14 May 2022

A Saturday afternoon in
a Wren church linked with
the Samaritans and ‘The Eagle’

The colours of the Ukrainian flag are wrapped around Henry Moore’s altar in Saint Stephen Walbrook (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us were back in Saint Stephen Walbrook – a Wren church in the City of London – on Saturday afternoon (7 May 2022) before we went to dinner in the Drapers’ Hall with a large group of friends, many of whom had travelled from Ireland just to be there.

In the past, when I was walking regularly between Liverpool Street station and Southwark for meetings of USPG Trustees over a six-year period, this church was one of my favourites to stop and to enjoy its place as an oasis of prayer and quiet in the heart of the City of London.

Saint Stephen Walbrook is next to the Mansion House and near to Bank and Monument Underground stations. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner lists it as one of the 10 most important buildings in England.

This is the parish church of the Lord Mayor of London, but it is best-known for its dome by Sir Christopher Wren, for the once-controversial altar by the sculptor Henry Moore, and for its associations with the founder of the Samaritans, the late Canon Chad Varah.

The Revd Stephen Baxter, who has been the Parish Priest of St Stephen Walbrook since 2018, reminded us on Saturday that the church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was rebuilt in 1672-1679 to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, at a cost of £7,692, becoming one of his largest parish churches.

The church is rectangular in plan, with a dome and an attached north-west tower. Entry to the church is up a flight of 16 steps, enclosed in a porch attached to the west front.

Wren also designed a porch for the north side of the church. This was never built, and the north door was bricked up in 1685 because it let in offensive smells from the slaughterhouses in the neighbouring Stocks Market. The walls, tower, and internal columns are made of stone, but the dome is of timber and plaster with an external covering of copper.

The dome of Saint Stephen Walbrook is based on Wren’s original design for Saint Paul’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Revd Stephen Baxten reminded us last weekend that the 19 metre (63 ft) high dome is based on Wren’s original design for Saint Paul’s Cathedral. It is centred over a square of 12 Corinthian columns. The circular base of the dome is not carried, in the conventional way, by pendentives formed above the arches of the square, but on a circle formed by eight arches that spring from eight of the 12 columns, cutting across each corner in the manner of the Byzantine squinch. This all creates what many believe to be Wren’s finest church interior.

The contemporary carved furnishings of the church, including the altarpiece and Royal Arms, the pulpit and font cover, are attributed to the carpenters Thomas Creecher and Stephen Colledge, and the carvers William Newman and Jonathan Maine.

The spire was added to the square tower in 1713-1715 as were the square urns on the tower balustrade, and may have been designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The design is similar to those of Saint James Garlickhithe and Saint Michael Paternoster. The architect Sir John Vanbrugh was buried in the north aisle of the church. George England provided a new organ in 1760.

The central window in the east wall was bricked up in 1776 to allow for the installation of Benjamin West’s painting, ‘Devout Men Taking Away the Body of Saint Stephen, which was commissioned for the church by the rector, the Revd Thomas Wilson.

Wilson also set up a statue of the radical Whig republican historian, Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791), in the church the following year. Macaulay was still alive and Wilson admired her political ideals, but the statue was removed after protests.

The east window was unblocked and West’s painting was moved to the north wall in 1850 during extensive restorations.

The church suffered some bomb damage during the London Blitz in 1941. It was restored after World War II, was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950, and was rededicated in 1954.

The church was closed for structural repairs from 1978 to 1987. Chad Varah’s son, Andrew, built chairs to replace the pews as part of this programme of repairs and reordering.

But the greatest great controversy followed the installation of a large circular altar in travertine marble by Henry Moore (1898-1986), commissioned by Chad Varah and his churchwarden, the property developer and art collector Peter Palumbo, later Lord Palumbo and chair of the Arts Council.

This massive white polished stone altar was carved in 1972 and was installed in the centre of the church. Its unusual positioning required the authorisation of a rare judg ment of the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved, which granted a retrospective faculty for its installation after it had been moved into the church secretly or by sleight.

By carving a round altar table with forms cut into the circular sides, Henry Moore suggested that the centre of the church reflected the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, commemorating the sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac as a prefiguring of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross and the place for the offering of the Eucharist at the heart of worship. This place was designed for people to gather as a community around the altar where God could be found at the centre.

A circle of brightly coloured kneelers designed by Patrick Heron (1920-1999), was one of Britain’s foremost abstract painters, was added around the altar in 1993, although on Saturday these were overshadowed by the colours of the Ukrainian flag wrapped around the base of the altar.

At one time, a prayer written by the nonjuror, Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711), was inscribed on the door of the church:

‘O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and strife.

‘Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power.

‘God make the door of this house the gateway to thine eternal kingdom.’

The list of rectors includes Henry Pendleton, the ‘Vicar of Bray,’ several divines, one of whom was later sent to the Tower of London, and the Revd Robert Stuart de Courcey Laffan (1853-1927), who was born in Dun Laoghaire and who helped Baron Coubertin to revive the Olympic Games.

The Irish poet, novelist, historian and Anglican priest, the Revd George Croly, was rector of Saint Stephen Walbrook from 1835 until he died in 1860. His hymns included ‘Spirit of God, descend upon my heart,’ written in 1854:

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart, wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
and make me love thee as I ought to love.

Charlotte and Anne Brontë visited Saint Stephen Walbrook on their first visit to London, hoping to hear Croly preach, as he was by then a famous author and cleric. Unfortunately, he was absent that Sunday.

But, undoubtedly, the best-known rector of Saint Stephen’s must be Canon Chad Varah (1911-2007), who founded the Samaritans, the world’s first crisis hotline telephone support for people contemplating suicide, in 1953. The first branch of the Samaritans met in the crypt beneath the church. A telephone in a glass box in the church was the first telephone used by the Samaritans.

Canon Edward Chad Varah was born in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire, on 12 November 1911, the eldest of nine children of Canon William Edward Varah, Vicar of Saint Peter’s. Edward Varah was a strong Tractarian and named his son after Saint Chad of Lichfield. According to the early historian of England, the Venerable Bede, Saint Chad had founded the 7th century monastery ad Bearum, ‘at Barrow,’ that may have stood in an Anglo-Saxon enclosure beside Barton Vicarage.

Chad Varah studied at Keble College, Oxford, and graduated in 1933. He then moved to Lincoln Theological College, where his lecturers included Michael Ramsey, later Archbishop of Canterbury. He was ordained deacon in 1935 and priest in 1936. He was a curate at Saint Giles, Lincoln (1935-1938), Saint Mary’s, Putney (1938-1940), and Barrow-in-Furness (1940-1942). He was then Vicar of Holy Trinity, Blackburn (1942) and Saint Paul, Battersea (1949).

The Grocers’ Company offered him the living of Saint Stephen Walbrook in 1953, and he became rector of the Wren church.

Chad Varah supported the ordination of women, but preferred the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. He became an Honorary Prebendary (canon) of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in 1975, becoming Senior Prebendary in 1997. When he retired in 2003, at the age of 92, he was the oldest incumbent in the Church of England.

Chad Varah began to understand the problems facing the suicidal when he was taking a funeral as an assistant curate in 1935, his first church service, for a 14-year-old girl who had taken her own life because she had begun to menstruate and feared that she had a sexually transmitted disease.

Chad Varah also influenced my childhood reading habits because he was also closely associated with founding the comic The Eagle with another Anglican priest, the Revd Marcus Morris, in 1950. He supplemented his income by working as a scriptwriter for The Eagle and its companion publications Girl, Robin and Swift until 1961.

He used his scientific education to be ‘Scientific and Astronautical Consultant,’ as he put it, to Dan Dare. He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1961 with by Eamonn Andrews.

Canon Varah was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Gold Medal in 1972, and became an Honorary Fellow of Keble College in 1981. He held several honorary doctorates, was made OBE in 1969, CBE in 1995, and a Companion of Honour (CH) in 2000, and he also received the Romanian Patriarchal Cross.

When Chad Varah retired at the age of 92 in 2003, he was the oldest serving incumbent in the Church of England. He died on 8 November 2007, four days before his 96th birthday.

The Revd Stephen Baxter, who welcomed us on Saturday afternoon, has been the Parish Priest of Saint Stephen Walbrook in March 2018. He was ordained in 2014 and spent 3½ years as curate and then associate vicar of Saint Olave Hart Street and Saint Katharine Cree in the City of London.

Saint Stephen Walbrook is associated by many people with the long ministry of Canon Chad Varah (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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