The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great

Treasure-houses of the nation

Britain needs to decide on the future of our great churches — and what we want them to be

Sounding Board

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

My church turns 900 this month.

Nine hundred years is a lot. You feel the transience of your time very strongly when your institution celebrates its nonacentennial. Even my long-reigning predecessor, Rector Abbiss, who finished his 65-year incumbency in 1884 still wearing the ecclesiastical periwig, barely served for seven per cent of the church’s life.

John Wesley preached here

And what a lot has gone on in St Bartholomew the Great in those nine hundred years. The church has been an Augustianian Friary, a home for Sir Richard Rich, a Dominican Friary, a Presbyterian Church and an ordinary C of E Parish Church. Its gate witnessed the Peasants’ Revolt, the execution of William Wallace and the burnings at the stake of both Catholics and Protestants. 

Parts of it have been hived off and restored over the years: the Lady Chapel was a printer’s workshop, the north transept was an ironmonger’s, the north triforium was a nonconformist school, the south transept was a nonconformist chapel, and the cloister was a stable. God knows how any worship got done during the week with the clanging, banging, chanting, and neighing going on all around. And that’s not the just the nonconformists.

Nine hundred years have seen some pretty amazing people walk through the door. John Wesley preached here (in the main church, not the nonconformist chapel) and reported “I was constrained to speak very plain and strong words. God gave the audience ears to hear, so that they appeared as far from anger on the one hand as from sleepiness on the other.” Which is a win in any preacher’s book. 

Plain and strong words were also used by another notable visitor: the Blessed Virgin Mary. She appeared in the Lady Chapel in the 1180s in what can best be described as a foul mood and told off Canon Hubert in no uncertain terms: “Wherefore from the high portal of the heavens by the consent of my Son I have hither descended to render thanks for the service of honour which has been paid, to charge and requite for neglect and to admonish my dear ones for their health.” 

This, the only recorded visit of the Virgin Mary to London had its effect and the Lady Chapel was hugely expanded — and they tried rather hard to make it a pilgrimage site. That this Lady Chapel was later turned into a printer’s workshop which employed a young Benjamin Franklin makes it the only place in the world to have recorded visits of the Mother of God and the Unitarian Franklin.

This is the nightmare that haunts every parish priest

A less welcome visitor — although also in something of a bad mood — was the Archbishop of Canterbury who turned up wearing armour and started throwing punches. No, not the current Archbishop — relations have improved greatly since that nadir — but Archbishop Boniface in 1250 who came to try and extort money from the Priory and, on being told “no”, 

Burst into an unbecoming fit of anger and, rushing on the sub-prior, forgetful of his station and the holiness of his predecessors, impiously inflicted a blow with his fist on this holy priest and religious man, while standing in the middle of the choir and cruelly repeated his blows many times on his aged breast, his venerable face, and his hoary head, exclaiming in a loud voice, ‘Thus it becomes me to deal with you English traitors.’ 

He was Italian.

Now I don’t recount all this just by way of bragging (although a 900th anniversary is a good opportunity to brag), but really to highlight how much history these old churches have in them — not just mine. Nearly half the Grade I listed buildings in England are C of E churches. They are the repository of the history of their communities; they bear witness in their stones to civil wars and reformations and world wars; they recall those who died, heroes and villains and everyone in between.

Now a crunch is coming. The churches that make up 45 per cent of our Grade I listed buildings cannot be looked after in perpetuity by the dwindling band of faithful who worship in them. We need, as a nation, to work out how they can be preserved and allowed to thrive.

Churches don’t have any particular right to survive. St Bartholomew the Great can claim to be the oldest surviving extant church in the City of London only because all of those older foundations burned down or got bombed over the years. 

We came close — in 1830 the timber store in the nonconformist chapel caught fire and took the whole south side of the church with it. It took decades for the church to be restored. This is the nightmare that haunts every parish priest: that your time in office might be short, but might also be fatal.

Which means we need, as a society, to decide what we want to do with these treasure-houses. How much do we really want them to survive and, if we do, what we want them to do and to be? Or will we decide to let them, rent-free to rain and sheep?

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