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Open for Prayer

A woman prays before an Icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Church Architecture & the Soul

In the 1840s, against the backdrop of intensive social change, political upheaval, and the rise of the Oxford Movement and its architectural counterpart, the Ecclesiologists, something extraordinary took shape in a tiny village in Cumbria. St Mary’s, the parish church in Wreay, was utterly transformed. It was Sarah Losh, who’s been described by Simon Jenkins as ‘a Charlotte Bronte of wood and stone’, who created this extraordinary holy space as a memorial to her sister and parents.

Losh described her style, which is as globally inspired and unique as the greatest of architectural experiments that emerged anywhere in the 19th century, as ‘early Saxon or modified Lombard’. The church teems with symbolism. She and her brother carved the alabaster font together, with its butterflies and pomegranates. Plants and animals inhabit the building, surging across surfaces with a vitality at once energetic and serene. It is a hymn to God’s creation in stone, wood, and metalwork. Why did she do this? Perhaps the best explanation is a deep sense of love motivating a desire to bring a new manifestation of the glory of God into this rural village.

Nearly 80 years later in London, a Hampstead stained glass designer received a commission for a war memorial window in the parish church for a young man, among so many young men, who lost his life in the Great War. Joan Fulleylove, who also designed windows for the Anglican church in Khartoum, used a rich palette of purples, blues, and fiery oranges. The angels in the scene, which combines the cross and the crowning of a chivalric-looking soldier-knight in heaven, have the latest flapper haircuts and fuschia haloes. The ancient and the modern fuse together. Surrounding the window in little quarries, so small they might easily be overlooked, are the Instruments of the Passion. In overall effect and in detail, this window is a fusion of suffering and hope forged in the legacy of trauma.

On what turned out to be the day before we had to close our churches for the lockdown, I made a short video about the window, which you can watch here:

As lockdown continued, I began to ask people in the parish to make short films for a project called ‘Objects of Hope’. One parishioner, Lucy, made a video about the church itself, as a sign of the community still active in prayer, worship, and action, and also as a place of longing as we continue to be unable to gather with God and with one another for the liturgies that bring us together, for the Eucharist and in prayer.

These two examples of British sacred works of art by women can be drawn into conversation with another woman whose impact on Christian life and thought has been immense: Evelyn Underhill.

As a novelist, theologian, spiritual director and prolific writer, Underhill influenced many and continues to do so. Born in 1875, she died on 15 June 1941 and is buried in the churchyard at Hampstead Parish Church. She was the first laywoman to lead retreats for clergy at Canterbury Cathedral, and a steady hand held out to anyone who wanted to delve into the mystical tradition of prayer and worship not as an escape from the world but as a route into the heart of our being, so that we may serve Christ in the world. Her many books include Mysticism, Worship, and The Mystery of Sacrifice. On the night before her seventeenth birthday, she wrote in her journal that she wanted to be an author and hoped her intellect would ‘not grow tall to look down on things, but wide to embrace all sorts of things’.

She was convinced that a true deepening of faith and devotion to God was not to be found in a spiritualism attempting to escape from the world and the senses, but on one’s knees in the pew and in the sanctuary. Regarding a Christian’s response to liturgy and the Eucharist, she wrote, ‘in you and through you the method and work of the Incarnation must go forward. You are meant to incarnate in your lives the theme of your adoration. You are to be taken, consecrated, broken, and made means of grace; vehicles of the Eternal Charity.’ The Church as an institution, however frail or frustrating it could be, was and is the spiritual home of the faithful for Underhill. Church buildings were houses of prayer whether open or shut, and as the ‘house of God and gate of heaven’ their presence in the landscape was a sign of God’s hope and the consecration of the whole earth to God’s glory.

In Worship, Underhill writes,

‘God alone matters, God alone Is – creation only matters because of Him. “Wherein does your prayer consist?” said St John of the Cross to one of his penitents. She replied: “In considering the Beauty of God, and in rejoicing that He has such Beauty.”’

Evelyn Underhill – Worship

The capital B is present in Underhill’s citation. 

Underhill, who became an Anglican in 1921, long after she began writing about theology and mysticism, had some challenging words to offer regarding the Church and our church buildings: for her, criticism of the Church is really ‘criticism of ourselves. Were we more spiritually alive, our spiritual homes would be the real nesting-places of new life.’ From 1898 until 1908 Underhill and her mother took regular trips to Italy. She responded to one chapel’s impact as a spiritual encounter with ‘the actual structure of the earth’ and another as being ‘soaked’ with a ‘sense of prayer and adoration’. Her book on Shrines and Cities of France and Italy is not to be missed.

There is a similarity between Underhill’s views about churches and the architect Ninian Comper’s understanding of a church’s purpose. Going beyond the classic debates about Gothic versus Neo-Classical and other issues surrounding the relationship between style and morality, Comper chose to combine what he thought to be the best of these worlds in a method he called ‘unity by inclusion’. In a ground-breaking 1947 essay, ‘On the Atmosphere of a Church’, Comper wrote that the purpose of any church, whether an enormous Gothic cathedral or the smallest parish church of any age or style, is ‘to move to worship, to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land’. Our landscape, culturally, socially, theologically, is indeed a challenging one now more than ever. The weariness that accompanies the dynamics of personal and collective trauma is beyond measure. We can now, thankfully, if we wish and if it’s right in our parish contexts, open our churches for private prayer. Refreshment is not a luxury, but an urgent necessity. Churches are places not only in which this can happen, but places the very purpose of which is to provide that refreshment, offering ‘the peace which the world cannot give’. Our kitchens may have running water on tap, for which we’re thankful; our churches are flowing rivers of faithful witness.

When I first arrived in Hampstead, I had a conversation with someone who was beginning to explore whether he might want to become a Christian. He explained that he had started going into churches, sometimes multiple times a day, to just be in these places of prayer and absorb the atmosphere. He was moved by them, and he was also perplexed and embarrassed about his desire to visit them. He found himself magnetically drawn towards their open doors, quiet peace, gentle challenge, and flickering candles by the aumbry. Some were recent. Some, like Hampstead’s, had been places of prayer for over 1000 years. He said that when he looked at a map of London he began to laugh, because for the first time he noticed just how many little crosses, indicating all the churches, were present on the map. He’d simply never noticed before. The churches that drew him in are a foundation stone of his personal spiritual architecture. He was baptised and confirmed in 2018, having embraced that sacred magnetic pull.

Losh, Fulleylove, Comper and Underhill believed that they were doing something deliberately bold and different in the ongoing witness and life of the Church that was not meant to radically and subversively tear down walls, but was committed to building them up in love. And that is, indeed, what their work has accomplished in stone, glass, and words.

In her book of private prayers, Underhill wrote this:

O God who has filled the earth with the glory of Your presence, and led Your servants of old to make this place Your dwelling place. Grant that Your children who come within its influence, may ever find You here: and going away from here may truly take You with them and return to You here again in due season. May we and they so build up our lives in You that they also may be places wherein Your Spirit dwells, filled with that strength and beauty which only comes from You, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Evelyn Underhill – Book of Private Prayers

The Rev’d Dr Ayla Lepine
Curate, Hampstead Parish Church

1 For more on Sarah Losh, Jenny Uglow, The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine–Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary (Faber and Faber, 2012)
2 Simon Jenkins, England’s Thousand Best Churches (Allen Lane, 2012), p. 103
3 Peter Cormack, Arts and Crafts Stained Glass (Yale, 2015), p. 255
4 Robyn Wrigley-Carr, The Spiritual Formation of Evelyn Underhill (SPCK, 2020), p. 19
5 Evelyn Underhill, The Mystery of Sacrifice: A Meditation on the Liturgy (Morehouse, 1991 [1938]), p. 14
6 Evelyn Underhill, Worship (Nisbet and Co., 1937) p. 86
7 Evelyn Underhill, The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (Morehouse, 1994 [1922]), p. 147
8 Wrigley-Carr, p. 20
9 Anthony Symondson and Stephen Arthur Bucknall, Sir Ninian Comper: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Spire, 2006), p. 234
10 Robyn Wrigley-Carr, ed., Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book (SPCK, 2018), p. 97

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