents a compendium of ecclesiastical architecture, visually spanning seven centuries, though developed over just 127 years.  

Images of the nave looking towards the High Altar from before, during and after World War II show how what was an open worship space without convenience for the four rites of the mediaeval church has, through the broadening of the nave pillars, become more adapted to separate ritual zones.

21st Century fixtures, including my scheme for a Holy Door inserted in 2015 and other artefacts, have introduced a newer language of Gothic, employing stone and metalwork.  As such, the edifice, though ‘visually serene’, is not ‘stylistically pure’ and is potentially robust enough to accept other stylistic incorporations without detriment to the heritage value of the building.

Saints & relics
The Eighth Song of Ascents reads
“As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time forth and for evermore.” (13)

For me as Cathedral Architect, the furnishing of a church is a sacramental act, a spiritual ‘surrounding’ of the congregation of the faithful.  I believe the artworks in a great church must feed something into the spiritual life of the community.  They must retell the story of everyday life in its divine significance:  they must be made by ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  And, when objects as significant as relics are allowed to create ‘places’, a new ‘space’ is made in the building. A new sacramental purpose is brought to the congregation.

Therefore, however well made [and one should acknowledge for example that the West Front of Westminster Abbey introduced John Robert’s exceptionally fine statue of Romero just 8 years after his assassination and a full 30 years before his canonisation] statues in the niches of a stone screen or relics in boxes on a wall are just displays:  admittedly a ‘spur’ to thought, to devotion and contemplation but not yet a ‘place’ of prayer.

By contrast, one can see that a relic, in a reliquary, with a likeness, at an architectural place, interpreted with embellishments by an artist, becomes a place of prayer and pilgrimage.

And in order to site such places of pilgrimage one wants to look at the sequence of Arrival, Gathering, Reception, Adoration, Communion, Devotion, Private Prayer, and Fellowship, within the logic of the plan of the great church.  One can learn from catholic traditions of private devotion at the shrines after the Mass and defer the protestant rush to fellowship over coffee.

In his second article, Jonathan Louth will expound the sacramental and devotional zones underlying the architectural plan of St George’s cathedral and report on the most recent insertion of shrines and statuary at the cathedral.

Verkaaik, Oscar. ed., Religious Architecture: Anthropological Perspectives. Amsterdam (2013 Amsterdam University Press)

Irvine, Richard D.G., ‘Stability, Continuity, Place: An English Benedictine Monastery as a Case Study in Counterfactual Architecture.’ (in Verkaaik, Oscar. ed., 2013 as above: p.25)

Dowd, Mark, My Tsunami Journey: The Quest for God in a Broken World. Eugene, Oregon (2022 Wipf and Stock)

1. cf. The Victorian Web>Home>Visual Arts> Architecture>Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), https://victorianweb.org

2. Ps.120 to Ps.134, the fifteen Psalms of Ascents each with a superscription Shir Hama’aloth, sung by Jewish pilgrims travelling up to Jerusalem for three great feast

3. Ps. 127 V.1 The Cathedral Psalter version

4. The Equilibrium between Conservation and Spirituality was the theme of the 2023 European Cathedrals Conference held in Malta and Pisa

5.  ed. Oscar Verkaaik 2013: 25

6. Irvine 2013: 25

7. John ch.14 v.1ii

8. Dowd 2022: 84  

9. Cited in Dowd 2022: 143

10. cf. Toulouse:  https://www.khanacademy.org/ humanities/medieval-world/romanesque-art/beginners-guide-romanesque/a/pilgrimage-routes-and-the-cult-of-the-relic

11. www.southwark-rc-cathedral.org.uk (virtual tour by www.views4d.com)

12. Designed by Craze, the Lady chapel and Baptistery were constructed in 1963 and 1966 under executive architects, The Broadbent Partnership

13. Ps. 125 v.2 Church of the Servant version

Stainless steel gates were constructed by Steel Options Ltd: the Holy Door by Universal Stone Ltd and joinery by A W Gowers Ltd.


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