During Christianity’s first centuries, the church grew, developed and survived without official edifices. After Constantine converted and the state married the Church, cathedrals and churches dominated the architecture of the Western world. For the next 1700 years the church building occupied a central place in every community in the Western World.
The seeds for secularizing Western civilization first sprouted in the 17th century. Ironically, the Great Fire of September 1666 which destroyed 82 churches including the Cathedral of Saint Paul gave Christopher Wren the opportunity to produce the single largest collection of parish churches in the history of Western architecture. The 51 churches he built in the City of London allowed him to exhibit his architectural genius for light and space. This genius, widely recognized in his greatest masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, is equally obvious in the smaller churches built within sight and walking distance of Saint Paul’s. More than 20 parish churches survive. For a 20th century visitor the experience is muted by modern buildings that block the 17th century sight lines. Inside the churches, however, one experiences Wren’s practical genius that wed site and function.
Our Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman culture became secularized and fragmented during the three centuries after Wren built his parish churches. In 17th century London essentially everyone was a Christian and every parish had a substantial congregation. Today several hundred thousand people work daily in the City of London, but less than 6,000 reside within the area. The twenty or so extant parish churches have small or no congregations. To visit these remaining Wren churches is to gain some appreciation of the historical importance the church had in Western culture.
Today both church and government recognize the architectural and historical merits of Wren’s parish churches. Arguments continue as to how they should be preserved or what their religious functions should be. In a British society where less than ten percent of the population regularly participates in religious activities, the church has become an institution wrapped in obscurity and remoteness.
This book started as a guide to Wren’s City churches. It became a visual and verbal meditation on the origin and current status of these churches. In visiting these churches there is a juxtaposition of 20th century sensibility with 17th century deeply religious sentiment. I hope this book will provoke some consideration of the spiritual in this nonbelieving era. As Pascal wrote, “Man is but a reed, the weakest in all nature, but he is a thinking reed.” Wren believed the structure and order of architecture revealed the nature of God. I believe his City churches remain for receptive visitors sacred and holy places.
Phillip Periman, 1998