07 December 2022
The Church of Christ the
Cornerstone in Milton Keynes
is Britain’s first ecumenical
city centre church
Milton Keynes has no cathedral – unless I count the Tree Cathedral – but the Church of Christ the Cornerstone almost serves as a cathedral for the new city and five of the main churches in the city.
The Church of Christ the Cornerstone in Milton Keynes is Britain’s first ecumenical city centre church. It was completed in 1991 and was dedicated 30 years ago in 1992. There are covenants that bring together the Church of England, the Baptist Union, the Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the United Reformed Church in a partnership that became an important step forward for the ecumenical movement.
The five churches share the same space in the church in Central Milton Keynes on Saxon Gate, between Midsummer Boulevard and Silbury Boulevard, with the Fred Roche Memorial Gardens behind it.
The Church of Christ the Cornerstone describes itself as ‘An Oasis of Hope.’ Central Milton Keynes has no residential heart, with just shopping centre office buildings, shopping centres, hotels, restaurants and a train shopping forming the core of the city. Yet, despite what often appears to be a strangely disconnected place, this modern church is very much a part of its community.
The church dates from March 1978, when Milton Keynes Christian Council approached the Development Corporation to secure a site for an Ecumenical Church in the centre of Milton Keynes. A Local Ecumenical Partnership was formed in September 1979 with a service of dedication in Middleton Hall in Central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre.
A new congregation met for the first time on 6 April 1980 at a site called Centrecom on North Row. The expanding church moved next door to Milton Keynes Central Library at Easter 1981, and was dedicated as ‘The Church of Christ the Cornerstone.’
A 6.6-metre white cross was raised on the edge of the new church building site on 1 February 1990. Lord Campbell of Eskan, first chair of Milton Keynes Development Corporation, cut the first turf on the site of the new church building on 31 May 1990, and building work began on 4 June 1990.
The plinth stone – the ‘cornerstone’ in the chapel – was laid on 16 September 1990, and the dome, weighing 40 tonnes, was lifted by crane on 19 December 1990.
The church was designed by the architect Iain Smith of Planning Design Development Ltd, a local Milton Keynes firm. The architect of the flanking office blocks was Conran Roche. The church was built by Marriotts of Rushden, Northamptonshire and Church Square around the site was developed by Beazer Developments Ltd.
The cross on top of the lantern was designed by the artist and metalsmith Alan Evans of Stroud, Gloucestershire. It was placed on top of the church during a service on Good Friday 29 March 1991 attended by over 1,000 people. Construction work on the church was completed on 20 December 1991, when the keys were handed over by the builders, and the congregation moved into the new church on 12 January 1992, when the congregation walked from the library to the new building for the first service.
The church was dedicated by Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury, Cardinal Basil Hume, the Revd Dr John Newton and the Revd Desmond Pemberton in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II on 13 March 1992. The music for the service was composed by Jonathan Dove.
The church is 101 ft high to the top of the lantern, and the cross rises a further 18 ft, making it the highest point in central Milton Keynes.
During the ‘church in the library’ days, as members watched the new church being built, there were discussions about the interior layout, particularly in the worship area. The mixed congregation wanted to incorporate the most important features from each of the five traditions in the worship area, while keeping the style simple and uncluttered. Today they are the lectern (URC and Methodist), the baptistry (Baptist), the altar table (Anglican), and the reserved sacrament in the chapel (Roman Catholic).
There were discussions too about the position of the organ and the choir so that the sound effects in services and in concerts were the best possible.
The altar is of rosa porrino was quarried in north-west Spain, shaped in Italy to a design by PDD Architects and finished in Torquay. It weighs 2 tonnes. The pulpit or lectern is also of granite and weighs just under 1 tonne. Despite their weight, both the altar and the pulpit are moved easily.
The pewter Paschal Candle is the work of Toby Russell, a London metal designer.
In the Baptistry, a channel links two fonts and provides a 4-ft wide waterfall into the baptistry pool. The whole is lined with polished granite.
The two-manual and pedal organ by JW Walker & Sons of Norfolk was built in 1965 for the former Royal College of Organists in Kensington. When the college left Kensington in 1991, the organ was installed in Milton Keynes and rebuilt by Walkers in 1992.
The worship area can seat 400 people at ground level and 116 people in the first floor balcony.
Despite a constant bustle of activity, the church is light and bright, with a serenity of space. The church is principally a place for worship, but is also a centre for concerts, recitals, exhibitions and drama.
The chapel, which is open daily for private prayer and meditation, mirrors the main worship area: it is a circular area with a round altar designed by Planning Design Development Architects and made in the church by Scotts of Thrapston.
The stained glass in the doors and shutters is the work of Ruth Ward, the brass cross in the alcove was a gift of Allgoods, and the Tabernacle holds the reserved sacrament. The wooden Madonna and Christ Child was sculpted by Willi Soukop.
The cloister includes art work by David Peace, Sally Scott, Mary Everett, Alexander Beleschenko, and a memorial window for the late Fiona Smith, calligrapher and wife of the Revd Dr Paul Smith.
There are four small garden areas between the worship area and cloister and the square of the four surrounding blocks.
The Guildhall is a meeting place for business and commerce in the city centre, and can accommodate 130 people for conferences and meetings or 100 people at receptions.
The Church of Christ the Cornerstone serves five denominations who work together, sharing the same space and a commitment to serving the people of Milton Keynes. It is a diverse community discovering and growing in the Christian faith.
The covenant between the five denominations declares ‘the unity of the church is the will of God.’ The covenant agreed by members and ministers of the congregation at the Church of Christ the Cornerstone rests ‘upon the foundation of the recognition that we have one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; for, we share a Gospel which effects reconciliation between God and humankind and between nations and peoples.’
It continues: ‘Travelling as Pilgrims on a journey that has already started and which will lead we know not where, we are pleased to place our trust in God, in whose hands the future lies, and to be led forward by Him.’
The five churches undertake ‘to proclaim the gospel by common witness and service in the community and the world, and in obedience to God’s call, through the power of the Holy Spirit.’ The commitments to each other are:
• to work together in love;
• to pray and care for one another and for our neighbours;
• to serve together the community based in the city centre;
• to live together in fellowship, to the greater glory of God.
The ministerial team today includes Father Francis Higgins, Roman Catholic Priest, and Dean of Milton Keynes; the Revd Ernesto Lozada-Uzuriaga of the Church of England; and the Revd George Mwaura of the United Reformed Church.
The chapel is open seven days a week from 8 am to 8 pm and the café is open from 8:30 am to 4 pm, Monday to Friday.
At the weekend, there are services on Saturdays at 5.30 pm for the Catholic Vigil Mass for the parish of Our Lady of Lourdes, and on Sundays at 10 am and 6 pm. During the week there is Daily Prayer at 9:30 am Monday to Friday and Catholic Mass on Mondays at 12:30.