Saturday, 25 June 2016

A Gothic Catholic Referendum Reflection

Although Sir Charles Barry is credited as the architect of the Houses of Parliament many of its most recogniseable features both inside and out were designed by Pugin 

This week on the day before the EU referendum I went to Ramsgate to visit the shrine of St Augustine and the house of its designer and builder Augustus Welby Pugin.

Pugin was the incredibly influential architect and designer who was almost single-handedly responsible for the Gothic revival in Britain and of its great masterpieces such as the Houses of Parliament and countless houses, churches and cathedrals.

Pugin himself was half French but was baptized in the Anglican church. He lived at a time when Catholics were discriminated against and still viewed as suspicious agents of a foreign power, nevertheless in 1835 he converted to Catholicism at the age of 20.

From that moment on, through his work as an architect he dedicated his life to re-connecting England with its medieval Catholic past, a time he saw as more moral and beautiful and vibrant. He was a contemporary of Cardinal Newman and they fell out quite seriously over a question of architectural styles which reflected a deeper difference of approach.

Newman who also famously converted to Catholicism, went to Rome and returned enthused by the Oratorian spirituality of St Philip Neri. He founded an Oratory in Birmingham and soon after another was founded in London. These were built and decorated in a beautiful Italian baroque style and still today when you go into the Brompton Oratory it feels like entering a thoroughly continental  Church.

The baroque style of the Brompton Oratory, London

Pugin felt that Newman was reinforcing the prejudice that many people in England had, that Catholicism was somehow foreign, a Roman mission here in England, celebrated in a foreign language in foreign-looking buildings. Pugin on the other hand believed strongly that Catholicism was as English as Fish and Chips and that if we really wanted the conversion of England, people had to rediscover that peculiarly British expression of their historic Catholic faith - the medieval Catholic Gothic style and soaring pointed arches of cathedrals such as Durham and Lincoln, the colour, beauty and chivalry of Catholic medieval England. They had to discover that when England had applied its own singular genius to the faith, it had gone through its best, most vibrant, joyous and moral times.

Pugin's gem, the Church of St Giles in Cheadle, Staffordshire

History has proved Pugin partially right. His ideas have had a huge effect on Churches and buildings everywhere in Britain. Even on domestic architecture, and as I sit in my flat in a converted Edwardian house with its medieval style bay window and steeply pitched roof I am living with Pugin’s influence. However, his dream that the Gothic revival would lead to the conversion of England is yet to be fulfilled (although I’m sure he would have loved the Ordinariate).

The Grange, Ramsgate, where Pugin lived with his last wife and eight children

Pugin was deeply connected to his Catholic, universal faith and yet had the confidence to love and develop a very particular English expression of it.

There was of course no ‘Catholic’ way to vote in the referendum as the EU (no matter what you think of it) is certainly not an intrinsic evil like abortion so it is left to Catholics to make their own prudential judgment on what is the best course of action for the common good.  Going into a Pugin Church and seeing what can happen when the English genius is allowed to thrive encouraged me to hope that when a country is in control of its own destiny and able to apply its own solutions, then the most vibrant, joyous and moral times may yet be ahead.



  1. Very interesting article. On the point of how to decide how to vote, there certainly was no 'Catholic'way to vote, however.. could Catholics over the country have engaged in an exercise of prioritising the good and evil? If so, how?