In the City of London, Thursday is the new Sunday

St. Stephen's Walbrook. These days it's huddled in between buildings ancient and modern, and hard to spot. (Wikimedia Commons)
St. Stephen’s Walbrook. These days it’s huddled in between buildings ancient and modern, and hard to spot. (Wikimedia Commons)

St. Stephen’s Walbrook is built in the shadow of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, rather hidden away down the narrow street which gives it its name.   After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren designed no fewer than 51 churches to replace those that had been lost in the four-day conflagration. Saint Stephen’s was his first, and the one where he tried out ideas later realised on a grander scale in the cathedral.

I visited it while I was in London the other week.  This was Wren’s own parish church – he lived at Number 15, Walbrook.  It’s the very first English church to have a domed ceiling in the Baroque style, such as Wren had seen in churches he’d visited in France and Italy, and it enhances the feeling of airiness and space.

The dome and windows of St. Stephen’s Walbrook (Wikimedia Commons)

I liked this church immediately.  On a grey, cheerless day, light poured in through the immense arched windows, glazed with translucent glass as in Wren’s day.  Back in those early days, he’d had oak box pews installed, and the Victorians had later replaced the plain glass with richly coloured stained glass windows, which limited the light entering the building and was contrary to Wren’s own wish to have a classical, rather than a Gothic-inspired church.  Fine woodwork dates from Wren’s day.  Here is the pulpit and its magnificent tester.

The pulpit and tester of St. Stephen’s Walbrook.

Then came World War II.  A bomb plummeted through the roof.  The church was saved from destruction because the bomb didn’t explode.  But the interior was ravaged, the glass shattered. Restoration of the church proved controversial.  Wren’s own desire to have plain glazing was respected, but his box pews are no more.  Light-coloured wooden seating now surrounds a monumental white polished marble altar, the work of Henry Moore.  It has been placed in the centre of the church, immediately beneath the dome.

Henry Moore’s altar, directly below the central dome (Wikimedia Commons)

This must now be a magnificent, as well as an intimate space in which to worship, or listen to a concert.  Yet the congregation had to battle for several years against diehards who tried to vandalise both windows and altar, objecting to what they saw as a desecration of a historic church.

You can’t really see the dome from outside. Best visit the pages of Wikipedia Commons.

I got chatting to the verger, who was sweeping the floor as I arrived.  He told me about the topsy-turvy lives of City of London churches.  Almost nobody lives in the city these days, so Thursday is the new Sunday, with worshippers consisting of the working population, and retired folk from the suburbs who return to support the church they’d loved in earlier years.

He told me that Samaritans, the 24 hour telephone support service for the depressed, those contemplating suicide, began here when its founder Chad Varah, was minister here.

I’d popped in originally as I was exploring the part of the city my grandfather would have called home in his childhood.  His house is no more – everything in his street was destroyed in the Blitz.  This church is near enough to his home that he may have visited it from time to time, though his family’s own church is likely to have been All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in London.  That will be my next port of call in search of his roots, next time I am in the city.

25 thoughts on “In the City of London, Thursday is the new Sunday”

  1. Love this post! I love old churches and it was interesting to see how well the modern and the old have been blended so well here. Unusually for a church of this age, it looks so filled with light, how can you not feel uplifted on entering its doors?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s interesting how some churches can move us, and other leave us cold. One of my favorites is Notre Dame de Bon Secours in Montreal. It’s not far from the “real” Notre Dame but smaller and homier. It was the “sailors’ church” and there are ships models hanging from the dome. Your background on this St. Stephens makes it sound very intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Intersting / worshipped in St. Paul’s over 40+ years ago and I was in awe of the building. At that age – BIG was what was important. Today I would enjoy he intimacy of a smaller place to worship. Great post! Happy New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am glad the congregation’s views on the restoration of the church were upheld. When I belonged to the parish church in Halesworth we wanted to replace the ugly and uncomfortable Victorian pews with new seats that could be moved about but non-church goers in the town caused such a fuss we shelved the idea. Which reminds me that I must have a look in the church when I next am in the town to see if the pews have gone yet. I love wandering about in the city trying to find gems like St Stephen’s Walbrook hidden among the financial houses.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nice to see London, where I live, featured in your blog – I suppose it does lie on the route from Pyrenees to Pennines! Good account of St. Stephen Walbrook, which I’ve visited a few times.

    Liked by 1 person

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