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  • Kristi W. Bain

Where Does God Dwell? Form Without Faith in Church Arcitecture

Kristi W. Bain Reviews William Whyte’s Unlocking the Church

What makes a church, a church? William Whyte seeks to answer this question in his study of the ideologies that built the Victorian church. Through an analysis of nineteenth-century sermons, poems, diatribes, and anecdotes that address the wave of church building and rebuilding in England and beyond, Whyte shows us that Victorians approached church building from the perspective of how one ought to experience them. Consequently, Victorians developed the ideology that a church is a church only when the architecture shapes and engenders profound experiences of the holy. This study is not an analysis of Victorian church architecture or about the congregations who have been shaped by it, although both come into play at times throughout. Rather, it is primarily a narrative of Victorian clergy and how they felt about—how they loved (or hated)the churches of their time, and how this affective architectural methodology has shaped how we are expected to experience churches, especially Anglican churches, today. In other words, Whyte’s book is primarily an intellectual history of Victorian architecture with a nod toward social history, taking its leave of traditional studies that are more interested in the architects than the architecture, and in the architecture more than the experience of it.

Who Makes a Church? To understand the beliefs and ideologies behind the new wave of Victorian church building, it is critical to understand the men who developed and disseminated these ideologies. Whyte divides them into four groups: laity, architects, clergy, and antiquaries, the latter two often being one and same. Interestingly, while Whyte emphasizes that his approach is extraordinary because it attends to the experiences of “ordinary” people, the laity do not figure into this study as much as one might have expected. Whyte briefly explores how the laity would eventually adopt the clergy’s prescriptions for how they ought to understand and experience churches, but in general, Whyte approaches the transformation of Victorian architecture from the top-down. This is not criticism of Whyte’s approach as much as it is a clarification of the book’s central focus—this, like many English studies of the parish church, is about the great and the good, the movers and the shakers, with the laity playing a role only insofar as they could fund these churches or express the ideologies that the clergy prescribed.

William Whyte, Unlocking the Church: The Lost Secrets of Victorian Sacred Space, Oxford University Press, 2017, 240pp., £18.99, $24.95

Whyte prefers to focus on individuals rather than the major religious and cultural movements of the day, i.e. the Cambridge Ecclesiologists; the Oxford Tractarians; Romanticism; and Antiquarianism, which provide necessary context but do not drive Whyte’s analysis. Regarding the latter movement, Whyte points out what many scholars in parish studies already know—that antiquaries were critical in shaping how people perceived and still perceive churches, both their architectural and historical significance. An essential point here is that we, at least in England, are still very much influenced by antiquarian histories of the medieval and early modern parish church. They created the notion that parish churches are significant for their history even more than for their religious function—that what they evoke is “the sense of the past rather than the religious present.”

But what Whyte wants us to take away from this book more than anything else is that the men who conceptualized and designed the Victorian church understood it as a theological text, what Whyte calls the “textual turn” in architecture, which was part and parcel of a wider cultural emphasis on symbolism, literature, and art. Clergy with Anglo-Catholic leanings such as John Henry Newman believed churches were meant to be like holy books, and it was the duty of clergy to teach their congregation how to read these “books” so that they could experience worship more fully. Naturally, such radical new views would lead to debates on what made a church, and clergy such as Newman hearkened back to pre-Reformation days when churches had high altars and chancel screens—the hallmark features, according to Victorians, of a true church. Whyte explains that such calls for change were a direct reaction to Georgian architecture, which was designed for an auditory experience: listening, rather than seeing and feeling, were the priorities of eighteenth-century clergy and their congregations. For Victorians, churches were meant to move, and people were meant to respond, which transformed church buildings into active places that did much more than simply provide spaces for congregations to gather or to house liturgical objects.

What ought churches do? Perhaps what is most compelling about this study is its focus on how nineteenth-century churches were designed to be affective, and how key players in Victorian church architecture taught people how to be moved by them. Whyte wants to know what nineteenth-century theology and religion were doing to architecture, people and ideas, and what architecture was doing in return. Scholars of religion are very good at this type of examination, but architectural historians often are not, which Whyte attempts to rectify. In particular, Whyte details the emotional responses that clergy and architects had to their churches, and encourages us to imagine, and even experience for ourselves, how churches were and are meant to make us feel. And yet, as much as Whyte wants us to understand how churches can achieve certain effects, this is ultimately a story about theologians who wrote tracts and sermons in order to compel people to see and feel appropriately. Victorian clergy and architects shaped not just the fabric and order of church buildings, but the responses that people were supposed to have to them.

This point brings us to how Victorian ideologies about the experience of church architecture led to the development of new ideologies about appropriate uses of churches. Throughout the book, Whyte argues that Victorian architecture was a radical departure from the previous century, a distinctive form with an emotive function quite different from its Georgian predecessor. But when it comes to appropriate use, continuity comes into play. Whyte emphasizes that we, as in those of us living in countries influenced by Victorian architectural methods, are still in conversation with the Victorians today.

We see churches through Victorian eyes. What we expect when we visit churches—the churchyard, graveyard, school, vicarage, church hall—has been shaped by Victorian standards. Integral to Victorians’ creation of affective architecture was their belief that church buildings, their furnishings, and churchyards, were embodiments of faith. Whyte shows us that Victorians believed faith and feeling must be embedded in the fabric of the church, and that sacrality of space and structure is what transforms a building into a church, and this led to questions over how these spaces should be used. Were concerts allowed in the nave? Is it appropriate to hold vestry meetings within the church? Similar debates have continued throughout the subsequent two centuries, from questioning the use of redundant churches as museums or private residences in the twentieth century, to current debates amongst heritage professionals and parish congregations over how to sensitively make churches more accessible and usable to the wider community. Indeed, medievalists today have pointed out that the sacred-secular dichotomy regarding appropriate use of churches is not medieval, but Victorian, and Whyte’s study confirms this point. What Whyte does not say more directly is that Victorian understandings of appropriateness were not just theological and ideological, but they were also couched in particular locations of taste, class and gender, which continue to govern notions of appropriate use today.

The Religiosity of Church Architecture—It becomes clear toward the end of Whyte’s book that he has a personal investment in the “textual turn” in Victorian church architecture, couched in his conviction that a better understanding of church buildings can contribute to modern Anglicanism’s mission and spiritual development. He wants us to build on the groundwork that Victorians laid for shaping reactions to churches; to feel something when we see and enter a church; to understand the religiosity of church buildings; and to recognize the importance of these buildings for serving past and present communities.

However, Whyte’s primary focus on Victorian clergy’s emotional connection to churches may have stymied the critical analysis that his introduction promises. For instance, Whyte offers us one of the few studies of how “ordinary” people experienced Victorian architecture, which unfortunately did not reach its full potential, perhaps due to his core evidence base of literature by prominent male clergy and antiquaries. Also, the theoretical intervention of a “textual turn” was fascinating but underdeveloped, not least in the omission of any discussion of the power dynamics at play when Victorian clergy sought to discipline action and emotion in newly re-ordered and re-designed Victorian churches. In terms of religious studies theories and methods, drawing on studies of the relationship between ideology and practice by scholars such as Talal Asad, Catherine Bell, or Clifford Geertz, to name just a very few, would have given more depth to understanding how the laity’s practices were shaped by this new Victorian architecture, particularly in Chapter Three when Whyte explores the revival of religious processions. Historians of the late medieval and early modern parish have made much progress in exploring how church buildings shaped and have been shaped by clergy and laity—Katherine French, Pamela Graves, and Beat Kümin in particular have paved the way in examining parish churches as agents of continuity, transformation, ideology, and practice. Instead, Whyte finds an affinity with the Victorians who ushered in the textual turn in church architecture, preferring to let their ideas and methodologies drive the narrative rather than contextualizing them with new theoretical approaches as promised in the introduction.

Whyte does an excellent job of bringing to the fore the disproportionate focus that today’s architectural historians (much like Victorian antiquaries) place on form rather than religious function. This is something that I experienced when I first came to England, having joined a group of academics on a church crawl. Religion played little part in how we “read” these churches, even as we tried to discern which saints were depicted on rood screens. No, the only religion readily apparent in this crawl was the way some religiously referred to their pocket Pevsner. Moreover, since we were a group of medievalists, part of the church crawling ritual was to sigh and tut at the Victorian interventions. Whyte makes a bold move when he insists that scholars of church architecture think religiously about the churches that they study, and to do this, scholarship going forward needs to move beyond its primary attention to Victorian architectural design and take into account the beliefs that guided Victorian church building. Our reactions to Victorianized churches, even the visceral reactions, are precisely what Victorians had in mind when they designed, built, and ordered their churches. Architecture was meant to be—and Whyte hopes it still is—affective.


Kristi Bain holds a BA and MA in History from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a PhD in Medieval and Religious Studies from Northwestern University. Her research and publications focus on conflict, collective memory and cultural heritage of medieval parish churches, past and present. Her work has been funded by the Medieval Academy of America, the Northwestern University Medieval Studies Cluster Mellon Fund, and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). She currently holds a post in research strategy at Cambridge University.


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