Striving for Heaven as the Chains Come off; LOCAL HISTORY the Catholic Revival after More Than 200 Years of Illegal Worship in England Resulted in the Building of Some of Our Finest Churches

The Birmingham Post (England), February 24, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Striving for Heaven as the Chains Come off; LOCAL HISTORY the Catholic Revival after More Than 200 Years of Illegal Worship in England Resulted in the Building of Some of Our Finest Churches


Byline: By CHRIS UPTON

For almost 250 years - from 1558 to 1791 - it was illegal to worship as a Roman Catholic in England. With the death of the Catholic Queen Mary in 1558 and the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth, the door to a re-conversion to the old faith was firmly and irrevocably shut.

There was, to be strictly accurate, three years at the end of the 17th century when England had a Catholic king on the throne, but the time was too short to effect a religious revolution.

James II did not hang around for long, though long enough to pay for the opening of a Catholic chapel in Birmingham. (It was destroyed by a Protestant mob almost immediately.)

Of course, Catholics did not disappear entirely in 1558; secret worship continued in private chapels, tucked away from the gaze of the authorities. But commitment to the old ways was certainly squeezed. It came with an annual fine and exclusion from university and from Parliament.

After the Catholic Relief Act of 1791 the old faith came out of the woodwork, blinking into the daylight of toleration.

The Act permitted Catholics to open faith schools (no change there, then) and to build churches, provided that the doors remained unlocked during services.

The Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 gave them more confidence still, allowing Catholics to play a full part in public life.

The Reformation, begun so long before by Henry and Cranmer, could be said to have finally ended at this point.

We could add that it's unlikely that either of these Acts would have been passed when they did, had not the Imperial Parliament been keen on recruiting Catholics into the army, as well as wrestling with the age-old issue of Ireland. This was a problem they did not solve.

Once the chains were off (and slowly at first) Catholics began to build churches once more, bishops were appointed and architects like Augustus Welby Pugin began to take on commissions.

Church building reached its height in the middle of the 19th Century, at a time when increasing numbers of Catholics - from Ireland and Italy - began to settle in England and Scotland.

Until recently such post- Reformation Catholic architecture has not been greatly appreciated by art critics.

If the choice was between a medieval church and a Victorian medieval revival church, the former was always more appealing.

The gold leaf and ornate decoration frequently on display did not always charm the sober English eye either. The Utiltarianism of post-war architecture, and the rejection of Victorian ornament, had the same effect.

But times and taste change and along comes a new book from English Heritage to embrace these buildings, and to herald a re-evaluation of them. A Glimpse of Heaven by Christopher Martin (English Heritage, pounds 25) is in most part a gazeteer of the Catholic churches of England and Wales.

We should also note the photographer, Alex Ramsay, who has produced a beautiful set of images that do far more than simply support the text. English Heritage is well-served by its photographers: the colour images in their book on Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter 2002) are art objects in their own right.

A fair proportion of the churches featured in the book are inevitably in the West Midlands. There were, after all, large numbers of Catholics living in the region and Birmingham was both the site of the first post- Reformation Catholic cathedral and the centre of an archbishopric.

The greatest of the Catholic architects - AW Pugin - was also highly active in the area, and the bottomless purse of the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury bankrolled the revival. And much of the glass and furnishing for the new churches was supplied by John Hardman & Co. of Handsworth.

But Pugin cannot stand for all and indeed the first Midland church featured in the book was certainly not to his taste.

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Striving for Heaven as the Chains Come off; LOCAL HISTORY the Catholic Revival after More Than 200 Years of Illegal Worship in England Resulted in the Building of Some of Our Finest Churches
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