Homily for Feast of St Gregory the Great and Launch of New Visitor Centre Project
It’s fitting that today, on the feast of St Gregory, that we celebrate in thanksgiving the launch of the restoration of St Augustine’s and the beginning of a new education, research and visitor centre. It is a work of providence. St Augustine was launched on a great mission and adventure in 597AD to restore and revive the Gospel to England – so in like manner we are charged with a mission and adventure to restore and revive the Gospel in our own times through this great church. Interestingly when S Augustine arrived on the Gregorian mission in England – the first thing he did was to restore an ancient church – the church of St Martin (which had been erected in Roman times) outside the walls of Canterbury.
We speak of giving Pugin back his ‘true principles’ in restoring this church which he called ‘his own child’, into which he poured his own soul and his money.
Why is this project so important – why do we bother (is it not just an old church)?:
First for Pugin himself, because of the importance of the man – Pugin was a colossus. The designer of seven Cathedrals, 40 churches, castles, houses and much more (not least of all our Parliament building). He is buried here – he lived here – this was the framework of his imaginary universe.
Second, because of the importance of this church for the Gothic revival in culture - This was the engine room of the Gothic revival which shaped Britain and influenced the world. This is Pugin central. This building is the master’s archetypal church. In reviving the splendour of medieval buildings, St Augustine’s was the key. He writes, ‘It is the only real church yet built & I say so - & I will stand to it’. All that Pugin had completed up to this point was seen by him as merely a preparation for the project of St Augustine’s and all that followed was intended to build on this church as exemplar of the revival. ‘It put’s one back 500 years – you have no idea how old it looks. All stone. No plaster’ (8th April 1849). For Pugin, 500 years old, means taking us back to the high point of gothic architecture, to the decorated period of the late 14th century. Elsewhere he writes that St Augustine’s, ‘is the only really good job as yet in England, the only one perfectly carried out & it will do great good in the Long run’ (24th October 1849), ‘a real revival of the true old thing’ (31st October 1849). Not just stone but wood, tile, glass, iron, lead. Award winning designs and models which would become the inspiration of people from Toronto to Tasmania.
Third because of the significance of this place for the history of our Christian country – Significant not merely because of medieval glories here re-imagined, nor merely because of this place within the 19th century Catholic revival, or as a showcase of Victorian ambition and ingenuity – but mostly importantly because of Christian origins. This is the place where the Gospel landed (the image by Hardman over Pugin’s tomb shows Gregory the Great sending Ausgustine in England. It shows Augustine planting the cross on Thanet soil). In the words of Pugin, ,‘It is worth working all one’s life for – to see a real church with all its fittings in the Isle of Thanet – the cradle of Catholicism in England' (15 November 1849). Pugin moved to Ramsgate saying he came because ‘blessed Austen had landed nearby’. ‘If my life is spared I fully expect to complete a work on this spot – where the Catholic faith first took root that will at any rate revive the long neglected honour to our great Kentish saints and where the old rites may be celebrated - in ancient splendor - if I accomoplish this I shall be perfectly satisfied’ (9 February 1849). ‘The labour of my whole life’, he writes, ‘is vested in this church & if it goes I have done nothing’ (29th January 1850).
The fourth reason for doing this project is for the unity, hope and inspiration that comes with this project - because is a project that touches everyone. It drew so many people together in n’s own life - his associates: George Myers for construction; John Hardman and Hardman-Powell for the metalwork and especially stained glass; and Herbert Minton for the tiles; John Gregory Crace, who supervised the decoration of the medieval court at the Great Exhibition of 1851, also had a hand in the church decoration. His sons Edward and Peter Paul played their part. But also so many others building, assistants, supporters, patrons. And not only Pugin’s co-religionists but many, each in their own way, realized this project was an inspiration to art, history, culture, spirituality. I also feel that today so many are involved and are brought together in a common project where everyone finds meaning here. Every sandwich made, every pound given, every person involved in promotion and welcoming, singing, guiding, writing, organizing, is building something truly magnificent. Is this not what whole medieval communites did in building over generation the vast cathedrals of Durham, York and Canterbury (a modern example of this is found in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia). We, and I speak with a very big We, we are the inheritors, the custodians of a great and weighty inheritance –a legacy that needs cherishing. It is a treasure to share. It has the power also to move, inspire, energise and evangelise still today
So all this is worth it – for Pugin himself, for the Gothic insight, for the Christian heritage, for the hope and inspiration it brings. But ultimately I want to add another reason – we do this for the Lord. Pugin once said that he was the only architect who had gone to work with faith. All this ultimately for Pugin and for us, consciously or unconsciously, is so that we become what we are meant to become – the sons and daughters of God. We’re enjoying being in our Father’s house. That’s why we begin with worship and in liturgy.
We give thanks, we ask the prayers of St Gregory and St Augustine and we move forward with that faith with which Pugin set out to work. En Avant – to the altar of God.