Orthodox England

Excerpt from: Volume 7 Issue 2 Date 1st December 2003

Sacral Town-Planning


Modern cities are planned not around churches, shrines and crosses, but around temples of commerce, shopping shrines and the car-idol. It was not always so. Contemporary society has descended a long way from the aisles and galleries of churches with squares for religious processions, to the 'new, improved' aisles and mercantile galleries of today with their automobile processions. For there was once such a thing as Orthodox, i.e. Christian, town-planning. What was it?

The Sacred City In Orthodox Russia

The greatest expert on Orthodox town-planning in Russia was undoubtedly the late historian and theologian Fr Lev Lebedev (1939-1997). In a sequence of well-written articles, first published in the 1970's and 1980's in samizdat and smuggled to the West, he described how the plans of all the great mediæval cities, for example, Moscow, Kiev, Novgorod, Arkhangelsk, Sergiev Posad, are all sacred designs in theology. They embody the circle of God's completeness, the triangle of the Holy Trinity, the centrality of the Cross, and the outline of the Heavenly Jerusalem which St John the Divine describes at the end of the Book of Revelation. Thus, in Moscow, the church of St John the Divine is outside the city walls, for he bears witness to the City. Inside the walls, the Kremlin, or stronghold, contains churches dedicated to the Mother of God, the Archangel Michael and the Twelve Apostles - Heaven and Earth meet. Outside it, 'Red Square', actually meaning 'Beautiful Square', was in fact a giant open-air church. Its altar was the well-known church of the Protecting Veil (usually miscalled St Basil's church)1. Thus the whole city-centre was a sacred ecclesial space, its altar a church-building. Russian city walls usually had twelve gates, again to correspond to the description in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21, 21). In this way the home-cities of Orthodox Russians were images of the Heavenly Jerusalem, images of the world to come in the here and now, Heaven on Earth.
I had not seen Fr Lev face to face since 1976, when in early 1990, as soon as possible after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, he came to our home. Here he showed me his plans and documents, which I immediately photocopied and sent to Bishop Hilarion in New York. (We still feared that 'perestroika' would be followed by 'perestrelka' [the firing-squad]). However, I was also able to point out to Fr Lev what he did not and could not know: that in the early, i.e. Orthodox, West, the same sort of town-planning operated, for example in Gaul, northern Italy and England. After all, when so many Bishops, Kings, Queens, together with the mass of common people, devoted themselves to the Church, how could their Faith not be reflected in the cities and towns of the new Orthodox world in which they lived? Let us look at examples of town-planning from Orthodox England to illustrate our point.

The Sacred City in Orthodox England

Most English towns were laid out in a circle or ellipse, symbolising the Unity and Eternity of the Holy Trinity. Within the circle, however, there was a cross which drew together the circumference of the circle around a central preaching cross or high cross. This usually marked where the Gospel had first been preached in the town by monks, who had then proceeded to baptise townsfolk in the nearest river or stream. Such preaching-crosses, usually set high on steps and sometimes very ancient, can be seen in countless villages all over England and even in many Roman-founded cities, for instance, in Canterbury, York and Chester. (Nowadays, it must be said, in many places this high cross is known as a 'market cross', or else has been replaced by a twentieth-century war memorial, which sums up the history of that dark and godless age).
From the high cross, there radiated out streets, north, south, east and west. (Often they retain these same names today - East Street, West Street etc). Many of the towns founded or re-founded by King Alfred the Great illustrate this, notably Wallingford in Oxfordshire or Chichester in Sussex. However, earlier towns like Bristol and Ipswich show the same pattern. Smaller settlements, even villages, are similar, although they have no defensive walls.
Let us look at two examples of cities in England, one Roman, the other post-Roman in origin, to see this sacred topography in reality.


Where better to start this brief survey than in the City of England's Mother-Cathedral?
Originally a Roman town, Canterbury already had elliptical Roman walls encircling the river before its Christianisation. Taking the original Roman roads, but significantly deviating from them, the first English Orthodox used them to make the sign of the cross over the City, thus quartering it. At the centre of the cross there used to stand not a preaching-cross, but All Saints church, thus making clear the sacred nature and goal of Canterbury - to make a land holy. To the south-west of the cross of streets there used to stand St Helen's church, thus bearing witness to the Cross, as still does Holy Cross church to the north-west of the cross of streets. The eastern quarter of Canterbury, facing Jerusalem, is particularly sacred - within it stands Christchurch, the Cathedral of the Saviour, Mother-Church of All England. Here the high altar is raised up, a model of Golgotha, with chapels beneath it mirroring the topography of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The chapel directly underneath the altar is called the chapel of Adam's Skull, just as at Golgotha. Outside the walls, to the north, stood the church of St John the Divine, keeping watch for the Second Coming. Outside the walls also stood the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the cemetery church) and St Martin's, the original Roman church. Also outside the city walls, to the north-west stands guard the church dedicated to St Dunstan, a beloved Archbishop, who was seen as the Protector of the City.


Bristol provides a classic example of a later sacred town-plan. Built on untouched land on the north bank of the River Avon from the eighth century on, by the eleventh century it was the most important city in the West of England. To the south of Bristol ran the River Avon, to the north the River Frome. Bristol was built within an elliptical wall between these two natural features, with the north and south sides of the wall touching on the two rivers. It presented then the form of a circle. Within the circle, roads running north, south, east and west, formed the sign of the cross. Thus the whole plan was that of a cross within a circle, symbolising that the Cross triumphantly dominates the Universe.
At the centre of the cross of streets, there stood a preaching cross, set up on steps. (This cross was taken down in the eighteenth century amid much popular protest that something vital was being removed from the town). The preaching-cross was faced by four churches, one in each corner of the City. In Bristol today there survive only two of these: All Saints and Holy Trinity (now called Christ Church). The two surviving churches are typical city centre dedications, emphasising the centrality of the Holy Trinity and all the saints. Close to the centre are other churches. These include St Mary le Port - the Mother of God stands close by, but apart from, the Holy Trinity. To the north of the city, outside the walls on high ground, nearer to Heaven, stands the church of Bristol's Guardian Angel in the form of the church of 'St Michael on the Mount Without'. At the northern entrance to the City, St John the Divine keeps watch in his church, 'St John on the Wall'. By the old port, almost opposite the church of St Mary le Port, stands the church of St Nicholas, the Patron-Saint of seafarers. Another church standing inside the city walls is St Peter's, which looks out towards the castle and its dungeons, witnessing to St Peter in chains. Standing guard on the outskirts of Bristol (as around Canterbury and so many other towns and cities), there were until the 'Reformation' monasteries. Around Bristol these were dedicated to St Augustine, St Mark, St Bartholomew and St James.


As Orthodox Christianity was gradually lost in England, so the art of Orthodox town-planning was also lost. During the 'Renaissance' (i.e. the rebirth of paganism), Western Europe became obsessed with the rational logic of the 'Classics'. 'Enlightened' in the eighteenth century by heathenism, it began planning towns in God-excluding grids or curves. The few churches that were built took the form of heathen temples. This was a reflection of the mechanistic rationalism of the age and an obvious throwback to Roman paganism. Not so much post-Christian as pre-Christian. Not so much progress as regress. The cross gave way to squares, rows and crescents. The Victorian system went even further, building rows of regimented houses for its serfs, together with a scattering of mock-mediæval churches where the working classes could be made obedient with bigoted puritan moralism.
In our own age, having taken the cross away from the city centre and ruined its sacred geography, intruding buildings disproportionate, especially in height, today's cities and their centres are dying, boarded up or vandalised. For, naturally, without the cross, 'the centre cannot hold', to quote T. S. Eliot. The masses have fled to the temples of commerce out of town where they can worship in the aisles of soulless consumerism. Here man, reduced by Darwin and Freud to an animal with mere bodily aspirations and bodily functions, can worship the gods of bread and circuses, just like the pagan Romans. That was the society that people wanted, now they have it. Whether the still-present memory of the Orthodox past can make a difference or not remains to be seen. But many of the witnesses to past values still stand. Let those who have eyes to see, see.

1 For the universalist symbolism of this church, see the Editor's 'The Saints of Russia and the Universality of Orthodoxy', p. 268 of Orthodox Christianity and the English Tradition, 1995 and 1997.

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(c) Orthodox England - Published within the English Deanery of the Church Outside Russia: with the blessing of the Very Reverend Mark, Archbishop of Great Britain and Ireland.