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Inclusive Space

In 2010 we celebrated the first great landmark Jubilee in our building's life in April of that year - the 50th Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church. (You can visit an account of what took place and also some images Photos1, Photos2 of the celebrations.)

Sadly, the architect of the building, Robert Maguire, was unable to be at the celebrations. However, he sent a message for the occasion and in it he reflected on the 'Founding Principles' which had shaped the creation of this space in the time of its 'gestation' from 1956 onwards.

robert maguire 1958
Robert Maguire at the Laying of the Foundation Stone in 1958
Naturally, for some time I have been thinking about those days 50 years ago and the events that brought about the building of the church.   The general atmosphere in the country at the time was one of reconstruction and hope, but even by those standards the events surrounding the new St Paul’s were not only more forward-looking but revolutionary and daring.   With hindsight, we could even say prophetic.

Both church buildings, St Paul’s and St Luke’s, had been totally destroyed in the war, and Father Gresham Kirkby was using the old parish hall to experiment with what would then have been considered quite revolutionary ways of Eucharistic worship.   Unfettered by any constrictions from higher authority, he could move furniture around or throw it out, and generally exercise a freedom in what he and his adventurous parishioners wanted to do, simply because it was a hall and not a proper church.

When the War Damage Commission allocated the money to rebuild St Paul’s, Gresham had a vision of the kind of building it should be, by then based on these experiences with his parishioners, the local church itself.    I think it is very important to remember that the inspiration for this building was completely ‘home-grown’.

Gresham however needed to find an architect, and I’m afraid that the church architects of the day would not have understood what he was talking about.    But through my friend Keith Murray, a designer who had done some work ‘down the road’ at St Katharine’s Foundation, and who later became my partner, he was introduced to me.    I was a callow youth of 25, had never built a thing, and was most unlikely to be taken at all seriously by the Diocesan authorities.   But since I was full of similar revolutionary ideas, Gresham by some truly amazing fast talk succeeded in getting me appointed.

robert maguire 2011
Robert Maguire with his wife, Alison, 2011

Looking back at what we all thought we were doing (and when I say ‘we all’ I mean Gresham and his PCC backed solidly by his congregation, and me, and Keith who was to do the mosaics) it is quite clear that it was a very focussed vision indeed.

We were designing a church for a new vision of Eucharistic worship.   New, but in fact ancient and original, the inclusive and also the defining act of unity of the whole People of God, the Christian Church.   It is difficult now to remember how, in those days of the 50s, the Holy Communion service was attended by congregations who spent much of their time in private prayer with their heads bowed or even in their hands.    By contrast, we were trying to build a church which would encourage true relationships in the liturgy – priest to people, people to one another, priest to God and people to God, the worship of the whole Church together.    Encourage, but not cause; because it is only people coming together with understanding and faith which bring those relationships to life.

We now (by and large) take all that for granted, and so it could be said – many people do say – that Gresham, and his local church people, and St Paul’s, took a major role in the renewal of our worship.'

You can also read about these 'Founding Principles' in this area of the website.

gresham kirkby 1955
Fr. Gresham Kirkby 1955
The entire focus and rationale for creating this space was based around its use for worship, arising out of the actual (and, after the War, experimental) useage of space for worship by the Incumbent of the time, Fr. Gresham Kirkby, and his congregation. This was an entirely natural and  appropriate impetus for the design of this church. In the 1950's buiuldings did what they were there to do. Libraries were libraries, schools were schools, churches were churches. There was not, as yet, any idea that communities would one day be much more free-flowing organisms, interweaving in and out of one another's interests and territories. The idea of multi-purpose, multi-disciplinary community spaces were beginning to be explored but not in any thorough-going way. Certainly, at Bow Common, the liturgical rationale for building a church was paramount. Which of us could have envisaged the vastly more complex, high-tech, global, funding-driven interconnected world of 50 years later?

But, that world was to come and the Christian community - like every other community in this world city - was a part of it in many aspects of its life, but church was still church and the church building had a very clearly defined purpose here at Bow Common.

The Incumbent following Fr. Kirkby was Prebendary Duncan
Ross. He arrived in the parish in 1995 after a very long incumbency by his predecessor - 43 years, in fact. Not surprisingly,
Father Duncan Ross
Fr. Duncan Ross 2010
there was anxiety as to what a new regime would bring, what changes the new man had up his sleeve, whether he would honour what he found as given and so on. There was a strong spirit in a small congregation and those who saw through the vacancy of 18 months did an amazing job of holding it all together. However resources were thin both inside and outside the congregation. This is at present, (2011) the 3rd (materially) poorest parish in the Diocese of London and what the new Incumbent inherited was the smallest church electoral roll in the Diocese (apart from a few City of London Churches at that time) and not able to pay its way. There was, indeed, strength, but also fragility though - in the true spirit of Gresham Kirkby - a defiant independence and a defence of the 'little people' of the Kingdom of God!

It would be dishonest to say that it was an easy beginning for a new incumbency. There were fears that the new man was a 'stooge' of the 'Powers that be', to violate cherished traditions and make unilateral changes. It is possible to say all this 16 years later because so much has moved on so completely and this has become, perhaps, the most fulfilling period of the present Incumbent's working ministry (ordained in 1978) and the ownership of all that has developed in and through this remarkable building is solid and complete across all the generations of this very special church.

stitches in time 2005
Stitches in Time
By accident rather than by design, Duncan Ross discovered that this extraordinary liturgical space held all kinds of surprises which even those who had created this building were unaware of. The turn of the 20th into the 21st century saw a world radically different in so many ways to that of the design and early use of St. Paul's, Bow Common. The sovereign 'power' and position of the Church was by now much diminished and in much humbler and more equal fashion, church congregations were looking far more outwardly to the neighbourhood and to other local communities engaged in very different secular enterprises often serving the parish. The notion of 'partnership' was by now a real and creative way of working with other agencies serving the same area and often the same people.

The following sections of this area of the site give examples of the
Easter 2006
Easter 2006
ways in which since 1998  St.Paul's, Bow Common has discovered a remarkable ability for this 'liturgical machine' of a building also to be a superb and natural 'engine for engagement' with the local community and beyond. As these many and varied uses of the building have proved to be so natural and appropriate, the Incumbent pondered and puzzled over how a building designed for such a particular brief is able to embrace such a wide variety of very different uses not foreseen even by its creators. It seemed to him that the key to this lies in a phrase which Robert Maguire is using more often now to describe what he has created here - what he calls 'Inclusive Space.' In his written message on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary in 2010 (see above) he also wrote this:

' ... it could be said – many people do say – that Gresham, and his local church people, and St Paul’s, took a major role in the renewal of our worship.

So that was the focussed objective we were making for.   It was a great – I mean big and important – objective.   Looking at it now in the context of what has come about in recent years in this church, I see that its very focus prevented us from seeing the further possibilities of the thing that was built.'

In 2011 in his contribution to the Exhibition Catalogue for Charles Lutyens' retrospective Exhibition 'being in the World' (June - Oct 2011) held at the church, Maguire wrote:

'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.

This notion of promoting 'in each individial person the conviction of belonging' applies not only to an experience of liturgy but equally, as we discovered, to other activities in which there is a certain kind of commonality of purpose or identity. In 2010, for the Jubilee celebrations Maguire further wrote of these activities:

shamiana exhibition 1998
Shamiana 1998

'My own first introduction to these things was my visit to the exhibition Shamiana and also to meet Father Duncan Ross, of whom I had heard much but never met.   The great west doors were wide open, and people of all sorts, many or perhaps most of whom had never been inside a church before, were going freely in and out.   Many, too, had no knowledge of Christianity; but the substance of the exhibition, the wide openness, the freedom of space and movement in the building, all combined to convey a strong message of welcome, reconciliation and community bridge-building.  And meeting Duncan confirmed that new and exciting things were to go on happening in the East End, centred around  St Paul’s.   And started a friendship which is not lessened by having to be conducted mainly by email because of the great physical distance between us.

You are doing wonderful things in this building, things so important for the surrounding community and far beyond.   They are things that I, certainly, could never have dreamt of when I designed it, being centred on flexibility for worship.   It turns out, to my great joy, to be flexibility for many other things that build trust and grow true communities.   But those are really worship, too.'

Between 1998 and 2010, in an unplanned and organic way, new ways were explored in which the church was lending itself to non-liturgical use. There was no grand plan and, as opportunities suggested themselves, Duncan Ross pushed at the boundaries of what the church was capable of bearing with dignity and without 'violation' of the founding principle of inclusive space.

Robert Maguire had turned up one Saturday morning at the first such use of the church in May 1998, when the exhibition, 'Shamiana, the Moghul Tent' moved, in expanded form, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to St. Paul's, Bow Common (see later section). However, as the 50th Anniversary approached in 2010, Fr. Duncan began to realise that Robert Maguire was unaware of what had continued to happen after his visit of 13 years earlier! In a 10 page letter with a lot of images and frequent use of the phrase, 'you will be horrified to learn that ...' he thought it best to break it to the creator of this iconic liturgical space, how far from that specific brief its use had been extended (but also included accounts of a very full exploration of its liturgical potential, as well!).

In private correspondence with Duncan Ross on 23rd March 2010, Maguire wrote this:

summer fayre 2005
Summer Fayre 2005

'Your letter has provoked thoughts about the changes that have come about, in the Church in all its diversity and in society, since SPBC was conceived and built. Looking back, I realise that 'the issues' seemed so straightforward and clear to me as a young revolutionary Christian, and that was set out, I think quite clearly, when Keith and I wrote Modern Churches of the World. After that it slowly, rather imperceptibly, changed and this was reflected not only in the nature of church designs over the years ... Also in things I was writing - I found I had to develop some kind of theory or at least a framework about designing, and this involved starting with what I called the 'the total situation' facing the designer, uniquely on every single project. (Part of the 'total situation', I realised, was the designer's own prejudices and wrong assumptions which were unlikely to be corrected in the process, so it it had to be seen that the outcome would be, not a compromise, but a product of human frailty as much as, hopefully, inspired creativity.)

So when you describe some of the wonderful things that have happened in St Paul's, and think perhaps I might be 'horrified', my thoughts are these. I designed the building as 'liturgical space', informed by how I saw the nature of liturgy as the formative activity in realising the community as the Body of Christ. Later (and now) I would call it 'inclusive space' - space that enables everyone within it, wherever they are, to feel included in what is happening, wherever in the space that may be. So this quality naturally extends inclusiveness to anything the community wishes to do in the building, and the building should lend itself creatively to community-building of any kind. Far from being horrified, I am utterly thrilled.

About the 'dual purpose' thing, the buildings that were going up all over the country at that time, as the prefered policy of the CofE, were the opposite of inclusive space. They were double-ended church halls, longish shoe-boxes with a stage at one end and a so-called sanctuary at the other (another stage for the performance of religious rites) which could be screened off for secular activities - the polarity between 'sacred' and 'secular' being thus made extra manifest!

Good Friday 2010
Good Friday 2010

Although I had to put seats on the plan for the War Damage Commission and the DAC, you may have noticed that the plan I drew for publication purposes always leaves the seats off, and this has been so for all the subsequent churches. The reason is, of course, that seating, or no seating, is a flexible thing to be decided rather ad hoc by the parish: hence my delight at seing what is happening in the photos you've sent me. Another thing that was important was a certain quality of bareness, which I had been impressed by in some continental Romanesque churches, and which seemed apppropriate when a congregation is to make the building its own, and find for itself what it needs for what it is to do.'

The areas of this site which follow bear witness to this journey of discovery, which now continues as a normal expectation of how this building is used but which, in those 'turn-of-the-century' years, felt like enormous risk and entering unknown and perilous territory as this remarkable building so generously lent itself to new uses and began to welcome a whole new variety of visitors crossing the threshold. In all of this, it is gratifying to know that so much that was never envisaged 50 years earlier, nevertheless, is embraced by the genius of the founding principles of Robert Maguire, Keith Murray and Gresham Kirkby.

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