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Sacred Mysteries: A Sussex church full of murals and dissension

Christopher Howse
·3-min read
Autumn and Winter painted on the chancel screen at Berwick by Duncan Grant - Mick Sargent / Alamy
Autumn and Winter painted on the chancel screen at Berwick by Duncan Grant - Mick Sargent / Alamy

When you turn the handle of the door in its gabled porch at the church of St Michael and All Angels in Berwick, East Sussex, there’s a surprise inside.

On the outside, the church, nestling between full-grown trees among arable fields, is as rurally English as The Lark Ascending: flint walls with stone dressings for windows and corners, a square tower topped by a broach spire and a lovely steep, long roof of handmade red tiles.

Inside, the visitor is at once overwhelmed by the brightly coloured murals that cover the chancel arch and nave walls. Even the pulpit has charming panels of flowers, and the lower part of the chancel screen is decorated with roundels of the work of the four seasons. It looks nothing like the pale reddish paint of medieval paintings uncovered from centuries of whitewash, for these paintings were done in the middle of the Second World War.

The idea was that of the saintly Bishop Bell of Chichester. “Music or painting or drama, sculpture or architecture,” he wrote, “there is an instinctive sympathy between all these and the worship of God.” From nearby Charleston he tempted over Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, infrequent churchgoers. “What a wartime occupation! It needed Hitler to bring such things to pass,” Vanessa Bell wrote in a letter.

Dominating the church is Grant’s Christ in Majesty above the chancel arch, flanked below by three kneeling serviceman from the Navy, Army and Air Force and, on the other side, the rector of Berwick and Bishop Bell. Christ has a curiously small head. Angels in female form surround him in the manner of those in Botticelli’s The Mystical Nativity, only with elongated bodies.

I don’t always like Grant’s art, but his work at Berwick is not as grotesque as that in Lincoln Cathedral. The ensemble is the thing with the Sussex murals, though there are pleasing details, such as the local Sussex design of shepherds’ crooks in Vanessa Bell’s Nativity.

But now there is trouble in Berwick. The parish raised £200,000 to conserve the paintings and to “adapt and improve the church”. It has been supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Work done last year included installation of underfloor heating. Pews (benches really), some of them 19th-century, were taken out and the parish does not want to put them back, but use folding seats that can be taken away for activities in the nave.

There is some strong opposition, on the architectural grounds that the benches were as much part of the 19th-century restoration of St Michael’s as the rest of the much-loved Grade I listed building.

Some dislike the changes from the viewpoint of a church’s purpose. “The plain fact is that, on the whole, Anglicans no longer regard their churches as sacred structures; they want to be able to use them for all kinds of purposes,” the architectural historian Peter Howell wrote in The Art Newspaper.

Others see the heart of the problem as the Church of England overriding normal planning consent for listed buildings by its “ecclesiastical exemption”, coupled with a piecemeal system of “faculties” to permit changes. On top of this, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England lean in favour of secular community use.

Rural parishes, meanwhile, are in a crisis made worse by the pandemic. Fierce debate continues in the Church of England and its Synod talking-shop over the whole future of parish churches. Ten thousand are medieval. What do we want them to be – yoga studios and tea rooms, or ivy-hung ruins?