Church beauty as it used to be

St Mary’s Church at Studley Royal, North Yorkshire, 1870s, William Burges. (English Heritage)

Naturally, the beauty of churches has diminished along with the practice of religion in the West. And yet it is every day clearer and clearer that people want something to believe in, and too many end up believing in nothing, or in the ridiculous, which is worse, or even in the sinister. Making church architecture more beautiful might be one solution. The forces of obligatory secularism are already on to that: build more ugly churches and they won’t come! Hey, what a plan! Even the Vatican seems to have jumped on that bandwagon.

Hence what seems to be the proliferation, over the past half century, of the Church of St. George Jetson and its brethren.

Churches may be on the downhill slide, but that does not mean that ecclesiastic architecture and its history are not worth studying. James Stevens Curl, author of Making Dystopia (2018), the history of modern architecture, has written English Victorian Churches: Architecture, Faith, & Revival, due out this fall. Revival? Let us hope so, not just for architecture but for the health and future of society, English, American and around the world.

Here is a passage from the introduction (I think) to Curl’s book, highlighting the regrettable status of church architecture in England.


English Victorian Churches

As we move into the third decade of the 21st century, it becomes more difficult to explore churches. Often the finest works of architecture in an area, they are terra incognita to a largely uninterested population: there are even indications that any building that can be considered as real architecture will be an object of loathing for the visually desensitised, while anything connected with the Middle Ages, especially “Gothic,” is dismissed as “irrelevant.” All this has brought responses from the churches: “redundant plant” is a label ecclesiastical authorities apply to buildings of which they wish to be rid, while increasing numbers of abandoned buildings fall to vandalism or demolition. Many Victorian churches in inner cities or towns have been destroyed, or are under threat, yet most are not mere copies of mediæval styles (ignorantly termed “pastiches” by Modernists): indeed they are often marvellously original; not a few display craftsmanship second to none; and several are among the first architectural ranks of any period. Another problem is that 21st-century English society is largely secular: few people understand churches, feel easy in them, or know how they once were used. I say “once were used” because what goes on in most of them bears little resemblance to the forms of service for which they were designed. Both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches … have embraced such radical changes to their liturgies that the buildings no longer make sense. …

Why write a book on Victorian religious buildings in 2022, and how does it fit a climate that is inimical to history (especially to England’s history), favouring a tabula rasa owing nothing to the past? My objectives include a desire to show how rich is England’s 19th-century church architecture; to describe its various styles; and to give a flavour of the backgrounds that prompted its designs and realisations. Some ecclesiastical buildings are wonderful repositories of the very best exemplars produced by craftsmen of genius; others are quirky, not necessarily things of beauty; and others are included for different reasons, but always in order to make a point. Yet I am aware that in some respects this book has an elegiac quality, for not a few of my chosen works face an uncertain future.

[Here is an advert for the book on PDF.]

Victorian Churches_A5 flier_Dec_v3

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to Church beauty as it used to be

  1. LazyReader says:

    Downfall of the church was its own doing… Its what happens when you meddle in affairs of government and influence how it should run.


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