Happy 200th birthday, St John’s Edinburgh

St John’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, by James Skene, in 1818, the year of its consecration. Courtesy of Edinburgh Libraries.

200 years ago this week, St John’s Church in Edinburgh was consecrated, on 19 March 1818.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. First because I have been a member of the choir of St John’s (which was founded at the same time) for almost a fifth of that time, and second because I have spent much of the past ten years researching the history of its foundation.

In its time, St John’s was truly groundbreaking. Its attention to the authentic detail of gothic architecture, and its revival of the rich Laudian traditions of liturgy, once so controversial, but unexpectedly so relevant to the romantics and industrialists of late-Enlightenment Edinburgh, were ahead of anything taking place in Anglican England, and in fact helped to inspire the Victorian revival of liturgy, architecture and rich spirituality there.

The Choir and Church of St John’s today. The memorial windows, including two to Forbes and Mackenzie, were added in the 1860s.

Having no church establishment to contend with, and a mainstream Calvinist tradition to contrast with, gave the founders of St John’s, Bishop Daniel Sandford, Sir William Forbes, and Colin Mackenzie WS, the freedom and the inspiration to create something extraordinary.

Sandford, Forbes and Mackenzie, the cleric, the banker and the lawyer, may seem an unlikely triumvirate to organise a spiritual revolution. But they were, in a way, simply the administrators of a much wider movement, shaped by people of all kinds of classes, genders and races, just as Walter Scott was simply the transcriber of the diverse voices and verses that populate his novels. These men had a cultural generosity which inevitably would lead to them giving away their power in society.

For Bishop Sandford this took the form of a passionate belief in universal education, for all boys and girls, until the kind of privilege of birth enjoyed by people like himself – unwarranted in the gospels and proved so fragile in the French Revolution – became unnecessary.

Over the coming year, St John’s will celebrate its bicentenary in many ways. Keep an eye on their facebook page for news of the lectures, exhibitions, concerts and special services they are planning, and I’ll be trying to keep up some historical tweeting on #StJohns200 (please join in!). Two particular highlights for me will be my Choir re-creating an 1818 matins on 6 May, and right at the end of the programme, I’m giving a lecture on Bishop Sandford and his successor Dean Ramsay on 21 January 2019.

Meanwhile, here is how Edinburgh’s newspaper of the day, the Caledonian Mercury, reported the consecration of St John’s:

“In our paper of Thursday we mentioned that St John’s Chapel was that day to be consecrated. — at the appointed hour a very great concourse of people attended to witnes this ceremony, which, from its novelty, was no less pleasing to our brethren of the Episcopalian persuasion than to those of the Established Church, a great many of whom were present. — The first, happy to find the dissentions which formerly separated them from their fellow citizens sinking rapidly into oblivion; the last, glad to hear testimony of their good will to all who labour in the vineyard.

We cannot allow this opportunity to escape without saying a few words on the satisfaction which we feel at the rapid progress which edifices of this description have made towards elegance and magnificence. — When we look back on that respectable, but very homely building, distinguished by the name of Peddie’s meeting house in Bristo Street; when we consider the former place of worship used by the Roman Catholics in Blackfriars Wynd, and the little chapel in which Bishop Sandford first administered to his flock, in Register Street, as well as many other places of public worship in various parts of the town, we cannot help feeling gratified in observing the improvements which have taken place within very few years. The Catholics were first to show the example. From a confined private room, as it might be called, they had the spirit to remove themselves to a large and commodious chapel, the front of which not only does credit to the architect, but is an ornament to the city. The next is the Methodist chapel in Nicholson’s Square, a plain, neat, and highly creditable building. Then follow the chapels of St Paul and St John, the one built for the accomodation of the Cowgatte Chapel congregation, the other for that of Charlotte Square Chapel.

The interior of St John’s showing its original orange-tinted clerestory windows with clear glass below, the gothic-style box pews, and the organ in the gallery.

These buildings are built in the Gothic style, and not only do great credit to the architects (Mr Elliot and Mr Burn) but to the meritorious exertions of the individuals who undertook the management of them. It is not our province to enter into any ritical or scientific examination of their merits, but taking them all in all, we consider both equally ornamental and advantageous to our city, and takng off from that sameness, with which our New Town has so frequently been accused. From all points St John’s Chapel is well seen — it is the first object that strikes the eye on enterng by the great roads leading from the north, south, east and west, and is, or perhaps must only say was, one of the most interesting objects from the new road over the Calton Hill. The interior corresponds with its exterior: the roof is of the stile of the florid Gothic of Henry the Seventh’s Chael, and the columns which support it are light and airy; no galleries are yet erected, in the hope that the congregation will be sufficiently accomodated in the body of the church. The windows above are glazed with orange coloured glass, the rest with softened glass, so as to admit the light, without being pervious to vision. The great window over the altar is not yet finished, and some alterations appear to be intended; a good deal of labour and expence has been bestowed in decorating the upper part with a representation of the Annunciation by Edington. The under part is ornamented with coats of arms, the effect of which we cannot praise, and think that good taste would have recommended the plain softened glass of the other window, with a simple border round each compartment. The organ is excellent, and very handsomely fitted up; and we were happy to find that the extent of the building was by no means beyond the extent of the Bishop’s voice, who was perfectly well heard in every part of the chapel.”

“One lamentable error we certainly have committed. are committing, and, so far as appears, will ever commit. We massacre every town tree that comes in a mason’s way; never sacrificing mortar to foliage. A group was felled about the year 1826, which stood to the west of St. John’s Chapel, on the opposite side of the Lothian road, and formed a beautiful termination of all the streets which join near that point. One half of the trees, at the least, might have been sparecj, not only without injuring, but with the effect of greatly adorning, the buildings for which they have been sacrificed.” Henry Cockburn, Memorials of His Time, 1856.