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Bishop of Salisbury on church design and ritual


Dr David Stancliffe's talk at the V&A on church buildings served as a reminder of the ritualistic or symbolic dimensions of architectural design in general, in an era when the mantra 'on time and on budget' often seems to be the sole criterion by which buildings are judged to succeed or fail.

It was disappointing, however, that he omitted any discussion of contemporary design other than that involved in the reordering of the RC Cathedral of Portsmouth during his own period of office as Bishop.

Indeed, Dr Stancliffe directed criticism at two of the primary icons of modern church design in this country - the Metropolitan Cathedral of Liverpool, or 'Paddy's Wigwam', by Gibberd and Coventry Cathedral by Spence.

He described the latter as 'very difficult to conceive except in a CinemaScope kind of way ... almost a drive-in experience', dominated as it is by the enormous Graham Sutherland tapestry at the far end which makes the altar itself 'almost invisible'. And he took issue with the 'very static' character of the former, resulting from a circular liturgical arrangement which means that 'everyone has their back to the outside wall', and 'you can't go anywhere'.

For Stancliffe, movement is everything in church design. He describes himself as 'a founder member of the woodworm for pews society', having an inherent dislike of fixed seating in churches. He believes that churches should fulfil an expectation of 'transformation, change, growth and development', embodied in the ideal of the pilgrim's journey towards redemption, and makes the point that the earliest church buildings developed as a series of distinct rooms around a courtyard.

The memory of this tradition continued through the Middle Ages, when many churches were firmly divided into sections by screens marking the passageway from the 'world of tears through to life with God the Father'. He cited the example of the church at Vezelay, where the darkness of the nave gives way in a particularly dramatic manner to a highly illuminated sanctuary, symbolising the passage from darkness into light and exerting an almost physical force drawing people through the building from one end to the other.

Stancliffe described the 'jelly mould' churches of the Italian Renaissance as celebrating a contrasting ideal of harmony, close embrace and reason. At Portsmouth, the ambition was to return to the earlier ideal with a reconfiguration of the internal space as a series of four 'rooms' through which the congregation moves from the nave through a dark 'tunnel', via a large cruciform font towards the altar and sanctuary visible beyond.

He recalled that concerns were expressed as to the possibility of people falling into the font on the way but that, he stated firmly, 'is the point'.

Dr David Stancliffe, Bishop of Salisbury, was participating in a conference on the Material Culture of Christianity held at the V&A, London

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