In Hereford, bishop and parishioners are at loggerheads over the future of the parish church. Brian Brindley argues that such a scrap is preferable to outsiders dictating re-ordering practice.
IT IS GOOD NEWS that Catholic churches in Great Britain, if they are either listed buildings or situated in a conservation area, will in future be subject to planning control inside as well as out. Outside, of course, such buildings already need listed buildings consent or conservation area consent; but inside alterations and additions have until now been carried out without any compulsory artistic supervision.
For obvious reasons control over the exterior is exercised by the local authority; the newly-created control over the interior will be exercised within the Church, by a new diocesan committee.
I realise that the new restrictions will be irksome to many parish priests and their parishioners, who have been used to having a completely free hand in the re-ordering and re-decorat.ing of their churches and the introduction or removal of works of art and objects of devotion. In many cases that freedom has been responsibly and creatively used. But who could deny that there have been many disasters beautiful altars and shrines destroyed, murals painted over, once-lovely churches ruined by crude re-painting or ugly partitioning, worthless pictures, carving, or stained glass put in? It is to .protect us from such mistakes that the Catholic Church has voluntarily put itself under this restraint.
I say "voluntarily"; but everybody knows that, if we had not adopted a system of this kind, the state would have taken away from us the "ecclesiastical exemption" we at present enjoy, and would have put our churches, inside and out, under local authority control.
The Church of England, which is the custodian of the great majority of churches built in this land originally for the services of the Latin Rite, has long had such a system, known as the Faculty Jurisdiction; in recent decades that has evolved with the creation of a Diocesan Advisory Committee in every Church of England diocese. While that has not saved them from making mistakes, the disasters are far fewer and less serious than those in the Catholic Church. WhE Bishop Blougram called "our churches" are in safe hands.
It is a measure of the seriousness with which informed opinion now takes our Catholic inheritance of 19th and 20th century churches that the conservationists are insisting that there should be some reaction in the way we look after it. We can take that as a compliment to our buildings and their contents and thus to us as a community; and we can be very thankful that the care and control of them remain within the hands of the Church.
Not, sadly, that the Catholic Church in England and Wales can be trusted to look after its own. This is illustrated by the infamous intention of the Archbishop of Cardiff to abandon the church of St Francis Xavier in the centre of Hereford and to replace it with a modern
church on the outskirts of the city where parking is easier. St Francis Xavier's is one of those rare Catholic churches built in the years immediately after Emancipation in the Classical style, before the influence of Pugin made Gothic almost obligatory. Its solemn Greek Doric ponied
is one of the great adornments of the streets of the ancient city: I have no hesitation in describing it as one of the best: it is certainly of higher quality than the dull Anglican cathedral, most of which is of more recent date. My own recollection is of a very beautiful, quiet and reposeful church; if it can now be described, as in the Herald (14 July), as a "gloomy, musty mausoleum", that can only be as the result of grievous (and perhaps deliberate) neglect.
It is this building which Archbishop Ward proposes to sell. It is listed, Grade II;
the City Council hopes that some "appropriate" use can be found for it; if not, then the diocese will seek its delisting so that it can be demolished and the site used for commercial purposes.
That such a thing could be seriously proposed in the 1990s is hard to believe. If the Catholic Church wants to be taken seriously as a part of our national life, with some claims to be the majority religion in England, then it must wake up to its responsibilities to its heritage. Nowhere than in a cathedral city is it more important that the Catholic Church should be represented by •a noble and conspicuous building with some history behind it: such is the case in, for example, Norwich, Winchester, York, and (thus far) Hereford; it is tragically not so in, for example, Chichester.
It is sad to have to side with the "conservation" lobby against a Catholic Archbishop and his diocesan authorities; but, if they adopt a policy of institutional vandalism, then it must be done.
It is good to know that the Friends of St Francis Xavier's is being formed by parishioners; they will need outside support hut at least it will be a struggle within the Church and not one between the Church and outsiders.
The portico of St Francis Xavier's, Hereford, is a powerful invitation to prayer; its interior, where the Blessed Sacrament has been reserved for nearly 160 years, speaks eloquently of the continuity of the Catholic Church; let us hope that its congregation will prove tough enough to prevent its destruction.
Brian Brindley was for five years Secretary of the Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches in the Anglican diocese of Chichester.