In early January 2018, the church of St Lambertus, Immerath, North Rhine-Westphalia was demolished. The pictures were remarkably similar to St Jacques, Abbeville, demolished in 2013, except this time, with social media in a much more developed state, the pictures spread throughout the world. Like St Jacques, St Lambertus was big, but not exceptional. However it was enough of a local landmark to be nicknamed “Immerather Dom” (literally Immerath Cathedral). It was begun in 1888, designed by a certain Erasmus Schüller, continued in 1890 by prolific architect Theodor Ross. It was Neo-Romanesque of the truest kind: rather pedantically based on the blueprint of 12th-13th century Rhenish architecture like the Church of the Assumption, Andernach. Like St Jacques Abbeville, it replaced an actual medieval church that was too small for the modern population, but unlike St Jacques, it was not inaction and neglect that doomed its successor, but greed. The church had only become redundant because its whole village has been moved to make way for the 30km² open-pit Garzweiler coal mine. This will yield lignite, commonly called brown coal, which is easy to access but so inefficient it’s not worth exporting. It is used by Germany as a stop-gap for its own energy crisis, producing up to 50% more kg of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity.
So really, the destruction of St Lambertus, Immerath, is part of a much bigger problem, and its spectacular demise was rightly used by environmentalists such as Greenpeace to draw attention to the man-made natural disaster occurring in the Rhineland. But it’s still significant in itself, and it causes me to reflect on that post from way back in 2013 when St Jacques was demolished. The argument of that post was perhaps not entirely straightforward, but on re-reading it, I still stand by it. We can’t keep everything. And I would like to clarify it a little more. A church building’s importance is more than its presence in the built environment. Its interior is just as important. If not more important, for the unique space of transcendence it provides. And we are losing many of the interiors, especially across London, to property developments and unfriendly church plants.
All over London in particular, there are church towers that do not signal an oasis for the weary traveller seeking aesthetic pleasure and peace. Instead, they signal an investment opportunity. Take, for instance, St George, Brentford. It’s a rather undistinguished work by rather eratic Arthur Blomfield from 1887. Its main character is its octagonal tower of 1913, which, to be frank, is actually rather ugly. It closed in 1959 and was re-appropriated as The Musical Museum which kept it open to the public. Since that museum has moved down the road into roomier accommodation, the church has been (eventually, after a pause in development following the 2008 recession) converted into 20 two and three-bedroom apartments. And this is what it looks like.
The tracery has been taken out of the south side to the road, and the north aisle removed for a garden. Anything other than its general, lumpen shape, has been lost to the public. What’s left isn’t good enough to assert a presence: it just looks pathetic. Whatever interior details the contracted architects preserved are imprisoned in various flats. By London prices, they aren’t that expensive – I mean, I found a three-bedroom flat on the market for a fiver short of a million – but quite frankly, I would have preferred if they knocked the whole thing down and built some actually affordable social housing. Also worth pointing out is that the developers always insist it’s in Kew. It’s north of the river, my dudes. It’s in Hounslow.
But not all inaccessible churches in London are thus because they are flats. There’s a creeping problem in the Church of England, and that is the Evangelical church plant. In desperation to keep churches running, congregations and their clergy are given the go-ahead to have churches turned into a living room, with full carpets, sofas, and equipped with a stage and music equipment. Most of these plants are linked to the very influential Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). But my main gripe about these churches is not their aesthetics, or lack thereof. Each to his own, of course: it’s said that while low churchmen make their churches look like houses, high churchmen make their houses look like churches. But it’s that these domesticised church-plants are open for worship only. They are never left open for private prayer, as the congregation do not believe that Earthly matter ought to be used for contemplation of the divine. It has even got to the point where the plant in the City church of St Sepulchre Without Newgate have disallowed any “secular” booking, threatening its historic identity as “the musician’s church”. Now we have freedom of religion in this country. People can have whatever faith they wish. But the Church of England is our state church. Its buildings are for the use and enjoyment of all its citizens and visitors. If you want to push your borderline iconoclastic ideology via aggressive congregationalism, build a shed and do it in there. Don’t do it with our shared heritage.
The worst church in London for this is St Helen’s Bishopsgate in the shadow of my favourite skyscraper there, the Gherkin. Infamous among London churchcrawlers, it cannot be considered a church plant in the same way because it gradually developed a very Low Church congregation and eventually became one of the few City churches to have a congregation of any sort – never mind a strong one. The Bishopsgate Bombing of 1993, as well as the 1992 Baltic Exchange bombing that literally made way for the Gherkin, caused serious damage to the church, and was used by the congregation as an opportunity to redo the interior as an Evangelical MegaChurch. Now the thing is, St Helen’s Bishopsgate isn’t just a nice Victorian church, or even a classic Wren one. It’s one of the few medieval churches in the City that survived the Great Fire of 1666.
It’s a rare example of a double-naved church where a parish church was alongside a Benedictine nunnery. It has excellent carvings and medieval monuments. Sadly, this means nothing to its congregation and clergy, who hired Neo-Georgian brute and favourite of the Prince of Wales Quinlan Terry to wreak Neo-Reformation havoc on the building. Like the Puritan levellers, the floor has been made consistent, burying column bases and carving to allow for a single preaching space with an immersion baptismal pool in the centre. The interior has been whitewashed like a painting by Pieter Saenredam of a Dutch Calvinist church. A 13th century lancet has been bashed through for a Neo-Georgian door. I would accept all this for the good of keeping the church open: if they would ever let you in it.
Because the church doors of St Helens Bishopsgate are indeed hardly ever open. As are the doors of St Andrew Undershaft round the corner, now little more than their church hall. Yet the lights are often on and there are clearly people in the office. It’s very confusing for a curious first-time visitor. If you knock on the oddly suburban door of the 3-storey church offices bunged on the church in the 1950s, a cheery person will undoubtedly answer. If you ask if you can look round the church, they will almost certainly cheerfully deliver a reason why you can’t go in at the moment. Usually it’s because half a dozen people are sat in a circle talking about the Bible in it, and you will have to wait till they finish. This sends out a poisonous message about the Church, especially one in the centre of the City: you’re only welcome if you become one of us. And I make no apologies for saying this here because I’ve been told the Eucharist is “wrong” by these people, and rebuked for saying I attended Mass at High Church St Bartholomew the Great. They are a sect masquerading under the banner of the Church of England that want nothing to do with what makes it special: its rich tapestry of tradition. Let me clarify that Anglican Evangelicals aren’t necessarily bad: many who identify as Evangelical have much to offer in theological discourse, as well as being perfectly fine people. But this sort of protective, exclusive attitude is, and it will harm the Church of England’s reputation in the long run – because it isn’t all just about bums on pews.
So while you might be shocked by the destruction of a landmark like Immerather Dom, it is just as bad if a church sits in the townscape as little more than an ornament. Whether it contains luxury flats or a private church where unbelievers aren’t welcome. The Church of England is our country’s church. If we’re going to keep these buildings, they need to be open to all.