These Modernistic Churches

Churches recognised as “modern” were built in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s, a period of postwar reconstruction. Before the Second World War, Eliot’s The Rock (1934) was part of a fund-raising campaign to build new churches in suburban areas of expanding London. In the context of the 1930s Great Depression, architectural simplicity seemed to pass as modernity, and vice versa.

Conflicting views on the subject are comically dramatised in a scene in The Rock where three contemporary characters discuss church architecture and decoration: the Major and Mrs. Poultridge are mildly satirised as staunch, snobbish Anglican Tories (“Disgraceful, I call it”, “That’s what comes of democracy”); Millicent is an opinionated younger woman whose remarks “sound like a quotation”; Mrs. Poultridge and Millicent had an Oxbridge education, whereas the Major defends that “you learn a lot more in the Army”.

Mrs. Poultridge fears that the church that Ethelbert, Alfred and Edwin are building will be “one of these modernistic churches” lacking in “devoutness”. She worships at a Gothic church – Gothic revival, rather, as her reply to Millicent betrays: “The purest Gothic. Our architect chose the style of fourteen eighty-four.” Neo-Gothic churches became symbols of Victorian Englishness: St Stephen’s, on Gloucester Road, where Eliot worshipped and served as churchwarden, is a good example. Mrs. Poultridge’s church is traditionally and reassuringly Gothic (ivy, stained-glass windows); unfortunately, “in some ways the vicar is almost unpleasantly modern”.

The Major suspects that, because of the recession, the new church will have no stained glass. Millicent disapproves of it anyway, as of any form of decoration: “I believe that – especially in these times, when we are all so poor – simplicity should be the keynote in churchbuilding.” She invokes Thomas Cranmer before arguing that Anglican churches should be stripped of artistic or decorative elements: “I don’t believe that our English religion needs to depend upon Art.” Mrs. Poultridge calls Millicent an iconoclast because she would “knock the heads off” of “painted plaster saints”. Mrs. Poultridge and the Major compare Millicent to Oliver Cromwell and Henry VIII respectively.

Mrs. Poultridge and Millicent hold a traditional “dialogue” – not between the body and the soul, but between ostentation and simplicity. Eliot rejects the extremes they represent: the newly built church is furnished and decorated in simplicty, and communally. Medieval guilds were in charge of staging mystery plays; at the end of The Rock, “stone-carvers,” “wood-carvers,” “weavers and lacemaker,” “metal workers” and an “illuminator” are “shown in rhythmical movement”.