The Victorians and After Churches: How to Read Them


The Victorians and After

Richard Taylor discovers how medieval imagery made a surprise return to Victorian places of worship and how WWI brought back the commemoration of the dead.


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In 1850, a full-scale riot broke out

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during a service here at St Barnabas in Pimlico.

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A huge mob had gathered outside.

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100 policemen had to be drafted in to control them

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and members of the congregation were commissioned as special constables

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in order to line up here against the screen

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and protect the choir.

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What had inflamed the mob was what they saw as Catholic practices taking place.

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And they weren't alone. Queen Victoria herself

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said that they should put a stop to these ritualistic practices.

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'The Victorian period saw a boom in church building.

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'But, surprisingly for the industrial age,

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'many in the church turned for inspiration to the mystery

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'and symbolism of Britain's medieval past.

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'I'm Richard Taylor. I write books that unravel the meaning of Britain's churches.

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'I'll be reading the religious architecture of the last 150 years

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'to discover how religious turmoil, two world wars and modern culture

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'have all shaped Britain's churches.

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'And also to find out what value the ancient images of Christianity,

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'reinvented so many times, may still have in the present day.'

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'This church, St Barnabas, where the riots took place,

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'was the very first to be built by a radical new movement

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'that would change the look of churches across England.'

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The spark for the revolution that swept through English church buildings was a sermon,

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preached in 1833 by an Oxford theologian called John Keble.

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Keble reminded his congregation

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that when the people of Israel had turned their backs on the Lord their God,

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God had punished them,

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and he predicted a similar fate for England if England did not mend its ways.

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'By the 19th century, the Church of England had become almost an arm of the state.

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'Inside Britain's churches, where once there had been saints,

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'there were now symbols of worldly status.

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'Even the great rood had had to make way for the royal coat of arms.

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'Keble's sermon tapped into a growing belief

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'that the established church had lost something special.

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'Its sacred mystery.

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'The new thinking he inspired became known as the Oxford Movement.'

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In their zeal to return Britain to godly ways,

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the Oxford Movement yearned for the Christian world order of the Middle Ages.

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Then, so it seemed to them, the nation was united

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in its perfect love of God.

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So what could be more natural than to adopt the architecture and style of the Middle Ages, too?

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This was seen as being the perfect vehicle for Christian worship

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and it came to have an impact on almost every church in the country.

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'The Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages,

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'laden with meaning and symbolism,

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'was lovingly recreated and, once again,

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'the structure itself conveyed a message.

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The church is designed not just to be a building.

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It's a standing sermon. It's meant to inspire people

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and teach people, so every element in it

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has some moral message.

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The roof doesn't just keep the rain off,

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it's there as a symbol of faithfulness and protection.

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The pillars aren't there to keep the roof up,

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they're symbols of the teachers of the church, of the bishops.

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'And it wasn't only the architecture of the Middle Ages

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'that swept back into churches, but also its rituals.

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'The Oxford Movement reinstated the mass,

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'reviving the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine.

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'In the 17th century, Protestants had replaced the altar

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'with a Communion table, set amongst the congregation.'

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Now, the altar is in pride of place and behind a screen.

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This was outrageous,

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separating off what was going on up there in the Eucharist from the people down here.

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'And in keeping with the altar's renewed status,

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'the decoration around it is equally sumptuous.'

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Everything is covered. There are saints,

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there's grapes, there's flowers.

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Everything that can be covered with decoration is covered with decoration.

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For hundreds of years, the English had associated their faith with a simplicity.

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It had been defined against the extravagance of Rome,

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against the extravagance of those continentals that we were endlessly fighting wars with.

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So to find that fervour, that decoration back here

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was outrageous!

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It was an affront to Englishness

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and it was an affront to God himself.

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'I've come to meet Father Jones,

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'a priest in the tradition of the Oxford Movement,

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'to understand why passions ran so high.'

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People in the Oxford Movement, what was driving them?

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A belief that the Church of England was a Catholic church,

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and the Catholic church of this land,

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and a desire to proclaim that and teach it to people

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and to teach it to everybody. A deep knowledge that the nature of religion

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was not something connected to the state,

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but the gospel that had come from God,

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the Church not as a department of civil service,

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but actually God's instrument for salvation, hope and eventually glory.

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Why did people react against it in the way that they did?

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I think the criticisms exist at two levels.

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One, that it was simply making the Church of England like the Roman Catholic church,

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and secondly, that this was a form of mummery and dressing-up.

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Was is divisive, then? To some degree, it must have been divisive.

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It was divisive. Many clergy were dragged through the courts.

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A number of them went to prison, in one case for nine months,

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for wearing the vestments that are worn in a huge majority of Anglican churches today.

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-Do you think the movement was misunderstood?

-I think it was misunderstood,

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particularly in its early period. I think it was seen as attempting to undo the Reformation,

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whereas I think, perhaps, Anglo-Catholics felt themselves, and I'm sure they were,

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restoring the Church of England to her right mind.

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'Despite strenuous resistance, Anglo-Catholic churches spread across Britain.

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'The movement seemed unstoppable.

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'In fact, half of England's parish churches surviving today

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'were built in the 19th century, many on these Catholic principles.

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'As a result, a whole industry sprang up of church furnishers and decorators.

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'Best known was Morris and Company,

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'founded by William Morris, who provided stained glass for many of these buildings.

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'I've come to what has been described as the country's most complete Victorian church.

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'And it, indeed, represents the pinnacle of the Medieval revival.'

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Good heavens! All this technicolour.

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But what immediately hits you in the face...is that.

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This is the age of the Penny Post and the railway.

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This church was built in the same decade that Darwin's Origin Of Species was published,

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and here you have a doom painting, an image of the last judgement,

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just like you would've seen in the Middle Ages.

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It shows you how Victorians were regarding the Middle Ages as the perfect Christian era

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and wanting to take on board

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those aspects of medieval Christianity

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that they saw as most fruitful.

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'There's no question that the Victorians were sincere in trying to recapture

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'the faith of the Middle Ages.

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'But I'm left wondering, just how successful were they?'

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When I was visiting the medieval churches, one of the joys of them

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was the sense that people were taking a part of themselves

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and putting it into these buildings.

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And the Victorians were doing the same.

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They were taking part of themselves in their churches.

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But they were doing it wearing someone else's clothes.

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They were trying to recreate an ideal of the Middle Ages.

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And there's a problem with that.

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The second time around, it's just that bit more self-conscious,

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and that creates a distance.

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The Victorian style isn't for everybody now,

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and it wasn't even then.

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'Hundreds of new churches were built,

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but increasingly, this style was imposed on ancient churches, too.

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'William Morris, who had poured his energies into the Gothic revival,

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'was beginning to realise that, in the rush to restore old churches,

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'something very precious was being lost.'

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I'm going to Inglesham, to a church near to where William Morris lived and which he loved.

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I want to understand why, what it is about this place

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that made him want to save it from restoration.

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Ooh!

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The glory of this place

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is the layers upon layers upon layers of history that you can see around you.

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All over the walls here in the Middle Ages you see the paintings,

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the biblical stories that they would've put up.

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Leaves, branches, the little twist of an ankle there.

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Then next, you've got the Reformation,

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the words, scripture in English, the Lord's Prayer, the Creed.

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You've got, in the 18th century, these box pews.

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And all of it is so simple.

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Morris's genius was to recognise that, in an ancient church like this,

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those layers upon layers of generation, of people giving of themselves into the church,

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is here to be valued and here to be preserved.

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This place, more than almost anywhere I've visited,

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is radiant with history.

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'And it was that history Morris feared could be lost forever

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'as mass-produced materials were being used to restore England's medieval churches.

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'His feelings came to a head in a famous encounter

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'here at another St John the Baptist church,

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'which was being restored by the Anglo-Catholic vicar,

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'the Reverend William Cass.'

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Morris came to the church to see what was going on

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and Cass came over and started showing all the work that was being done, very proudly,

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but he didn't get a very pleasant response.

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Morris was silent,

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and as Cass showed the flooring and what had been done to the walls,

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Morris was quiet, until all of a sudden he exploded.

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"You've torn up the lovely local flag and you've put down this Birmingham tiling!"

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"Oh, dear, you're in the process of spoiling the church."

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And Cass was very upset.

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And the two men had a set to

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and it ended with Cass saying to Morris,

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"The church, sir, is mine, and if I wish, I will stand on my head in it!"

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What had Cass done that Morris found so objectionable?

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I think it was the industrialised 19th century

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pressing in on what had been a medieval church.

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'Cass thought that by using modern copies of medieval materials,

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'and by scraping away the plaster to reveal the stone,

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'he was recreating an authentic church of the Middle Ages.

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'Morris was appalled.'

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-What did Morris go on to do?

-Morris went away and wrote a letter

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attacking the scraping of walls.

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And he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

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-So it's for the protection of buildings, as if they're holding back the vandals.

-Oh, yes, yes.

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They saw much of the restoration as sheer vandalism.

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'As the 19th century gave way to the 20th,

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'the medieval revival pioneered by the Oxford Movement

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'had become the dominant architectural style in England.

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'In fact, it had become so universal

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'that it was even adopted by some of its most ardent opponents.'

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This looks at first glance like a medieval church.

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But it was built just before the First World War. And what does it have?

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Gargoyles, green men, higher altar,

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all of the accoutrements of a medieval church.

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And it's not even in the Church of England.

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The Presbyterians, who for centuries had almost defined themselves

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against the Catholic Middle Ages,

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were now building churches

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that absorbed this fashion for medieval romanticism.

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'Within a heartbeat of this church being completed,

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'such romanticism looked hopelessly fanciful.

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'The world descended into a war that would bring carnage

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'on an unimaginable scale.

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'Many of our churchyards bear witness to that terrible loss,

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'with the greatest collective act of remembrance that this country has ever seen.

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'Memorials to the dead of the First World War.'

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Here, the inscription is,

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"To the glorious memory of the men of Broughton Poggs"

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and there's name after name, all in this tiny village.

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You sometimes find in churches these.

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The wooden crosses that were erected on the battlefields themselves during the war.

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This one memorialises Captain Hardcastle,

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all of those lieutenants

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and, dear God,

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78 NCOs and men, some of whom are buried near this spot.

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They don't even know where they were killed.

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That this was placed at the time

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by the companions of the men who fell,

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and was then later brought back by those who loved them

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to bring it here to an English parish church

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is itself, I think, a very moving act.

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An act of true remembrance.

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It was as a result of what happened in the Great War,

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this terrible loss of life, that there was a change in the church.

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A change to something that hadn't been seen in hundreds of years,

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and that was prayers for the dead.

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Praying for the dead had been a common feature of the Middle Ages, but the Reformation threw it out.

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But now, in the face of this appalling tragedy,

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people wanted once again to pray for the people that they had lost.

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They wanted once again to have that communion with the departed.

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'Just as our medieval ancestors had built Chantry Chapels in which to pray for the souls of the departed,

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'now a new type of chapel was built for a similar purpose.

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'To commemorate those killed in war.'

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In many churches, a separate space was created

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in remembrance of those who had died in the wars.

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Here it's fenced off in a corner of the church

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with its own dedicated altar

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and these words.

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Often in these places of remembrance, you have specific military references.

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Here, on either side of the altar, there is an angel and a soldier.

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On one side, the soldier is kneeling before the angel, who's crowning him,

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and on the other side, the soldier is standing for a kneeling angel

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who's handing him his sword, and he's guarding himself with his shield.

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And in the centre, there's an image of the crucifixion,

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of Christ's suffering and death,

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just as the people remembered here had suffered and died.

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'In the Middle Ages, people had seen in the image of a suffering Christ,

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'an echo of their own suffering.

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'Now, in the 20th century, the horrors of industrialised warfare

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'gave the crucifixion scene renewed relevance.'

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This is a painting by the great British artist Graham Sutherland,

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who'd been a war artist, but this was painted in 1946

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in the aftermath of the war, and it's his response to what had gone on.

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It takes the elements of a crucifixion scene,

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Christ hangs on the cross, his head hanging to the right at the moment of his death,

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but this is an intensely physical Christ.

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A great sheet of muscle hanging over the shoulder,

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the great bushy beard of a prophet, blood pouring from the wounds in his hands and feet.

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There were plenty of images of the suffering Christ in the Middle Ages,

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but in the Middle Ages, this would've been part of a grand theological scheme

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with a doom painting overhead and standing on the top of a rood screen.

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Here, it stands alone, and there's a physicality to this

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that could only have come from someone who's seen one of the great horrors of the 20th century.

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AIR RAID SIREN BLARES

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EXPLOSIONS

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'The Second World War brought devastation to many of Britain's cities.

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'Three centuries earlier, the Great Fire of London

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'had cleared the way for Wren's masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral.'

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'Now the terror and destruction of the Blitz

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'gave rise to a new wave of church building.

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'Many of the churches that emerged from the ruins

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'appear to be a clean break with the old,

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'rejecting hundreds of years of tradition.'

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On first impression, it feels almost like a public library

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or swimming baths.

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But I think that's a bit unfair. We're seeing it nowadays

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through eyes that are used to seeing spaces like this,

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this kind of brick, that kind of concrete, in a municipal context.

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You forget that this was built in 1960

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and was deeply radical for the times.

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Traditionalists may not have liked it,

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but what you're seeing here is something that is deeply traditional.

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The idea of sacred space.

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That starts at the outside with the statement that this is the Gate of Heaven.

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You step through that into an inner courtyard here,

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with the columns running around the inside.

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If you step through those columns, into the light,

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you're suddenly surrounded by angels, just as you would've been at any time

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in the Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Middle Ages, even the Victorian era.

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And then you've got the steps

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that raise you higher and higher

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until you get to the holy heart of this building,

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the altar here with its own metal tent to signify it as a special place.

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The altar is made of concrete, but clearly references

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the old stone altars of sacrifice of the ancient temples.

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I love the fact that, amid all this modernity,

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they haven't forgotten the thousands of years of history

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that pour into a place of worship like this one.

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Churches are so funny, though, because you always find little details,

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in a place even as radical as this, that just screams "church" at you.

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Over here, you've got hymn numbers

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set out just like they would be in any Victorian church.

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CHURCH ORGAN PLAYS

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DISTANT SIREN WAILS

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'Here, off the Peterborough ring road,

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'is a church very much of the 21st century.

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'You could be forgiven for thinking it's a shopping mall or company HQ.

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'Unlike any other building I've visited,

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'when it's empty, there's nothing to let you know you're in a church.

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'Here is a space devoid of imagery.

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'This venue can hold 1,200 people,

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'and on a Sunday, you'll find few spare seats.

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'It's only once you add the people

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'that this new place of worship becomes a church.'

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# Be high and lifted up

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# Be high and lifted up

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Instead of pews, you've got comfy chairs.

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Instead of stained glass, you've got coloured lights.

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Instead of incense, you've got smoke machines.

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And what's striking is what isn't here.

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The only traditional Christian image that I can make out in the whole space

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is the crucifix on the stage.

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# Lifted up

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# Jesus

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'There's a part of me that misses being surrounded by the architecture

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'and imagery of hundreds of years of history.

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'KingsGate is laid out more like a rock venue or a cinema.

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'But if this is what people are comfortable with, why not?'

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-# Hallelujah

-Let's give the mighty Lord a shout of praise.

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-CHEERING

-Yes, Lord!

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APPLAUSE

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Applauding God. How 21st century is that?

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'During this series,

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'I've read the messages handed down to us in stone,

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'from the dawn of Christianity in Britain

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'right up to the present day.

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'But I'm ending my journey not in the confines of the present

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'but in a building founded in the Middle Ages

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'which embraces the long and unique history of British churches.'

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Open the visitors' book to almost any church

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and you'll find comments like, "Lovely" and "Peaceful."

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Churches are fixed points in an ever-changing world.

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But what's struck me as I've traced through 1,400 years of the history of these buildings

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is actually the destruction, the turmoil that's taken place here.

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'The simplicity and solidity of the Anglo-Saxon churches

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'swept away by the triumphant Normans.

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'The Middle Ages, filling their churches with images of life and death,

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'then attacked by the violence of the Reformation.

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'The calm and elegant learning of the Enlightenment

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'challenged by the Victorians, scraping back those old buildings

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'and filling them with industrial stained glass.

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'And, in the 20th century, the impact of the wars

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'and attempts to re-imagine churches,

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'right up to the dawn of the digital age.'

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And that's why I will always visit these holy spaces,

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to bathe in their beauty

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and to read their history and their drama.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail [email protected]

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Richard Taylor discovers how, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, medieval imagery and ritual make a surprise return to Victorian places of worship and plunge the Anglican Church into conflict.

Richard retraces the controversy surrounding this Oxford Movement of Anglo-Catholics and explores their finest churches, showing how some of its most fervent supporters, including William Morris, had a change of heart about the radical restructuring that it brought to ancient buildings.

But the 20th century would bring even more powerful changes. Richard sees how the impact of war is reflected on imagery in our churches and how the First World War brought a return to another medieval practice - the commemoration of the dead. He visits a 21st century church that looks more like a rock venue and he finally finds the perfect place to reflect on what he has learned from his reading of Britain's churches.