St John Ermine: liturgical innovation and community

Brian O'Callaghan

25 June 2014

comments powered by Disqus

The Ermine Estate takes its name from the Roman Ermine Street which runs along the edge of the development.  Most of the estate was built between 1950 and the early 1960s.  This was local authority housing, built to solve the post-war shortage of good quality, affordable homes.  The majority of houses are semi-detached, two-storey family homes, with a small cluster of retirement bungalows for the elderly.   Stylistically, they have pitched roofs, and are broadly modernist in detailing, with an absence of external decoration.  In addition to St John’s there are churches for several Christian denominations. There are two primary schools and a number of pubs and small shops were built to serve the community.  At the time that St John’s was built, the population of the estate was made up almost entirely of young families, with a small number of elderly residents.  The Lincolnshire Echo reported thirteen baptisms in one week at St John’s.  No member of the church community, other than the vicar, had any form of motorised transport.  He was the proud owner of a motorcycle with sidecar.

The Estate was built on what had been open fields and the ancient field boundaries are still detectable in the layout of the roads and houses.  At the same time a private housing development was being built on the other side of Longdales Road.  The original plan was to link the two developments with a connecting road.  It is for this reason that St John’s was built at the southern edge of the estate.  However, the plan for a connecting road was abandoned.  There are no routes across the estate and few places of work, so this is largely a dormitory development that is self-contained, perhaps even isolated from surrounding communities.  This isolation is compounded by being surrounded by busy roads making it difficult for residents to communicate with neighbouring communities.  Non-residents have few reasons or opportunities to visit or traverse the estate.

The Parish

In January 1956 a dual purpose hall was built which served as the church for the Anglican community of the Ermine Estate.  Early in the same year the Rev John Hodgkinson was appointed as Assistant to the Vicar of St Nicholas and Priest-in-charge of St John the Baptist, Ermine.  In 1958, Ermine was created a Conventional District, but did not achieve full Parish status until the consecration of the new church in October 1963.

Appointment of Scorer

Fr John Hodgkinson met Scorer’s father at a meeting of the Diocesan Church Extension Society.  Scorer senior showed the priest drawings of a church his son had designed for Welwyn Garden City (never built).  This too featured a hyperbolic paraboloid roof.  A meeting was arranged at which Hodgkinson explained to the architect that they had no money, but persuaded Scorer to produce a design that would be used as a basis for raising funds, on the promise that he would be paid eventually.

Liturgical Innovation

In 1960 AJP Taylor wrote in the New Statesman, “Belief is dead.  That was the keynote of the Fifties … a wonderful decade with all the old nonsense being shovelled underground.”  JM Richards wrote, in March 1957, “We all know the purpose of a church, which is a simple one in that it is fixed and unalterable and therefore does not involve the architect in a search for improvement in the programme he is initially set, as a factory often does, or a hospital.”  As it turned out, this was to be a period of substantial church building, much of it innovative in design, responding to liturgical innovation and technological advances.

Architectural and liturgical innovation came late to Britain.  Elain Harwood argues that this was in part because of the longevity and continuing influence of major figures from the era of the Gothic Revival.  Ninian Comper and Giles Gilbert Scott both died in 1960.  Major projects in the established tradition of liturgical planning such as Liverpool and Guildford Cathedrals were still continuing into the second half of the twentieth century.

Internationally, innovations in liturgical thinking had been underway since the beginning of the twentieth century.  In 1903 Pope Pius X proclaimed that active public participation in worship was the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit.   In the inter-war years, Christian intellectuals in Europe and America developed ideas about the liturgy through a new understanding of the practices of the early church.  To begin with most of these developments were concentrated in monastic and other religious communities.  There was only a limited impact on the parish church.

In the post-second world war period a number of Papal pronouncements increased the participation of the laity in the rites of the church.  This culminated in the Second Vatican Council.  Altars were to stand free of the east end, Latin was replaced by the vernacular.  In Germany, Marshal Aid funding from the US facilitated the rebuilding of 8,000 churches between 1945 and 1960, many of these designed to accommodate the new thinking about the liturgy and the role of the laity.  In contrast only 41 Anglican churches were consecrated between 1945 and 1956.

The effect of this new thinking about liturgy and the role of the laity was a move away from longitudinal church designs.  The altar was brought forward and made the focus of attention.  This resulted in a variety of plan types amongst which were centrally planned and fan-shaped designs.

In England the great growth in church building and innovative design was be the the late 1950s and early 1960s.  In the post-war years the focus of new building and architectural innovation had been on public housing and schools.  As at Ermine, churches followed along in the wake of new housing developments.  The vast majority of new churches were to be Catholic in part responding to demand from immigrant Irish and Polish communities.  Gibberd’s centrally planned Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool (opened 1967) is the best known example of a new approach to church planning that is evident in hundreds of parish churches across the county.  Similar developments in the secular world can be seen in the contemporary enthusiasm for theatre in-the-round.

Photo of the model for the proposed chuch by Sam Scorer.

St John Ermine eArchive

St Paul's Bow Common

For the Anglicans, St Paul, Bow Common (McGuire and Murray,1958-60) is a key monument.   The building is essentially square in plan.  An ambulatory allows circulation around all four sides.  The worship space is top lit with the altar at the east and movable pews gathered largely in front, but with small numbers to the side.  In the Anglican Church new ideas about church design were debated and promoted by the New Churches  Research Group.  Peter Hammond was the Secretary and his book Liturgy and Architecture (1960) was to be a powerful influence.

Liturgical Innovation at Ermine

When the project was begun Hodgkinson was still in his late twenties.  He writes,

“These were the days of the Parish and People Movement and we were beginning to rediscover the concept of the church as the 'People of God', the 'Body of Christ', a complete community…. The emphasis was very much on the church as people rather than a building.”

“At one of our planning sessions Sam produced a blank piece of paper, and drew a small rectangle in the centre.  He said that this represents 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 is basically the plan of St. John's Church.”

Photo of the model for the proposed chuch by Sam Scorer.

St John Ermine eArchive

This account demonstrates Scorer's skill at responding to, and indeed steering, his client's brief.  Within the hexagonal plan of the building a large circle defines the worship space.  At the eastern end of this circle stands the altar, on a raised platform of three concentric circles.  Fanning out before this, arced rows of raked pews give all members of the congregation an uninterrupted view.  The font, which is traditionally placed by the door, occupies the central, and lowest, point of the building.  Rather than have separate lectern and pulpit, here the two are combined in a massive concrete block to one side of the altar.

Raising Funds

Although some funds were available from the Church Commissioners through the Church Extension Society, these would only become available in proportion to money that could be raised by the parish itself.  A new council estate was hardly the most fertile ground for fundraising.  Rather than adopt the then traditional approach of money collected in the plate on Sundays, Hodgkinson consulted with the Wells Organisation who were introducing modern American style fundraising to Britain.  Money was raised through a campaign that promoted pledged weekly donations and the controversial idea that church members should pledge 5% of their take-home income.

The radical nature of the design resulted in considerable press coverage locally and even nationally.  This wider awareness of such an optimistic project resulted in donations being received from further afield.

In March 1962 Scorer estimated that the cost of the entire project would be £35,000, this was to include the unbuilt belfry and eastern chapel.  In July a contract was signed with Simons of Lincoln to build the main body of the church for £ull £24,000.  £18,000 had been received in grants, the remainder from within the parish itself.  An article in the parish newsletter, Ermine News, stated,

“Unless we receive large sums of money before the year end the rest of the work will have to be done by our own labour force.

“This work will cover the laying of the floor, making the pews, furniture and fittings, and decorating as well as landscaping and planting the outside area.

“If every able bodied man who looks to St Johns as his parish church gives a hand the church could be ready for the Consecration in October 1963.  This could be a great adventure and it all depends on the question of who will help?  Will you?”

In the event no sudden windfall was forthcoming and the local community contributed their own skills and labour to finish the project.

Design for pews by Sam Scorer

St John Ermine eArchive

Pews, St John Ermine