I was invited to St Matthew’s Westminster to give a talk on religion and environmental issues at the inaugural Just Festival Westminster, and unexpectedly found myself in a George Gilbert Scott church.
St Matthew’s, begun in 1849, was a high-church mission in a notorious slum area of Westminster known as the Devil’s Acre. I dread to think what the price of these flats might be now, but the narrow lanes and names like “Perkin’s Rents” and “Old Pye Street” recall a time when bare food and shelter were foremost in people’s minds. A church and, as so often in these missions more importantly a school, represented a great leap forward in civilization.
St Matthew’s is a strange church, because it burn down in the 1970s, so is a now a collection of rescued George Gilbert Scott fragments juxtaposed with unashamedly modern additions and reconstructions. There is still a sense of how the weary and heavy laden of Devil’s Acre might have come there to find rest amongst the beauty:
And been raised above the squalor of the lanes outside by the combined splendour and homeliness of George Gilbert Scott’s gilded reredos, depicting the nativity:
The fact that the original stained glass consists of rescued fragments makes one look at them with fresh appreciation, perhaps more as the original beholders saw them, perhaps feeling that they were rescued fragments of humanity themselves.
St Matthew’s is like a beautiful patchwork casket for new works of religious art. I particularly like this Mary and child, with her brazen nudity and all the stroppiness of the Magnificat. She isn’t just talking about God showing strength with his arm, scattering the proud and exalting the humble and meek, she’s jolly well doing it herself:
The Just Festival in which I was participating included a new piece of art showing different faces of God: much bigger and more spectacular than it appears in my picture. My friend Raymond, whose organisation of the Festival included procuring the enormous exhibition panel to display it on, was worried it would be a bit controversial but it seemed to meet with general acclaim.
Apparently the naked Mary had caused a bit of a stooshie. So did my “Earth be Glad” talk about religion and the environmental crisis. I feel I’m in good company. Whether you’re a nineteenth-century Tractarian missionary, or a twenty-first century environmental campaigner, it’s difficult to sing Mary’s song at choral evensong every week without becoming a bit revolutionary:
He hath showed strength with his arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
And hath exalted the humble and meek;
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he hath sent empty away.