Unlocking the Church: the Lost Secrets of Victorian Sacred Space

by William Whyte, OUP, £18.99

This alarmingly learned and constantly entertaining book might well have been subtitled “The Disappearance of Whitewash”. For its theme – no, one of its many rich and interlocking themes – is the transformation of British churches in the 19th century from unornamented meeting houses to the gorgeous splendour of the Gothic Revival.

William Whyte, in one of his numerous well-turned phrases, tells us that since the Reformation churches had been designed “for the ear”; but, from the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign, they became places for the eye. Vision replaced audition and the church was no longer merely “a place for listening in”.

Almost every page of this book told me things I never knew but, as an Anglican priest for nearly 50 years, I ought to have known. For example, that most of our churches were either built in the 19th century or so substantially restored that the restoration amounted to a fresh building.

As we know, this transformation of parish churches from functional, galleried halls into the full splendour of the beauty of holiness was not without controversy. Let me not mince my words: sometimes disagreements expanded into disputatious exchanges in ecclesiastical magazines, full-blown rows, acid-drop sarcasm and punch-ups.

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