Arts and Design

Top British churches of the past 100 years

Come Sunday, Britain used to be a nation devoutly on its knees, but no longer. Church attendance is in chronic decline, with Church of England affiliation currently standing at a record low of 14%. Modern Britons are generally less God-fearing than their forebears, with more than half the population saying they have no religion, according to a British Social Attitudes survey conducted last year.

As a result, there have been inevitable consequences for places of worship. The shift towards secularism is most visibly apparent in the wholesale abandonment of churches in both urban and rural locales. Yet despite plummeting numbers of worshippers, church architecture still strikes a deeply sentimental chord in the national psyche. Bookshops heave with lightly tossed-off tomes on the subject of Britain’s best churches.

With the unpromising title 100 Churches 100 Years, this new publication from the Twentieth Century Society appears to delve into similar stocking-filler terrain. But as you’d expect from the calibre of its contributors, who include leading architectural historians Elain Harwood and Alan Powers, it’s a more subtle and scholarly investigation into the history of British church building in the modern era, weighing up influences, exploring the role of art and artefacts and resituating the Christian church in a landscape it now increasingly shares with mosques, synagogues and Hindu temples.

In the same way that sexual intercourse began in 1963, modern church architecture began in 1923, with the building of Auguste Perret’s Notre-Dame du Raincy on a symbolically charged site outside Paris, where General Michel-Joseph Maunoury repulsed the German army during the first world war. Perret was a genius, fusing gothic construction and classical details into a single, astonishing vision of raw concrete, amplified by a sensory overload of stained glass. Together with other European innovators, such as German architect Fritz Höger, perpetrator of highly expressionist brickwork, Perret provided a model for the British contingent in their quest to devise a new architectural language for the modern church.

Experiment has been a constant factor, brought home by the slightly exhausting chronological trajectory, which flashes through 100 significant examples with the rapidity of a runaway PowerPoint. It’s a relief to stop at the familiar waypoints of Coventry Cathedral, Basil Spence’s overwrought monument to postwar reconstruction, and Liverpool’s twin titans, the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, by Frederick Gibberd, with its abstract crown of thorns and radical in-the-round layout, and the Anglican Church of Christ by Giles Gilbert Scott. Aged only 22, Scott won a competition for what was to be the first new Church of England cathedral to be built since the Reformation, and it became his life’s work.

With an unusual symmetrical composition dominated by an enormous central tower, Scott’s design was calculated to conjure intimations of Romantic gloom. “It is either an engine of emotion or it is nothing,” the architect and critic HS Goodhart-Rendel wrote at the time. But it was also revolutionary in the articulation of its steel structure and expeditious purging of gothic folderols, clearing away the “archaeological shackles” of the past and opening up new architectural possibilities. Scott died in 1960, and the design was implemented by members of his office using fibreglass specially cast to look like the existing stonework. It was finally completed in 1978.

Sutton Baptist church, 1934, designed by NF Cachemaille-Day

Sutton Baptist church, 1934, designed by NF Cachemaille-Day. Photograph: 100 Churches 100 Years

Beyond the triumvirate of Spence, Gibberd and Gilbert Scott, there is a rich supporting cast of lesser-known ecclesiastical architects, whose contributions are brought vividly to life. Like me, you may have never heard of Edward Maufe (né Muff), FX Velarde or Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day, but their work is as colourfully compelling as their names suggest.

In a long career that bridged the inter and postwar periods, Cachemaille-Day was one of the most prolific architects of his time, designing or reconfiguring more than 60 churches. Externally, his buildings were austere, Germanic brick fortresses – Sutton Baptist church is a good example – but the internal arrangements contrived to put people in more intimate proximity with the altar. FX Velarde was also initially influenced by German expressionism, but latterly the tone changed and he designed a dozen suburban churches with a whimsical, toy-like quality, redolent of the 1950s. Many had campaniles resembling rockets, such as the English Martyrs’ church in Wallasey, completed in 1953.

Breaking down barriers between priest and congregation became the underlying theme of postwar liturgical reform, and this fed through into architecture. It was perhaps most memorably concretised by Maguire and Murray’s seminal St Paul’s at Bow Common, with its centrally placed altar and modernist baldaquin fabricated from welded steel sections. Critic Ian Nairn described it as “completely fresh, the perennial force seen again for the first time”.

English Martyrs’ church, Wallasey.

English Martyrs’ church, Wallasey. Photograph: 100 Years 100 Churches

One surprising statistic is that as many churches were built in Britain during the 1960s as in the high Victorian 1860s. New buildings were needed to counter wartime destruction and address the impact of liturgical change, but modern churches also broke new ground, moving away from their traditional city-centre fiefdoms and into the expanding suburbs and emerging new towns. Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s (GKC) St Bride’s in East Kilbride was a typical pioneer. Set on a prominent site in the centre of Scotland’s first new town, it was an architectural and spiritual outlier, a brooding, brutalist box, with thick brick walls, which aped the heft of medieval Caledonian castles.

Of the numerous commissions GKC undertook for the Catholic church, however, none matches the notoriety of St Peter’s seminary in Cardross. Described as “British modernism’s most spectacular and erudite ruin”, it has become infamous as much for its photogenic state of dereliction as the exceptional nature of its architecture, which was heavily inflected by the work of Le Corbusier. Completed in 1966, St Peter’s was operational for a mere 14 years, falling prey to the Vatican decree that priests were to be educated in the community rather than on isolated sites. It closed as a seminary in 1980, was briefly used as a drug rehabilitation centre, then lapsed into a state of prolonged and squalidly picturesque abandonment.

Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s St Peter’s seminary in Cardross (1966).

‘British modernism’s most spectacular ruin’: Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s St Peter’s seminary in Cardross (1966). Photograph: Kay Roxby/Alamy

After numerous attempts at rescue, restoration and remodelling, its destiny has now been definitively determined with the recent news that the site will be subject to a strategy of “curated decay”. A report by Historic Environment Scotland advised that the Grade A-listed building should not be taken into the care of the state “due to the risk and cost to the public purse”, according to Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for culture. The archdiocese of Glasgow, which is responsible for St Peter’s, has described it as an “albatross around its neck”.

The notion of “curated decay” has prompted much mirthless laughter among the architectural commentariat. It involves spending £6m to maintain St Peter’s and make it safe enough to permit limited public access, but it will remain rotting and purposeless in the Clydeside undergrowth. Such a sad and ruinous end forms a jarring coda, but St Peter’s fate is not unique. Dwindling congregations and resources put all church buildings at risk, especially more “challenging” modern ones. The line between preservation and extinction, heaven or hell, has never been more starkly defined.

100 Churches 100 Years is published by Twentieth Century Society (£25). To order a copy for £22 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


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