Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire, 1840-1870

The Gothic Revival movement in architecture was intimately entwined with eighteenth and nineteenth century British cultural politics. By the middle of the nineteenth century, architects and theorists had transformed the movement into a serious scholarly endeavour, connecting it to notions of propriety and ‘truth’, particularly in the domain of religious architecture. Simultaneously, reform within the Church of England had worked to widen the aesthetic and liturgical appeal of ‘correct’ gothic forms. Coinciding with these developments, both architectural and religious, was the continued expansion of Britain’s empire, including a renewed urgency by the English Church to extend its mission beyond the British Isles. In the groundbreaking Imperial Gothic, G. A. Bremner traces the global reach and influence of the Gothic Revival throughout Britain’s empire during these crucial decades.

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But no! a different history of His Church was traced by the finger of God at Calvary. As is the Head, such the members must be. It is not by the easy unsacrificing multiplication of copies of the written word, but by self-sacrificing labour, it is not by the written word only, but through the Word of God, living in and quickening His chosen temples, sanctifying them, and testifying His own presence by the holy awe of habitation wherein He dwells, that so great a work must be accomplished.

 – E. B. Pusey, The Church the Converter of the Heathen (1838)

The Church of England was late into the mission field. Moreover, it was lax in extending its privileges – a constitutional right, according to some – to those who arrived to live and work in the far-flung corners of Britain’s colonial empire. To make matters worse, European Protestant churches and Nonconformist sects had been operating with vigour throughout Britain’s overseas territories since the mid-eighteenth century. This only made the established Church look more negligent with regard to its responsibilities. It was even said that Roman Catholics had done more. At first glance this seems odd, given that the Church of England had not one but three affiliate missionary organisations by 1800. These were the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK, 1699), the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG, 1701) and the Church Missionary Society (CMS, 1799). These organisations, although founded with the best of intentions, were not particularly dynamic in executing their directives; nor were especially discriminatory in their neglect, forsaking Europeans and non-Europeans alike. To be sure, this had much to do with the frustrations met by the SPG in its attempts to establish proper ecclesiastical governance abroad during the eighteenth century. But even when this had been rectified to a degree, the SPG continued to focus what energy and resources it had on servicing the souls of expatriate settler communities. This was despite the fact that its mandate included from the beginning the ‘conversion of natives’. The SPCK, on the other hand, considered itself more a facilitator of missionary activity, focusing its attention on education, funding and publicity. It too had made modest attempts at launching missions to the heathen, especially in India (Tirunelveli), but devolved this responsibility to the SPG during the course of the eighteenth century.

Although much later on the scene, the CMS had arguable done more than the SPCK and SPG put together by 1840. This was partly owing to its Evangelical composition and partly to its ecumenical attitude towards recruiting missionaries (it was willing to accept German Lutherans, for example). Not hindered by an insistence on episcopal oversight, the CMS was able to go direct into the mission field. Its missionaries were sent to the farthest reaches of the British empire (and beyond), bringing the gospel to indigenous peoples, learning their languages and translating their scriptures. But the largely voluntary organisational structure of the CMS during the nineteenth century led to disciplinary problems with local Anglican bishops. Ths, although it was more enthusiastic than its SPG conterpart, the success of the CMS up to the time of Henry Veen (Secretary, 1841 – 72) was both patchy and controversial.

Going Global: Founding the Colonial Bishoprics’ Fund

If the 1830s were a difficult time for the Church of England generally, then the year 1840 offered new promise. This marked the moment at which the hierarchy of the Church suddenly awoke from its ‘fat slumbers’, as Gibbon once put it, regarding its imperial responsibilities. This perceived duty was something that had been smouldering in the background but was now suddenly enflamed. The initiative was headed by Charles Blomfield (1786-1857), bishop of London, in an open letter to the archbishop of Canterbury, William Howley (1766-1848). In this letter Blomfield highlighted what was generally considered to be the half-hearted attempt by Britain to make ‘provision for the spiritual wants of the colonies’. which ‘at no time [had] been completely and effectually carried out’. To Blomfield, who, as bishop of London, had nominal jurisdiction over Anglican clergy in the colonies, such provision was considered the ‘sacred duty’ of a Christian country. He argued this point not on spiritual grounds alone, as if that were not enough, but on temporal premises too; that the English Church was the established Church and therefore an inextricable component of the nation’s constitutional settlement. Although the SPG had laboured against indifference  to supply this provision to the best of its ability, Blomfield observed, it had done so inadequately. The time had now arrived to force the issue and make amends.

– From ‘Anglicanism and the British Colonial World: Transplanting the Faith’, the Introduction to Imperial Gothic by G. A. Bremner


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