All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction, 200th Anniversary of the birth of William Butterfield Sunday 7 September 2014

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction, 200th Anniversary of the birth of William Butterfield Sunday 7 September 2014

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


I am neither an architect nor an architectural historian, but this is a sermon not a lecture. There will be a chance to hear lectures on Butterfield at the Victorian Society’s conference on Saturday 18th October.

My principal qualification to preach a sermon on the 200th anniversary of William Butterfield’s birth is that I have been the Vicar of this church for the past 19 years and have been involved throughout that time in its restoration; to have said my prayers and done my daily meditation surrounded by his creation.

Tonight, I want you to try imagine that you had never seen this building before, or Keble College Oxford and its chapel. You knew nothing of their history, of why they were built, or of the man who built them.  Ask yourselves: What kind of man, what kind of imagination and mind, could create such places and why he would do it?

Confronted, and any weaker word will hardly do, with such arresting, and colourful, powerful and vibrant buildings; ones which can stop you in your tracks, leaving you with your mouth hanging open and struggling for words, we might well think that their designer was a bravura, larger-than-life character of the type we often associate with the artistic temperament.

This might have been true of that other great Gothic Revivalist Pugin, but it was not of Butterfield. He led a diligent, faithful, ordered and quiet life.  He did not die tragically young but survived to a grand old age, working to the last.  Although he never married, he was devoted to his family and a group of friends and they to him.  Once he had established his office in the Adelphi, there he stayed.  Each afternoon he would break and walk to the Athenaeum from tea. He worked his staff hard and nowadays he would be regarded as something of a control freak: paying attention not just to the big picture but to the detail. For all that, he seems to have been trusted by building workers to speak on their behalf in an industrial dispute.

Butterfield’s origins were humble. His father was, as they said in those days, “in trade,” not even a member of the professional classes, let alone the landed gentry and aristocracy to which the upwardly mobile aspired to rise.  His family were Non-Conformist in religion. There was no question for him of study at Oxford or Cambridge.  He began his training apprentice to a builder until an improvement in the family fortunes meant that he could move up to architecture.

The early years of his career coincided with significant and tumultuous developments in the life of the Church and the nation. It was also a time of fresh ideas on architecture associated with John Ruskin; the resurgence of Gothic. This was too the England of the industrial revolution and rapid urbanisation and social change. The Church was challenged by social and political forces.

The Oxford Movement sought to reinvigorate the Church of England and restore its sense of catholicity as a defence against the forces which threatened it. The Tractarians were more concerned with doctrine and spiritual discipline than with architecture and other visual and tangible elements of the faith. Keble College is the memorial to one of them: another man of firm purpose and quiet strength.

 At some stage Butterfield was won to this vision of the Church and remained faithful to it for the rest of his life. Most of his professional work would be devoted to it. For him, the profession of architecture would be all of a piece with the profession of faith. It would be the dedication of his talents and energies to the glory of God and the service of his Church.

It was in Cambridge that a group of energetic young enthusiasts gathered in the Cambridge Camden Society, (later renamed as the Ecclesiological Society) and set about translating these ideals into architectural form – and not just bricks and stone, but all that was required in a church properly-furnished for the services of the Church of England to be celebrated properly: a church which should be in the English Gothic style.  With an extraordinary confidence they set about imposing their ideas on the Church of England.  

Butterfield seems to have first come into contact with them as someone who could design such equipment: chalices and the like.

As they graduated and moved out into the world they devised the plan of building a model church and the Margaret Chapel on this site, already a centre of Tractarian activity in London was settled upon. It was to be an example both of how a church should be built and how one should be run.

By this time, the dominant figure in the Society was Alexander Beresford Hope who was ambitious, energetic and rich. He became the dominant force in the building of this church. 

Chris Brookes has written a fascinating analysis of the relationship between him and Butterfield in this scheme.  He sees Beresford Hope as using this project to make his mark in both church and state. It is his “grand projet” as French presidents say.  All Saints would stand over against what he called the “Protestant Shopocracy” of Oxford Street. (He was more than a bit of a snob!)   If he could see Oxford Street now, with its shrines of a consumer capitalism bent on persuading us to buy things we do not need with money we do not have, he might wish that old-fashioned protestant virtues were more in evidence.  He certainly saw himself as the man in charge. This proprietorial attitude would bring him into conflict with both Butterfield and the Vicar, William Upton Richards, who was clearly also regarded as a subordinate in the exercise: one who would expected to bow to his superior’s will on the conduct of services and the seating arrangements for the congregation.  At a time when most city parishes were funded by pew-rents – to the disadvantage of the poor – this was a “free and open church.” There were no pew rents or reserved seats – but Hope wanted to reserve seats for his friends.

Brooks suggests that Butterfield was chosen because in comparison with someone like Gilbert Scott, he was still relatively young and unestablished. This, together with his humble origins, would make him more biddable and pliable to the will of Beresford Hope who saw himself as the guiding and controlling inspiration behind the project. He would “know his place.”

Patron and architect soon clashed. Beresford Hope wanted a rood screen to separate the chancel from the nave; Butterfield would have none of it.  The patron had more success initially over the stained glass but his choice, against Butterfield’s advice, would prove a disastrous failure and have to be redone.  He wanted benches while Butterfield wanted chairs, although they were united in refusing to have pews with their social divisiveness.  so regarded as a subordinate in this enterprise. Beresford Hope wanted something which was “English,” but All Saints, with its echoes of Lubeck and Assisi, its famous “structural polychromy,” is clearly anything but that. 

 “The Ecclesiologist,” controlled by Beresford Hope, had first advanced Butterfield’s cause, then, in the manner of some sectarian political party towards heretics, as soon as he has fallen out with the leadership, his work is first damned with faint praise, then disparaged and finally disappears from its columns. Butterfield is, as we would say, “air-brushed out of the photograph.”  Nowadays, the tables have been turned – Beresford Hope’s career – unlike that of another young politician associated with this place, William Ewart Gladstone – petered out. He is remembered because of his association with Butterfield and the building of this church.

I think we can see something of the strength of Butterfield’s character in the way in which he stuck to his principles through all this and went on working.  His strength may not have been the showy type but it was real and represents something of that virtue which the New Testament calls hupomene – perseverance or endurance.

And in building this church Butterfield demonstrated his genius and originality. Presented with a cramped site, he made something of which someone said to me the other day: “It’s like the Tardis” – meaning it’s bigger on the inside than on the outside.

He built something which is both powerful in impression and robust in structure – he did not forget the lessons he had learned in the building trade. 

He built something which was no mere re-creation of a medieval fantasy, an attempt to escape the harsh realities of a new age.  He built a church for that new age, using its materials and techniques.  Just as he would build a college in Oxford that looked like no other because it did not simply look to the past.  

There is decoration, but not for its own sake. It is integral to the scheme and serves its purpose. It works to highlight those places which are important.  First of all, the whole scheme is meant to show that this is no ordinary place: it is “none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven.” It is a house of prayer and worship, an outpost of heaven, not just a meeting hall. It is meant to bring people to their knees and to raise their eyes and hearts to heaven.

But it is not just an aesthetic experience; it is meant to instruct. The decoration reveals clearly that the important points in the church are the Font, the Pulpit, the Chancel and the Altar. 

  • The Font by the door is the place of entrance to the Church through the sacrament of baptism
  • The Pulpit is the place of the proclamation of the Gospel and the teaching of the faith.
  • The Chancel is the place in which the daily services of the Church are offered.
  • The Altar for the celebration of the mysteries of the Holy Eucharist is the focal point.

Walls and windows reinforce the message.  Butterfield clearly expected in the iconography of both this place and Keble Chapel, that people should be biblically literate or that they should become so.  He incorporated Old Testament typology: the sacrifice of Isaac, the bronze serpent in the wilderness, Melchizedek offering bread and wine to Abraham, which we are still having to explain today.

He created something which some critics have called “ugly” – not a word which you hear from most visitors. But a more perceptive view came from the priest-poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, whose own work would not be appreciated until after his death.  He wrote to Butterfield in 1877: “I hope you will long continue to work our your beautiful and original style.
I do not think this generation will ever much admire it. They do not understand how to look at a Pointed building as a whole having a single form governing it throughout, which they would perhaps see in a Greek temple; they like it to be a sort of farmyard medley of ricks and roofs and dovecotes.”

Butterfield does not conform to a certain English taste that looks for prettiness and picturesqueness in the buildings it admires.   What Butterfield does is not conventionally pretty let alone effete, but it is powerful and robust and all the better for that.

Butterfield built for the world and the Church of his own day. We who would honour his memory will best do so by working for the kingdom his buildings represent in our world.