Sunday, 24 February 2013

Hawksmoor, the Underground and Amazing Grace

We should be grateful to the engineers of Victorian London that St Mary Woolnoth still stands. The church is directly above Bank station, so any mistake in their calculations could have seen the building drop into the earth. Less gratitude is owed to the company responsible for building the station, the City & South London Railway, who planned to simply demolish the church - or to the authorities who gave them permission to do so. Only after public protests was demolition avoided, and the church's well-being left to the skill of the engineers.


Thankfully, all went well and the only Hawksmoor church in the City of London continues to welcome visitors. Although the site has held a church since Norman times, this building was opened in 1727. It has a slightly unusual history: the previous church survived the Great Fire of 1666, albeit badly damaged, and was restored by Sir Christopher Wren. However, it became apparent that the structure remained unsafe. Thus, 45 years after the fire, it was demolished.


Hawksmoor built the replacement as one of Queen Anne's 'Fifty New Churches'. (Since the scheme was supposed to provide Anglican churches where none yet existed, it was a little cheeky of the Commissioners to approve this.) It is in English Baroque style; its interior is a square within a square, with clusters of columns at each corner of the inner cube. To insulate the worshippers from noise, there are no windows in three of the four exterior walls; instead, light floods down from above.


Among the memorials inside the church is one to its most famous rector, John Newton. He had pursued a career as a slave-trader, in the early stages of which he himself was brutally treated as servant to slave-dealer Amos Clowe  and his wife, Princess Peye. However, neither this experience nor a later conversion to devout Christianity discouraged him from continuing his career in slavery. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography summarises this rather horrible contradiction: 'Although a captain of slave-ships, he repressed swearing and profligacy, and read the Liturgy twice on Sunday with the crew.'

Newton had studied throughout his career at sea and, after returning to land in 1755 because of health problems, sought work as a minister. He eventually became rector at Olney in Buckinghamshire (where he wrote Amazing Grace) before moving in 1780 St Mary Woolnoth. In 1788, he finally disclosed his slave-trading past and became an active abolitionist. His opposition to the slave trade informed his preaching as well as other activities including publishing an anti-slavery pamphlet which described his own past, and giving evidence to a Parliamentary Committee, testifying to the hideous conditions suffered by those transported as slaves. The epitaph on his memorial tablet, written by Newton himself, includes the words 'once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, [he] was, by the rich mercy of our lord and saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy'.

Newton was originally interred in the church crypt. However, when Bank station was built, the crypt had to be emptied of human remains, and he and his wife are now buried in Olney.



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