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Founding principles

A Building created for the needs of the Worshipping Christian Community ...

When St. Paul's, Bow Common was consecrated in 1960 it attracted a great deal of interest in its controversial design. Robert Maguire and Keith Murray asked some very basic questions.

church interior 1990

In Ecclesiology Today (Issue 27 January 2002), quoting their input at a Theological Conference in Swanwick in 1958, Robert Maguire questioned the very purpose of having a church at all:
‘The Church does not need buildings’. We said that if you want to celebrate the Eucharist, what you need is a loaf of bread, some wine and a cup. And perhaps a trestle-table; but a rock or a tree stump will do as well, according to whether you are doing it in the school hall or the desert or a field. All you need for baptism is some water: that's all there was, after all, at the most famous baptism ever. We then went on to say that if you are keen to build a church, you are setting aparta place (like Sunday is - or was - the setting apart of time). Otherwise, we said, build a community hall, and bring out a trestle-table.

We then went on to consider the nature of set-apart places; and that essentially was the analysis, and then the synthesis, that went into St Paul's, Bow Common.'

'What we were trying to do at Bow Common was to create a space - to set apart a place - in which the congregation could come to perceive that they were one Body, the Mystical Body of Christ. We were concerned not to frustrate, through an inappropriate setting, the intentions of Eucharistic worship.'

Describing themselves in their early contact, Maguire said: 'Keith and I came from rather different directions to each other and to the established church architects of the day. At 25, I was then a rebellious Roman Catholic able to stomach only the Olivetan Benedictines of Bec, in Normandy, and who as a student had sat at the feet of Rudolf Wittkower and John Summerson; Keith at 27 was an oddball High Church Anglican designer who had a great familiarity with the Bible and an amazing knowledge of the Early Christian world, who had just read Dom Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy. I think I can honestly say that consciously at least, St Paul's owed nothing to what any of the mainline churches here were doing at the time. I think one of the factors that recommended us to our Marxist vicar client was our sheer rebellion.'

 In Church Building of October 1962 Maguire and Murray wrote:

high altar

'A Church building exists to serve the life of the Church. This is a statement of function. Analysis of the function ofthe church building remained the basis of the design of St. Paul's Church, Bow Common' : we tried to gain an understanding of the life of the Church in this place in order that the building should be creative in that life.'

In 2011 in his contribution to the Exhibition Catalogue for
Charles Lutyen's remarkable retrospective exhibition, 'Being In the World' (Lutyens is, of course, the creator of the very fine 800 sq ft. mosaic cycle inthe church of the 'Heavenly Host.'), Robert Maguire said this:

'In the years following WW2, the main line Churches had to concern themselves with the immense problems of reconstruction after war damage and the provision of new places of worship in the new towns and expanding suburbs.   There was some reworking of concepts related to economy, such as the dual purpose church/hall, but the new buildings simply assumed the continuation of the patterns of worship developed through Victorian, Edwardian and between-wars periods.   These patterns were predominately non-participatory, characterised by private devotion even though communally performed, and exhortation to the individual conscience from the pulpit.

There was however a largely subterranean groundswell of theological debate, concerned with what St Paul had defined as the true nature of the Christian Church: the mystical concept of the Body of Christ, in which the full functioning of all members, however lowly or exulted, is essential to the health of the Body.   These theologically radical clergy (spread through various Christian denominations) saw clearly that this meant a revolution in the worshipping practice – the liturgy – of the Church.

This groundswell had in fact been developing through the 1930s, but at that time, and during theexterior 1965 immediate post-war period, it was not seen as necessitating a new kind of church building.   There was therefore a tension between (often covert) experimentation with new participatory forms of worship and the limitations imposed by the buildings.

St Paul’s was the first church in the UK to embrace the concept of an interior which would be immediately recognisable as a ‘place of the Christian people as the Body of Christ’ and also facilitate forms of worship – reformed liturgies – which are the realisation of that oneness. Often such concerns were, and still are, seen in the simplistic terms of people being able to see and hear well what is going on, so that all that is necessary is to bring the altar forward and to plan the building short and wide rather than long and thin as before.   That however is to miss the point, for ‘what is going on’ is not ‘up there’ but the action, the words and the song of everyone.   The very spatial character of the building has to be such that it promotes in each individual person the conviction of belonging:
inclusive space.

St Paul’s achieves this by a gathering-around of ordinary architectural elements; an outside wall that wraps itself almost literally around the interior; a colonnade continuous around all four sides defining an encircling ambulatory between it and the wall, and accentuating the ‘placeness’ of the central space within; and daylight from above making a gradation of luminance from low at the perimeter to bright at the high centre, the place of the altar
and congregation.

Architecture speaks with a language of its own, and the arrangements of these elements at St Paul’s expresses the inclusiveness that so many people say they feel on entering, even when the building is empty.'  

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