Wednesday, 25 March 2009
St Paul's, Brighton
Although St Paul's is at the very centre of Brighton, next to the conference centre and Churchill Shopping centre, and a stone's throw from the sea, the church is often overlooked by locals. In spite of its size, and its distinctive tower, it almost hides itself among the adjacent office blocks and the Churchill Square shopping centre.
At night, and especially at week-ends, the area is packed with people visiting the numerous bars in the area, who probably don't give a second thought to the church in their midst. But they are missing a gem - a beautiful church with a colourful history, and a haven of peace and tranquillity in the heart of the City Centre.
St Paul's was essentially the vision of one man, Rev. Henry Michell Wagner, vicar of Brighton for forty-six years from 1824 - 1870. He was a wealthy man, and saw the need to build a church to minister to the poor living in the fishing quarter to the west of the church (where the Churchill Centre now stands). He was also a proponent of the Tractarian movement, which advocated a return to more traditional liturgy and ceremonial in the Catholic style. The church has remained a beacon of High Anglo-Catholicism ever since.
Completed in 1848, the church was one of the first designed in the Gothic Revival style, by the architect Richard Cromwell Carpenter. Saint Paul’s was built with newly researched gothic proportions, structures and symbolism, and won immediate acclaim, with its inspiring furnishings and fine stained glass. The glass in particular, is a notable feature, designed by Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who designed much of the interior of the Houses of Parliament. The windows represent the most complete cycle of Pugin glass in any Anglican church, and are quite exceptional in their colour and detail.
It was Wagner's son, Arthur Douglas Wagner, who became the Vicar when he was ordained in 1850, and he remained here until his death in 1902. The traditional style of service, with its pre-reformation elements, attracted both a large congregation and considerable controversy. The ceremonial was mocked as 'the Sunday Opera at St. Paul's', and Wagner’s uncompromising teaching on the sacraments evoked anti-papist politics, which eventually broke out into open violence.
In 1865, Wagner had refused to give evidence from the confessional at the trial of a woman who had murdered her half-brother. This led to outrage and questions in Parliament about the nature of the confessional at St Paul's. The scandal deepened when it emerged she had offered him £1,000, even though he had not accepted it. Wagner himself was assaulted, and worshippers pelted with stones.
Things are, thankfully, much quieter to-day. The church itself is accessed either via the long (and slightly dingy) cloister from West Street, or the old main entrance in Russell Place. It is a grade II* listed building. The exterior has walls of Sussex flint with Caen stone dressings. The tower, originally rather shorter, was extended upwards with a large wooden octagon in 1873. This amazing structure, restored by English heritage, gives the church a slightly foreign appearance, more akin perhaps to the imaginary towers of some Transylvanian castle than a Sussex church.
Once inside, the church has a generous Narthex, adjacent to which is the Fishermen's Vestry. This fine Baronial-style Hall, now used for meetings, was once used by the fishermen as a place to mend their nets - hence the name.
Turning right from the Narthex, you are hit by the full theatre of the main worship space: a large and beautifully proportioned nave in the Decorated Gothic style, with generous aisles, leads to an elaborately decorated chancel. The rood screen in front was designed by Carpenter himself, though the cross and figures above were designed by G F Bodley, another great neo-gothicist.
As well as the glass and chancel, the church has rich furnishings, in particular its font, pulpit and elaborate four-pillared lectern, designed specifically for the church. All this comes alive during special services, when the church is lit largely by candle-light and is the stage for the whole panoply of High Anglican ritual: whatever your feelings about this style of worship, it's a magical experience.
To-day, the church has a busy life, with regular week-day services, as well as being a home for music recitals (including during the Brighton Festival) and art exhibitions in the Narthex.
Address: West Street, Brighton, BN1 2RG Web: www.stpaulschurch.org.uk