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4

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON

HISTORIC CHURCHES

23

RD ANNUAL EDITION

maps even distinguish between those

with spires or towers and simple ‘places

of worship’, whereas almost everything

else is confined to the generic category

of ‘building’. In our larger settlements

the skyline remains punctuated by the

same religious landmarks, although

in our biggest cities this spire-scape

is becoming gradually overgrown by

secular towers to white-collar industry,

designer-shards or functional masts

to maintain our digital habit. The

diminishing visual impact of historic

places of worship in the modern cityscape

is a theme which this article will revisit,

but suffice to say for now that these

earlier buildings are critically important

punctuation marks in our history.

Beyond the physical attributes of

a church building, the influence of

primarily Christian religious institutions

in the UK is apparent everywhere,

from schools, colleges and agricultural

systems (for example tithe barns,

or vaccary and bercary landscapes:

medieval cattle and sheep farms) all

the way through to courts, industrial

complexes and model towns. This

influence, whether current or historical,

is an important part of the fabric of the

UK. It contributes towards diversity and

sense of place. It is part of the patina of

location that makes Blackburn different

from Bournemouth or Birmingham.

But, like all heritage, churches and

other places of worship are on that

constant path to ruination. World

Monuments Fund (WMF) and World

Monuments Fund Britain work to breathe

new life into extraordinary heritage

here in the UK and across the globe.

Out of the 600 projects that WMF has

worked on over the last 50 years, at least

300 have involved a church or sacred

building, by far the largest percentage.

Threats are numerous, and while some

are indiscriminate in terms of the type

of heritage that is affected – such as

earthquakes, floods or fires – others may

have a disproportionate influence, in

particular the impact of conflict and the

changing demography of belief, which

are linked to a broader economic story.

The destruction of religious sites

has been much in the news over the

last few years, be it the demolition of

the temples of Bal and Baalshamin in

Palmyra by Daesh, or mausoleums in

Mali, Shiite mosques in Mosul or Sufi

shrines in Tripoli. Each in turn echoes

the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddhas

in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001.

Too often religious sites and places of

worship are under increasing pressure

from those with fixed ideologies.

For some, heritage divides rather

than unites and religious heritage divides

more than secular. This is nothing new:

in the heart of Westminster Abbey,

rare 14th-century sedilia depict two

magnificent life-sized paintings of kings,

alongside a further two panels stripped

back to the bare oak. The panels once

held images of saints. We have no

idea who they were because they were

destroyed as ‘monuments of idolatry’

in 1644, one of countless examples

from across the world and throughout

recorded history of religious iconoclasm.

War and conflict take the headlines,

but in reality a more common threat

is from changing trends in religious

belief, tethered to economics.

Middle Street Synagogue in

the historic centre of Brighton is

a magnificent Grade II* Victorian

synagogue, constructed over 40 years

from 1875 in a Romanesque revival style.

The interior is sumptuous, featuring

iron capitals with plants and fruit from

Israel, abundant gold leaf and mosaic,

stained glass, fine joinery, lincrusta wall

coverings, marble, brass, stencilling,

gilding, and scagliola. It represents the

growing social status, aspiration and

contribution of the Jewish community

in Brighton in the 19th century.

According to Jewish Heritage UK,

Middle Street is one of the ten most

architecturally and culturally important

synagogues in Britain. So why is it in

desperate need of conservation and a

new role? Here is a story of economic

geography. Prompted by greater freedom,

emancipation and tolerance in the

first half of the 19th century, London’s

expanding Jewish community sought

new places to live and work. Brighton

was a popular destination and well

served by train from London’s East

End. The increasing number of Jewish

people settling in the town needed

more places of worship, and Middle

Street was Brighton’s fourth synagogue,

all of them in central locations.

Fast-forward 100 years and Brighton

has grown immeasurably, other

synagogues have been constructed in

the suburbs of the city, following in

Middle Street Synagogue, Brighton: this magnificent Grade II* Victorian synagogue was marooned in the city

centre when the Jewish community largely relocated to the suburbs. (Photo: John Darlington)