The Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Fathers in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, asked me to make a preliminary design for a new church. In this article I want to explain a little of the theology and thinking behind the design I have produced in conjunction with Subdeacon Guy Maxfield.
The Aim: a church design incarnate in the west
At its present rate of growth, the twenty-five year old parish is going to outgrow its current church, and so plans are afoot to buy new property and build a new church. We all knew that this was a wonderful opportunity to design a church which was more than a simple import from Byzantium or Russia. Its design needed to marry the wisdom of Byzantine church architecture with the rich tradition of the earlier Orthodox west, suitable contemporary building techniques, and the materials used locally in Shropshire.
Although a few purpose-built Orthodox churches do exist in Britain, all have been simple reconstructions or even copies of Greek, Russian or Serbian designs, without adaptation to their British environment or any recognition of the Orthodox history of Britain in the first millennium or so after Christ. This naturally gives the impression to outsiders that Orthodoxy is entirely a foreign import. This church desing was a golden opportunity to right this wrong.
The design needed to relate both to Greeks and to British. The parish was founded by an English priest, and its congregation is approximately 45% British converts, 45% Cypriot, and 10% Russian, Rumanian and Serbian.
Domed or basilican design?
We decided to use the domed cross in square church developed in the east (we shall call this the Byzantine floor plan) as our basis, whilst drawing as much as possible on elements of Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque design. The Byzantine design is theologically richer than the simpler basilican plan. It offers a rich variety of interior surfaces on which to fresco and devlop theological themes. Also, the transition from dome to drum to pendative to nave offers a vertical narrative as well as a horizontal one, something lacking in the basilca.
Once this was decided, the next step was to study early western Church architecture – up to the 13th century – and see what elements to draw from this. We saw that rarely were roofs domed or curved, they were either hipped or pyramidal. Where domical roofs are seen, as in St Paul’s London, it is in architecture trying to revive pagan Roman architecture rather than Christian. So we roofed our dome with an eight sided pyramid, and the drums inside with hipped roofs. This design harmonizes with much local builidng of Shropshire, and has the added advantage that it is cheaper to construct and maintain than domed roofs.
There were various options for materals. For the roof, slate or plain clay tile. Options are open here.The water colour shows slate, though plain tiles are warmer in colour. For the walls the main options in descending order or expense were: stone; stone corners and windows with brick walls; stone or brick corners and windows with plaster render elsewhere; everything rendered. The design goes for brick corners and wndows and lime plaster render. This limited use of stone allowed us to quote from Anglo-Saxon architecture, hence the dormer windows in the roof.
The window designs are all drawn from extant Anglo-Saxon churches, dated from around 800 to 1,000 A.D.