Unlocking the Church: William Whyte - In Review

There was a craze for church building in the 19th century. ‘Unlocking the Church’ charts this explosion and seeks to understand the impulse that drove it. Whyte’s book might assist churches struggling with buildings from this era.

Victorian designers wanted to wind faith and architecture together. They thought this would help people worship God. ‘Unlocking the Church’ reminds us of the intentions both good and bad that lie behind the churches we have today.

Whyte thinks that understanding the builder’s intentions is necessary for any church using or adapting a Victorian church today. He claims that people often criticise Victorian features while what they ‘think a church building is for’ is still driven by Victorian values. This may be the most useful contribution of this book to any church council thinking about changes.

Victorians from church traditions came to see the church building as a method of telling stories. A church was to be no mere shelter. Rather its stones, windows and structure were to be as readable as a book. Once again in Christian history: everything became symbolic.

As the Victorians unpicked the enforced post reformation plainness of churches they wanted to affect readers sight, and feeling about worship. Whyte claims they intentionally drove feminine features from the church and created a hard, hierarchy driven, male dominated space. This is the mixed legacy of the Victorian explosion in church building.

Whyte’s willingness to read dense Victorian prose about buildings and about God creates a valuable fresh perspective. He has waded through the most unpromising sources to help bring a fusion of thinking about both God and buildings.

The transformation also had unintended consequences. These changes altered the way church buildings sound. Hard edges, removal of soft fittings, and the stripping of plaster all helped to bounce sound around. In turn the echoey building has altered the very way the English church worshipped God.

About this book

Unlocking the Church: William Whyte - Oxford University Press | 2017


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