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Ben Stoker text architecture as theology in theory and in practice at the church of st john the baptist lincoln tagged


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Notes for Presentation by Ben Stoker, Development Officer, Diocese of Lincoln. "Architecture as theology in theory and in practice at the parish church of St John the Baptist, Lincoln". The presentation was given as part of a session on "Visions of Church and Churches in the 20th century" at a conference on parish church interiors supported by Historic England.

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Ben Stoker text architecture as theology in theory and in practice at the church of st john the baptist lincoln tagged

  1. 1. St John the Baptist: Architecture as Theology in Theory and in Practice at the Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Lincoln. Leicester, 14.12.15 This paper is about the challenges of altering a church interior that has been carefully planned to fulfil a particular function in a particular way. We’ll start with a little context before exploring those challenges. Hugh Segar Scorer was born in Lincoln in 1923 and lived until 2003. He changed his name by Deed Poll to Sam Scorer. He was an architect of arguably limited national recognition but forceful personality. I met him once, about 15 years ago, when I helped to hang a selection of paintings, which he had persuaded the Tate to lend him, in his new Lincoln art gallery. I can confirm that his personality was, indeed, forceful. But this paper is not about Sam or his personality; it is about one of his buildings: the parish church of St John the Baptist on the Ermine estate in Lincoln. The Ermine Estate, comprising Ermine East and Ermine West —never to be pronounced ‘Ermin’—is, in places, one of the most socially and economically deprived areas of Lincoln. It was developed in the 1950s and has matured into a sprawling mass of largely social housing, bisected by the busy Riseholme road, both physically and psychologically. In 1959, when the estate was in its infancy, steps were taken to build a new parish church to replace the dual purpose hall-church in Ermine East. The new design shouldn’t be Gothic.i Revd John Hodgkinson, who presided over the project, spoke of its design; The old church was very cluttered up with various objects and [the designers] arrived at a principle that nothing would be included unless it was used…We wanted the church to be functional. ii Sam Scorer of Denis Clarke Hall, Scorer and Bright and the Structural Engineer Dr Hajnal- Kónyi were the designers.iii Sam, as Principal, agreed to work on a no-win-no-fee basis: his payment was dependent upon the funds to build being raised. In 1962 the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Kenneth Riches. It had taken a gargantuan fundraising effort to amass the sum of £24,000 to build the main body of the church. This work was carried out by Simons of Lincoln. In 1963 it was consecrated by the foundation-stone-laying Bishop and the parish of St John had a new church; a church that the Daily Telegraph described as ‘Europe’s Church of Tomorrow’.iv By 1995 it was deemed worthy of a grade II* listing and described by English Heritage as ‘a major contribution to church architecture of this period, combining innovative architectural thinking with advanced liturgical planning.’v Sam’s design was led by the principal tenet of the Parish Communion Movement: "the Lord's people around the Lord's table on the Lord's day".vi It was also informed by the ideas of Peter Hammond’s 1957 New Churches Research Group, which believed that the ‘traditional’ rectangular and divided church arrangement only served to distance
  2. 2. congregation from priest. vii The exterior of the building, the hexagonal concrete shell, leans toward Brutalism. Sam’s calling card, the hyperbolic paraboloid roof, is present, inverted, aluminium-covered and dominant. It is a fairly incongruous, but welcome sight in the middle of the residential estate. And it does not altogether prepare the visitor for the interior. Keith New, who had previously fulfilled a commission for Coventry Cathedral, designed the immediately forceful east window. Entitled ‘The Revelation of God’s Plan for Man’s Redemption’, it cost £2000 and its abstracted forms are powerfully beautiful. The window is both the first and the last, but the full experience of revelation must be attained. The pilgrim must walk down, quite literally, for the floor is sloped, into the waters of baptism before ascending the four circular steps (once bare concrete, now carpeted) to the altar, at the heart of the Sanctuary, and at a level height with the entrance to the church. Also in the Sanctuary are contemporaneous metal fittings made by Charles Edward Sansbury, a local art teacher. The lectern-pulpit located to the north of the Sanctuary. The benches are tiered and arranged in a curve around the Sanctuary steps. All this takes place under the sweep of the roof, which tents the space, exploiting the associated symbolism effectively. Think of the Israelites in the wilderness in the book of Exodus.viii The church as a means of protection. Each member of the congregation has a clear, uninhibited view of the altar. The benches on which they sit were designed by Scorer, but made by local craftspeople. In fact, many local people lent a hand in the building and fitting-out of the church, which helped to keep the costs down. Revd John Hodgkinson recalled the circumstances that led to the seating being arranged as it was; ‘Sam produced a blank piece of paper, and drew a small rectangle in the centre. He said this represented the focal point of some activity, perhaps a speaker in Hyde Park. I was then asked to draw the way in which people would gather round to hear and see. This produced a circle of people…’ ix Scorer’s emphasis, as is clear, was on Communion; both of people and the Sacrament. The Altar, with its entombed Christ, is central. People gather around its full circumference to receive Communion. The pulpit-lectern—The Word—is clearly visible but almost marginalised. The massive font is positioned at the lowest point of the church, in front of the Sanctuary steps; its basin at the exact centre of the church.x Each of the principal fixtures was designed by Scorer and cast in concrete. Their positioning makes theoretical sense, but the font’s status as a gateway to salvation recedes into the shadow of its physicality. It can be read as a barrier: to salvation; to movement; and to change. Fr Stephen Hoy, current incumbent at St John’s, views the font, outside of its own Sacramental context, as both an intrinsic part of the pilgrim’s journey through the church and as a physical object to be negotiated. In 1999 Stephen was in discussions with the Lincoln DAC about re-locating the font. In a letter dated 12 January he wrote; The current position [of the font] was conceived as a fundamental part of the design of the church in theological terms…a spiritual journey through the waters of baptism, rising to new life at the altar of salvation.
  3. 3. However, as we all know, good ideas do not always translate into practical liturgy. The font is probably in the worst possible position at the moment for any liturgical procession, for weddings or for funerals. xi The proposal was to create a baptistery by moving the font to the south side of the church and removing the kneeler and a third of the pews. The same would be done on the north side and the organ brought forward. In March the same year Stephen wrote to Sam Scorer to ask his opinion on the matter. His reply, if he did reply, is lost. Stephen recalls that Sam often turned up on his doorstep to voice his opinion about architectural matters, as may have been the case in this instance. xii In the end the proposed re-ordering, designed by the architect David Glew, never happened. The proposal was considered to be destructive of the theological journey embedded in the building. Weddings are still difficult, the bride and groom shuffling awkwardly around the font. Funerals were even more challenging. For a time the coffin was placed on top of the mass of cast concrete, but the experience of the coffin looming over the deceased’s loved ones was not altogether welcomed. Stephen has therefore adapted his funeral liturgy, rather than Sam’s scheme. The departed’s coffin is taken on a final journey, circumnavigating the congregation to the south, around the back of the altar to rest at its front for the duration of the service and then on a mirrored route to exit. This makes use of the architecture and sweeping aesthetics of the building, transforming a practical solution into a powerfully symbolic act. It has worked so well that Stephen wouldn’t change the way funerals are conducted now, regardless of the location of the font.xiii Liturgy is more elastic than material, particularly if that material is carefully planned to embody a specific theology. It is therefore even more challenging to introduce those ‘community facilities’ that are ostensibly expected at all churches in the twenty first century. To do so risks the integrity of the theology, the clarity of the message, and the aesthetics of the structure. There is a lavatory in the narthex, so, for once, that’s no issue. Permission to install a servery in the North West corner was granted in 2007; a sound system that was painfully settled upon because of its incongruousness was permanently installed in 2001; there is a leaflet table; and small shop area. It is difficult to consider these introductions as anything but disruptive to a reading of the building. There is, too, a place for children’s activities at the north point of the descending roof. If St John’s were a medieval church, perhaps pews would be moved, turned, and a dedicated area created rather than a space occupied. But the descent to the font, the sight lines, and the need for all to be visible to all makes that impossible at St John’s. There is a vestry and a chapel dedicated to Mary and Martha at the rear of the building, incorporated into the original design in principle but built later. To utilise this for children’s activity during services, however, would be to exclude rather than include. Equally, there is no viable location for a place of private prayer or reflection in the main body of the church; all is public—one people, one body: The Church. Karolina Szynalska, in her work on Sam Scorer, to which this paper owes a debt, states that;
  4. 4. St John fulfilled its original brief. It is still like home for many parishioners. It does not look Gothic and it is functional – the structure is rationally functional and its functionality includes irrational and symbolic values… It provided the open space the congregation wanted, as well as the narrative of a modest tent on a pilgrims’ path. xiv I agree the building fulfils its brief, but I contend that in doing so comprehensively it refuses physical adaptation: with all its functionality and embedded theology, it demands adherence rather than permanent departures. It is a unification of theology, design and material. It is a vision centred on the clarity of its message—the primacy of the Communion and the singular body of The Church—not on the occasional practicalities of a funeral, which Stephen Hoy’s sympathetic liturgical inventiveness has overcome. Sam Scorer did not anticipate the stuff of twenty-first century expectations. Unaltered, St John’s continues to advance the theology of the journey to Salvation or Redemption, attained through the Eucharist. Change it and risk collapse. The font stays where it is. i Hodgkinson, John, The Creation of a Parish and the Building of its Church, 1956-1964: St John the Baptist, Lincoln, Lincoln, private publication, date unknown, p.7 ii Lincoln Central Library’s Sam Scorer Newspaper cuttings, as quoted in: Szynalska, Karolina, Yesterday’s Church of Tomorrow St. John the Baptist, Ermine Estate, date unknown, p.7 iii Szynalska, Karolina, Yesterday’s Church of Tomorrow St. John the Baptist, Ermine Estate, date unknown, p.3, iv Hodgkinson, John, The Creation of a Parish and the Building of its Church, 1956-1964: St John the Baptist, Lincoln, Lincoln, private publication, date unknown, p.9 v Building List Description: lincolnshire#.VmcYo7iLTcs vi vii Twentieth Century Society LINCOLN SCORECARD – A TRIBUTE TO SAM SCORER, SATURDAY, 8 OCTOBER 2011 viii Clark, Simon, The Parish Church of St John the Baptist, Ermine, Lincoln, private publication, date unknown (after 1998) ix Hodgkinson, John, The Creation of a Parish and the Building of its Church, 1956-1964: St John the Baptist, Lincoln, Lincoln, private publication, date unknown, p.8 x Letter, David Glew to Stephen Hoy, 18 January, 1999, Lincoln Diocesan archive xi Letter, Stephen Hoy to ‘Arthur’, dated 12 January 1999, Lincoln Diocesan archive xii Email, Stephen Hoy to Ben Stoker, 07.12.15 xiii Stephen Hoy interviewed by Ben Stoker on 29 October 2015 xiv Szynalska, Karolina, Yesterday’s Church of Tomorrow St. John the Baptist, Ermine Estate, date unknown, p.11,