Project Canterbury

Reminiscences of a Parish Priest.
by Archibald Campbell Knowles

New York: Morehouse, 1935.


IN MY REMINISCENCES, it seems to me that I may properly include certain reflections that apply to the building of a Church. For these thoughts are the result not only of my studies, travels and observations, but also of my personal experience in the conception and erection of Saint Alban's.

In my adventure into Architecture, reading many books on the subject and studying many of the great Churches and Cathedrals abroad, I soon found that I had entered upon one of the most delightful and fascinating quests. Art, romance and history became handmaids to religion, making an atmosphere of mysticism in which the earthly structures assumed something of a supernatural beauty and spoke of that heavenly loveliness which they symbolized. To those who have never walked along the way, who have never studied in this spirit, this will seem foolish and fantastic. It is simply that they have not had "eyes to see" and "ears to hear," for those old world builders expressed almost everything in the structures which they reared and embellished for the glory of God: theology, philosophy, romance, art, life and literature. One only has to turn to such books as Elizabeth Boyle O'Reilly's "How France Built Her Cathedrals: A Study in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," or "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres" by Henry Adams, to see what I mean. It is as if Saint Thomas Aquinas is setting forth the "Summa" in sculptured stone.

So I saw and studied and meditated in this fairyland of the past. And Architecture was no longer a mere art or a church a mere building. The latter was a symbol of the Faith and the former but the means of showing forth the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. For the parts as well as the whole teach that for which they have been built and provide the place for the free and proper expression of Faith and Practice. It is with such reflections that the study of a Cathedral or a Church seems to me to set forth the following.

The building of a Church is an event which concerns the whole community. It is of interest not only to the Parish and to the Diocese, but also to the Church at large. For it is a gain to the community and a help to Christianity. It is something added to the possessions and to the prosperity of the Catholic Church.

A Church, however, is different from any other building, not only in itself but also in the spirit that prompts and guides its erection. Consequently, the modern mind, to build a proper place for the worship of God, has to free itself from the materialism of the present and live again in the religious atmosphere of the past. For it is with the mediaeval ideal before one that a Church must be built today, to touch the soul, and instead of seeming cold and bare and lifeless, to be pervaded with that spirit of the ages which gives life and colour and meaning to all, which makes that atmosphere of religion and that impression of mysticism which impresses and inspires the soul.

It is this which Saint Alban's aimed to have. It is this which we think Saint Alban's has obtained! It is this which has impressed, has satisfied and has uplifted those who have visited the Church. And while craftsmen many have shown their skill in chiselled stone and in carven wood, or in gold and colour, the parts are subservient to the whole, and one's first and last idea is that Saint Alban's in its modest way is truly a Place of Worship and a thing of beauty, where the Spirit of Religion reigns.

It may be that Saint Alban's may have a little message for others. For if it does nothing more, it can at least call attention to the three characteristics which contribute most to its charm, dignity, simplicity and beauty, which I have already said are as essential to life and character as to Art and Architecture.

First of all, assuming that the Gothic or Pointed style is to be followed, the great ideal should be to make the structure high or lofty. This is one of the characteristics of good Gothic: it is always aspiring. Many little Parish Churches which could be made very lovely are spoiled by being squat and stunted, with low roof, poorly arched windows, altogether depressed and depressing. It may cost a little more and require a little more science and skill to heighten walls and roof, but the result amply repays in the first impression: that of loftiness. Even if roofed and not vaulted, the slope or angle of the roof adds a lot to the artistic effect.

Next in importance is the Altar. It should be given the greatest honour and prominence. All else is subservient to it. In fact, in principle, the Church exists for the Altar and is built to enshrine it, as the Centre of Worship. For the Altar is the earthly Throne of God. It is absolutely necessary to the Worship of God, for it is at once the place of Sacrifice and the Tabernacle of the Blessed Sacrament. "We have an Altar" says Saint Paul, and by these words he shows clearly the primary position which the Altar occupies in the divinely given scheme of worship. Nothing can be worse in Art or Architecture than a rich and beautiful Church and a poor and bare Altar. It is putting honour, beauty and dignity in the wrong place. No matter what the Church may possess or lack, the Altar should be made the centre of all, and everything should be done to make it fit to symbolize Calvary, to speak of Heaven and to be the place for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The Altar is the place of sacrifice. There is offered the memorial of Our Lord's Death and Passion on the Cross. In holy mystery Calvary is set forth. The Priest is the representative of Christ. Our Lord works through him, offering, consecrating, giving. At a late Mass the music rises up in honour and praise and there is a fulfillment of the prophecy: "in every place Incense shall be offered unto My Name and a pure offering." The Church has become as it were the Court of Heaven. The life hereafter has begun on earth. And perhaps there is no more beautiful sight than that at the Elevation of the Host, with the Altar and Sanctuary, the gleaming Candles and the fragrant Incense, the vested Clergy and the attendant Acolytes; as all present are in adoring worship. So once thought an artist, who, directed to paint a scene depicting perfect peace, instead of quiet mountain top, or primeval forest or smiling sea, set forth the Mass at this point.

To the Catholic, Holy Communion is no mere good thing to do or religious rite to be received.

He comes to receive his Lord, to be filled with ineffable joy as Christ comes to give Himself, body, soul and divinity, this joy ever increasing as through continually receiving the Blessed Sacrament the soul grows in grace and spiritual discernment.

Consequently the Altar should be a thing of beauty, not for the sake of beauty itself but for the Glory of God. It should be sufficiently elevated so as to attract attention to it as the dominant feature of the Church, yet its lines and details, no matter how lofty and majestic they may be, should be so chaste, dignified and beautiful that its loveliness speaks of rest, repose and religion. For enthroned upon the Altar, in the Holy of Holies, Our Blessed Lord conies to dwell with man, to give Himself to us, as He receives our homage, love and adoration. To that Presence is consecrated the work of the architect, artist and craftsman. And for Him, Who is there enthroned, are Crucifix, Candles, Flowers and Vestments, for as Canon Bright so beautifully says:

"Tis for Thee we bid the Frontal
Its embroidered wealth unfold,
'Tis for Thee we deck the Reredos
With the colours and the gold."

The Altar should be of stone or marble, if possible, and where made of wood, there should be let in a little slab of stone upon which the Consecration of the Elements occurs. On the table or "Mensa" of the Altar are carved five crosses symbolizing the Sacred Wounds of Christ.

An Altar is not complete without a Tabernacle.

In the olden days in some places was found a soaring spire in the Sanctuary called a "Sacrament House." In other places a hanging heart before the Altar or a receptacle called an "Aumbry" nearby, in which was reserved the Blessed Sacrament. Now, however, it is customary to build for this purpose a special place back of the Mensa, fitted up with interior and door to enshrine Our Lord. Nothing so draws the Soul to God or more fully hallows the House of Prayer than Our Blessed Lord Enthroned in the Holy Sacrament, in the Altar Tabernacle. Then is fully realized His Words: "Lo, I am with you alway" Then is found that Our Lord is the True Magnet that draws all men unto Him. No Church should be without the Reserved Sacrament. A practice so universal in the Catholic Church cannot be condemned by the Anglican Communion. And no Bishop of the Church or Legislative Body of the Church has a right to object. For this devout and helpful practice has not only real authorization in the Mass itself, but is undoubtedly also the result of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And given Reservation, all devotions such as Benediction and Adoration follow as a matter of course. Surely the Soul that hopes to worship God face to face in Heaven has a right to worship that same God, in the person of Jesus Christ, in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar!

"Lord bring home the glorious lesson
To their hearts who strangely deem
That an unmajestic worship
Doth Thy Majesty beseem;
Show them more of Thy dear Presence
Let them, let them come to know,
That our King is throned among us
And His Church is Heaven below."

Back of the Altar stands the Reredos, sometimes separated from the Altar proper, leaving a passage between them. The Reredos is generally elaborately carved or decorated. Where there is no Reredos, there should be a hanging called a "Dossal."

In very small Churches it may be inadvisable or impossible to have more than one Altar. Where there is more than one Altar, it may be noted that the modern Roman Catholic custom of having three almost in a row, that is, one in the Sanctuary and one at the head of each side aisle, is not the ancient way. Then the Altars were scattered, as we find abroad today. For instance in most Cathedrals in France, a Lady Chapel is directly back of the Sanctuary and many Chapels are built in separately from the side aisles. In Saint Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, there is a chapel at each side of the Sanctuary and many other chapels are built against the piers that support the clerestory walls.

In all Churches large enough, however, in addition to the main building, or as part of it, should be built a Lady Chapel, dedicated to Our Lady, to whom, as did Saint Gabriel at the Annunciation, we say our "Hail Mary: full of grace."

The building of a Chapel specially dedicated to the Blessed Virgin is sanctioned by the use of centuries and commends itself as a fitting way to honour her, who by God's Appointment was "blessed among women."

For "Our Lady" occupies a most important place in the Christian Religion, as the Instrument of the Incarnation. She is rightly entitled by the call of God, and as the Mother of Our Lord, to all honour and reverence short of that which we give to God. As has been said elsewhere, we worship and adore Our Lord as God and Man, we honour and reverence Saint Mary as Virgin and Mother. It were an ill way to show our love for Our Divine Redeemer by failing to give reverence and honour to her whom Jesus loved.

The Sanctuary and Choir of a Church should be carefully arranged for. Not enough study has been given to these parts in the past. Many otherwise fine and spacious Churches have cramped and crowded Sanctuaries, inconvenient at ordinary times, almost impossible for "functions." Ample space in the Sanctuary is of primary importance, both from a practical standpoint and from the consideration of dignity and reverence.

Of course it is generally known that the Nave, the Choir and the Sanctuary respectively symbolize "the Church Militant on earth," "the Church Expectant in Purgatory," and "the Church Triumphant in Heaven," the divisions being copied somewhat from the Jewish Tabernacle and Temple, built by command of God with "Outer Court," "Holy Place" and the "Holy of Holies."

In order to accentuate this teaching, the Church early began to build a Rood and Rood-Screen. Many present-day Churches do not have these, but while there is a gain in what we may call the spectacular effect, there is a loss of both symbolism and mysticism, for the Rood and Screen not only teach, they also create an atmosphere.

The Rood-Screen is a very ancient feature in Church Architecture. There is a certain fitness in separating the Nave from the Chancel, both from practical and symbolical reasons. The significance of the Rood-Screen is very illuminating, for it symbolizes the Gate of Death, separating this world (as seen represented by the Nave) from the "Life beyond" (as seen shown by the Choir). The Holy Rood or Cross above the Screen, bearing the Figure of Christ, indicates that the future joy and the life everlasting are only found through Christ and the Cross. Thus the Rood-Screen is as it were a veil between the Church Militant, and the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant.

Originally a Rood was very simple, a bare beam bearing up the Crucifix, which beam was either built into the side walls or held up by chains fastened to the roof. (It would seem to be almost beyond argument the eminent fitness of holding up before men the Holy Rood or Crucifix that all may look at it and by the symbol see in spirit "Jesus Christ and Him Crucified.") This is the true Rood and Rood-Beam, and no matter how much elaboration may be in the development of the Screen below or in the cresting above, this beam should ever be the structural basis. Well Saint Augustine once wrote: "O Christian Soul, look on the Wounds of the Suffering One, the Blood of the Dying One, the price paid for our redemption. These things, O think how great they be and weigh them in the balance of thy mind, that He may be wholly nailed to thy heart, Who was for thee all nailed unto the Cross." There is little to support the theory that the Rood-Screen was generally only to be found in Churches of Monastic foundation. On the contrary, for ages its use was quite universal. An evidence of this is seen in the Iconostasis of the Eastern Church.

It was not long before the Screen came as a supplement to the Holy Rood and the beam supporting it. Architects looking upon the Crucifix sought to endear that Sacred Symbol still more to the faithful by building beneath it a screen of beauty, which, when it came into being, was called the Rood-Screen. Sometimes it was of marble, sometimes of metal, sometimes of stone, sometimes of wood, the last being most used in England and France.

In very large Churches there later came to be little galleries placed above the Screen called Rood lofts. It is interesting to know that the ancient Abbey (now the Cathedral) of Saint Alban had a Rood loft. These Roed lofts had a practical use, as from them occasionally blessings were given, sermons were preached and Absolutions pronounced.

The Rood-Screen was generally richly carved. Sometimes it was closed. Often it had on it representations of many Saints. Occasionally it was painted or frescoed with scenes like the Last Judgment. The most general and popular usage was to have the Rood-Screen made of Gothic Arches, generally seven, and above, on the Rood-Beam, a "Calvary" : Our Lord on the Cross in the centre, and the Blessed Virgin and Saint John on either side.

The Baptismal Font is most important, for here is ministered the initial Sacrament of the Church, which as our Catechism so beautifully says, makes the recipient "a member of Christ, the child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven" Until recently there has been a tendency in the Anglican Communion not to minister Baptism with the honour and dignity that should attach to such a Rite. Our Lord says: "Except a man is born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of God." Consequently not only should the Font be so built as to be impressive but also the Baptism should be ministered with ceremonial dignity. Today in many Parish Churches there is a return to the building of a special part called a Baptistry and the use of Cope and Candles in the Service.

In ancient times it was often customary to have a pool instead of a Font, with a descent of seven steps signifying the Gifts of the Holy Ghost. Fonts, however, soon came to be generally used because as the Baptism of Infants was practised from the first, the Sacrament was more easily ministered to them from a Font. The Church did not advocate or insist upon immersion, as some think, since that had no express warrant from Our Lord for its use or practice.

Another important feature of every Church should be the Pulpit. It is a mistake to slight this. Sacraments and Sermons are both important and both are bidden by Christ. The Pulpit has consequently received much attention from Artists and Architects. It has been surrounded with all the dignity and honour that clever craftsmen can contribute. Often rich in carving, aglow with colour, ornate with sculpture, with high ascent of steps below and with lacelike canopy above, the mediaeval pulpit is still seen in the old world as the Throne from which the King of Kings speaks His Message to the people through His Ambassador.

No one should speak from the Pulpit without Authority, for "how shall they preach except they be sent." Nor should unseemly topics be there set forth, such as "war" or "politics," or matters of no religious import. For it is written "how beautiful are the feet of those that preach the Gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things." The Clergy are to "preach the Word" to "preach the Gospel" to "preach the Kingdom of God" to preach "Christ" to preach "Jesus and the Resurrection" "peace by Jesus Christ" and to "declare the whole Counsel of God." Thus if God's Holy Word is rightly preached, the Church will be an "Ecclesia docens," teaching the "truth in love": the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of the Church and the highest ideals and standards of moral living.

The Pulpit calls to mind the great preachers of the past, and the marvellous influence of their words. From that host innumerable stands out in dramatic or romantic way to enchain the imagination, Saint Paul preaching on Mars Hill, on "the Unknown God" Saint Chrysostom, the golden tongued, charming and convincing his hearers, Saint Bernard preaching the Crusades, the crowds stirred to the depths fastening on the Cross with the words, "God wills it," and Saint Francis of Assisi literally fulfilling the text to preach the Gospel to "every creature" by preaching to the birds that gathered near.

Every Parish should have the "Stations of the Cross." Both abroad and in Roman Catholic Churches here one sees them and immediately recognizes the appeal which they make to even worldly people. Very early in history, Christians visited the Holy Land on pilgrimages to honour the places associated with Our Lord. Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Calvary called forth the love and devotion of the faithful. When those pilgrims came to be maltreated, the Crusades were fought to free those holy places from those regarded as defiling and profaning them. Years later, when the Crusades were a thing of the past and when pilgrimages were less practicable, pictures were hung in the Churches, and devotions were made before them, calling up as they did the sacred scenes of Scripture. From this custom came "The Way of the Cross," where in the several Stations are shown the Sufferings of Our Lord. Such a Service is well calculated, not only to make more real the Scriptural story, but also to deepen in the souls of those who follow Our Lord in spirit along "the Way of Sorrows," the motions of Faith, Love and Repentance. The popularity of this Service is seen in the fact, that although its length causes physical and mental fatigue, no other Service, except the Mass, draws forth such large congregations. The Stations may be of stone, wood, or metal, in their natural colour or poly-chromed. One thing to be remembered, however, is, if coloured, not to have them so realistic as to offend good taste or to arouse horror. In poor Parishes the Stations should be installed even if they are only Pictures.

In every Church there should be a Confessional, a place made for such a purpose, not a mere pew, which is unseemly and looks as if both Priest and Penitent were simply having a talk! The Confessional is generally at the rear of the Church. It may have doors or curtains, it may have the same place for both sexes, or one side for men and the other side for women. The important thing is that there is a Confessional. And all should remember that Confession and Absolution, called "Penance," is as much a Sacrament instituted by Christ as is Holy Baptism. He said to His Apostles: "Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whosoever sins ye remit they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained." This has been called "the power of the keys."

This same authority and power is given to the Priest today at his Ordination, when the Bishop commissions him in the same words which Our Lord spoke to His Apostles, and also adds: "And be thou a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God and of His Holy Sacraments." Consequently a Priest who is faithful to his solemn Ordination Vows must teach that the Confession of Sins is of Divine Appointment, with the sure warrant of Scripture, must urge upon his people the necessity, the privilege and blessing of coming to Confession frequently, and must regularly at certain stated times be in Church to give the opportunity.

In the daily offices of the Church the faithful are reminded of this duty, when they are told that Our Lord "hath given power and commandment to His Ministers to declare and pronounce to His people being penitent the Absolution and Remission of their sins."

An Organ is now held to be an indispensable adjunct to worship. While deprecating the amount of money which is sometimes spent on music, often out of all proportion to the receipts of a Parish, and sometimes in marked contrast to the meagre salaries or livings given to the Clergy, all must rightly recognize the place of music in Divine Worship, its power to make God's praises beautiful and to stir the soul of man.

It has often been said that "the foundation of Art is laid in Nature." This is particularly true of Music. The bees, the birds, the winds, the reeds, the hum of insect life, the murmur of the sea, make music in Nature. One might even say that from them was suggested the melodious song, the Chorale, the Symphony.

So that it is no far-fetched theory that sees in the Organ today the development of the music of the little reeds on the river bank, passing through many stages of the pipes of the ancients, the humble mouth organ, the harmonica and other instruments. It is the inventive genius of man, that studying the music of Nature has evolved that greatest of all instruments, The Organ.

The Old World excels in Organs. In England are notable ones. Also in Germany and France. No one can forget the one at Notre Dame, Paris, as played after Service! In these old-time foreign organs there is a grandeur, a volume, a tone rarely reached in our modern work for all our boasted advancement.

The Music of the Services is a most important adjunct to worship. Unseemly or secular music has always been disapproved for use in the Church. The Clergy, who by Canon are in charge, should see that the music is what it should be. It is also to be desired that it have an educational value, that is, of such an high order, that simple or elaborate, it worthily sets forth the praise of God and leads the soul upward and onward. I will run contrary to the opinions of many Organists when I say that nothing can equal the religious appeal of the Ancient Chant or Gregorian Tones, or in a far different way, Gounod's "Saint Cecilia."

I have often heard the Anglican Chant and Anthems beautifully rendered in the Chapels of the various Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge and perhaps the music there is unexcelled in tone and quality. Yet to my mind it cannot compare to Gregorian Chanting as I have heard it, say in Notre Dame, Paris, or in those old days at Saint Mark's under Minton Pyne.

With the development of Architecture came the use of stained or painted glass. At first to soften down the light and to give the beauty of colour, the windows soon came to be looked upon as means not only of teaching the story of the Bible and the Church, by representation in glass, but also as a medium for a decorative value of its own. Consequently artists and craftsmen gave more and more time to the study, so that the stained glass of mediaeval times became one of the most notable and wonderful things of the age.

When one recalls the Cathedrals of Chartres, or Amiens, of Notre Dame or La Sainte Chapelle, Paris, or some of the old Churches in Germany, one comes to realize the exquisite beauty and the wonderful inspiration that is in their windows. Such glass as is there found has never been equalled or excelled. The lines, the leading, the marvellous colouring, still further beautified by age, make those windows, once seen, never to be forgotten.

As understood by the mediaeval artists and glassmakers, the function of a Church Window was fourfold: (1) for light; (2) for decoration; (3) for teaching; (4) for devotion. Those who conceived and carried out those designs realized that picturing on canvas and picturing in glass were two very different arts, different in design, different in very essence, if one may use that expression. And the greatest difference of all was that made by the "living" glass, the very eye as it were of the Church.

Consequently, in carrying out the making of stained glass, those windows were "flat," lacking "perspective" in the modern sense. The figures, grouping and colouring were both devotional and decorative, even such as inspired Milton to write of them as: ''Storied Windows richly dight, casting a dim, religious light."

In these Ancient Windows and in those which properly copy them, the glass is of varied thickness, uneven, stained, painted and heavily leaded, and always keeping a proper relationship between the glass and the mullions and traceries of the windows. For one of the most marked and beautiful characteristics of the mediaeval window was the relative value of the glass and of the stone, of the traceries and of the leading, each accentuating the beauty of the other. The lines followed conventional drawing, which some today may like to call "stiff and archaic," but which, imbuing a window with a devotional feeling and a religious atmosphere, make it both a power for teaching and inspiration and for artistic pleasure and delight.

And Crosses and Crucifixes, Lights and Candles, Incense and Flowers, Vestments and Banners, together with bodily acts, make the worship of God a thing of beauty and a symbol of that more perfect worship in the Courts of Heaven. As one is uplifted by a glorious function in Cologne or Notre Dame, Paris, one is depressed by the gloomy bareness of a service in Ulm Cathedral or in some of the Cathedrals of England. For a beautiful Church needs a beautiful service. Fortunately, however, through the Catholic Revival here and in the Church of England, the prophetic words of John Mason Neale are seen fulfilled and, slightly adapted, may apply to my own Parish Church of Saint Alban's:

"And now shall long Processions sweep
Through Alban's pillared pile;
And also Banner, Cross and Cope
Gleam through the incensed aisle."

So everything in a church, the Building, the Appointments, the Services have their meaning, speaking to the soul receptive of God's treasures found in Religion, above all those obtained in regular attendance at Mass and frequent Confession and Communion.


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