Beside the Mansion House in the City of London is a small building which does not draw attention to itself and thousands of people walk past every day without pausing to venture inside. This is the church of St. Stephen Walbrook whose interior has been praised by discerning voices as Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece among his parish churches since the day it was built. It is without question one of London’s finest architectural gems. This is what The Critical Review of Publick Buildings in London (1734) had to say about it:

Walbrook church, so little known among us, is famous all over Europe, and is justly reputed the Master-piece of the celebrated Sir Christopher Wren. Perhaps Italy itself can produce no modern Building that can vie with this, in Taste or Proportion: There is not a Beauty which the Plan would admit of, that is not to be found here in its greatest Perfection; and Foreigners very justly call our Judgment in question for understanding its Graces no better, and allowing it no higher a Degree of Fame.

St. Stephen’s was built to replace an earlier church destroyed in the Great Fire. It was completed in 1679 and was the first domed church in England. The dome itself was a precursor of St. Paul’s with which it has structural similarities. It has been a great survivor. Despite terrible damage during the Blitz, when the great dome was partially destroyed, and notwithstanding a dangerous structure notice in the 1970s that required deep excavation and restoration, the evidence shows that the interior is still today almost exactly as Wren intended, in its structure, its beauty and its elegance.

In the late 1980s however a change was introduced which had a profound effect on the interior. Today, standing in the middle of the church, directly beneath the dome, there is a large round altar carved in travertine marble. It sits on a footpace of two round slabs of polished stone that create two steps up to the altar. Those receiving Holy Communion kneel on the lower step. A kneeler decorated with brightly coloured abstract motifs covers this step. Surrounding the whole ensemble are rows of benches with gaps for access. The altar was the work of Henry Moore and the kneeler was the work of Patrick Heron who was noted for his artwork in textiles.

The altar was installed following the grant of a faculty by the ecclesiastical courts in 1987 amid much controversy. Mr Peter (later Lord) Palumbo, a churchwarden at the church, and the Reverend Chad Varah, its rector and founder of the Samaritans, presented the petition. The rector wanted to create a special pastoral role for the church, possibly related to his work with the Samaritans. He felt that the traditional position of the altar at the east end of the church, with the celebrant having his back to the congregation, no longer expressed the essential nature of the Eucharist at the heart of Christian worship. This view was widely shared at the time and many faculties were issued to enable altars to be moved away from the east wall so that the celebrant could face the congregation. However the proposal for St. Stephen’s was different: it was to install a very modern altar in the middle of the church.

Many witnesses were called to give evidence. They included experts on Wren’s architecture and experts on matters of aesthetic taste and judgement. With one exception they agreed that the altar was a work of exceptional excellence. The petitioners contended that any two works of art, each of the highest excellence, can live together and that each will set off and advantage the other. However the chancellor of the consistory court pointed out that it would hardly be appropriate to put the Venus de Milo in Westminster Abbey. In his view the real issue was whether the church and Moore’s altar were ‘congruent’. He concluded that they were not.

The appeal court, on the other hand, considered that the evidence on congruency was evenly balanced and that there were other factors in the petitioners’ favour which tipped the balance: most notably, that the altar was a work of exceptional excellence created by an artist of worldwide reputation; and they granted the faculty.

It should be noted that Wren’s design for the interior required high box pews laid out in the traditional pattern: that is, in two lines on either side of the nave as far as the transepts, with facing choir stalls between the transepts and the chancel. The nave, the transepts and the chancel represented the form of the cross on which Christ was crucified; and this motif was reflected in the architecture above – in the high groin-vaulted ceilings of the nave and chancel and in the high barrel-vaulted ceilings of the transepts.

In 1887 the original box pews were removed because of dry rot. That they were integral to Wren’s plan is clear because he designed the high bases of the sixteen elegant Corinthian columns that support the entablature to accommodate them. The removal of the box pews was therefore a significant loss. Open bench pews, which were lower than the box pews, were provided instead. When the church was damaged in the war the bench pews were put in storage, but they were never reinstated. When the church was eventually reopened after the war chairs were provided instead.

During the faculty proceedings the petition to introduce Moore’s altar into the church was the only show in town. There was no alternative proposal to reinstate the box pews, or even the open bench pews. In the result, the issue on congruency appears to have been whether the altar at ground level was congruent with Wren’s plan above that level. Not surprisingly the debate between the experts seems to have been somewhat abstruse. If the original box pews had still been in place, or if an alternative proposal to reinstate the box pews or the open bench pews had been presented, the outcome might have been different.

At all events, the altar was installed and the effect can now be seen with the benefit of hindsight. By removing the Latin cross motif at ground level the architecture above that level has lost much of its significance. Any person entering the church today who is unaware of its history is likely to be puzzled by the entablature the line of which actually defines the nave, the chancel and the transepts at that level; but it is now almost meaningless to speak of a nave and transepts because these features have disappeared at ground level where they have most significance for any ordinary churchgoer. Even the chancel has virtually disappeared at this level.

It is questionable whether the church can perform its pastoral role most effectively while this arrangement persists. At the time of the faculty proceedings there was only one resident parish member and only a few non-resident members. This demographic picture is unlikely to have changed much today. The church must therefore serve those who work in the area; but anyone seeking a quiet refuge for solitude and prayer in St. Stephen’s will find little encouragement. The benches surrounding the altar are exposed to the public gaze from every quarter and visitors roam at leisure in front of the benches and all around the altar. Quite simply, the church no longer invokes those feelings of quiet solitude and reverence and solemnity that invite the visitor to kneel or sit and open his heart to the Lord.

Indeed the visitor would not know which way to look. The altar has no crucifix above it but it dominates the scene. The original altar has been retained at the east end, with crucifix and reredos above, but there are no seats there. The old altar rail has been pushed up against this altar and the chancel has almost ceased to exist. There are vast open spaces in which visitors can walk but which otherwise seem pointless. Even the great pulpit seems no longer to have a resting place in the church. Anyone wanting to get married there could be discouraged by the lack of a central aisle for the bride to enter and leave with her new husband.

In the faculty proceedings there was much debate as to whether the installation of Moore’s altar could in practice be reversed if liturgical fashions changed and the altar was no longer required. Certainly the Samaritans have gone elsewhere and the balance of the argument may have changed. The petitioners contended that the altar could in all probability be sold in the market as a work of art. The appeal court agreed. Perhaps it is now time to put that confident assertion to the test.

Nicholas Asprey has recently retired after 45 years in practice at the Chancery Bar and has taken up writing articles on subjects of interest to him. He is a Governing Bencher of the Inner Temple an Editor of the Inner Temple Yearbook.

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