St Mary Abchurch is pleased to be supporting both Wren300 and the London Festival of Architecture
Lecturer: Dr Mark Kirby, Child Shuffrey Fellow in Architectural History at Lincoln College, Oxford, will offer a tour of the furnishings in St Mary Abchurch and other Wren churches.
This is a free London Festival of Architecture event. Please register.
Music will be happening throughout the City. SOUND will be singing at St Mary Abchurch at 2.15, 3.00 and 3.45.
Pictures credit: Wrenathon Vocal Marathon, part of Wren300. Photographer: Andy Sillett
All of the information about the different furnishings can be found here, in the booklet, or by scanning the QR code with your phone's QR code reader.
At St Mary Abchurch there is a mixture of seating. The pews with the elaborate fretwork on top are typical of Wren’s era and permit a good deal of privacy for the worshipper. The pews at the back are for Churchwardens: raised to give the wardens a good view of congregational activity.
Originally, the pews were taller than they are now and were in a form known as “box pews”. Each one had a door, and they were enclosed like a box. You can see some remaining box pews along the sides of the church and at the back. There would have been two large blocks of pews occupying the middle of the church. The Great Fire of London destroyed 81 parish churches, but only 51 were rebuilt. This meant that some parishes had to merge. Our church was used by two parishes: St Mary Abchurch and St Laurence Pountney. Parishes cherished their old identities and in this church the two groups of parishioners sat on either side of the church. They had their separate Churchwardens too, who sat at the back behind them.
During the Victorian era more active participation was expected of worshippers, and particularly the singing of hymns. Many of the pews were dismantled and reduced in height so that congregation members could more easily see the preacher and the action at the communion table, and the minister and churchwardens could more easily see members of the congregation. At the same time new pews were placed lengthwise at the reredos end of the church, presumably for a robed choir.
Until they were removed, probably in 1957, pews on the south side of the church included dog kennels to enable worshippers to bring their pets to church with them.
When the church was first furnished, all of the oak woodwork in the church was left unvarnished and would have given a much lighter appearance than we see today. Fashions change and the darker, varnished appearance you see today dates from the nineteenth century.
Christopher Wren was obsessed with light, and filled his buildings with it. He was an astronomer, a physicist, a mathematician, and one of the founders of the Royal Society, before he was an architect, and for him, and for many others of his time, the light of reason was a God-given avenue to truth. Light was the obvious way to represent the gift of reason, so Wren filled his buildings with light by glazing the windows with plain glass.
The Victorians saw things differently, and reglazed the windows of this church and many others with stained glass. This church’s stained glass was destroyed by German bombing during the Second World War, and after the war the windows were returned to the way in which Wren would have wanted them.
The Fruiterers Window
The one small area of stained glass in the largest of the windows represents the Fruiterers’ Company, which has a historic connection with the church. The image is taken from the story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis, in which the serpent tempts Eve with fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She eats it, and offers it to Adam, who eats it as well. The story does not name the fruit, but here it is represented by an apple, as it often is. Whether apples grew in the area in which the story originated is doubtful, but the choice of fruit is entirely appropriate to the English fruit growers who founded the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers.
The sword rests
Paul wrote this in a letter to the church in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire: a church that was vulnerable as any persecution of Christians was likely to impact the Roman church before it reached any of the others: hence Paul’s recommendation that everything should be done to recommend church members as loyal citizens. Occasionally persecution would erupt if Christians felt unable in good conscious to do as they were told, but Paul was offering the sensible advice that nothing should be done that would unnecessarily provoke an official reaction.
The City of London Corporation is the oldest government in the country, predating parliament: and at the heart of that government is the Lord Mayor, who with the Sheriffs, Aldermen and Common Councillors continues to govern the square mile. When the Lord Mayor visits a church in the City, they place their sword of office in a sword rest. St Mary Abchurch has two that have evolved as Lord Mayors have attached their coats of arms to them. While not everyone in Wren’s England would have approved of the restoration of the monarchy, there was little appetite for violent conflict. A Lord Mayor’s visit would have been welcomed as both effect and cause of social stability.
Clerk’s pew and minister’s pew
For two thousand years Christians have read the scriptures—the Bible—in public: initially the Hebrew Scriptures—the Old Testament—and then the letters and gospels in the New Testament as they were written and circulated among the churches.
The two short pews and reading desks at the ends of the Victorian choir pews on either side of the chancel were originally attached at the bottom of the pulpit, and were used by the clerk and the minister for leading the service and reading from the Bible.
Since the beginning of the Church, two thousand years ago, sermons have been preached: that is, public oratory designed to connect the text of the Bible with the lives of the hearers and with contemporary events.
This pulpit, like many created during Wren’s era, was built with a sounding board above it to enable the preacher’s voice to be heard clearly throughout the building. Originally, it stood further towards the centre of the church, on the edge of the aisle, in a more dominant position.
The pulpit, sounding board and desks (see below) were made by the joiner William Grey and were probably carved by him as well. They cost the large sum of £208. Grey worked in many of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches and some of the royal palaces, and he was one of the leading craftsmen of his day.
The shape of the reredos—the large ornate panels behind the altar—is unique to St Mary Abchurch, but all of the Wren churches had some form of architectural structure, sometimes looking like a triumphal arch or gateway. The position of the reredos draws attention to the boards, on which are painted the words of the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. In the late seventeenth century, it was a deliberate way of showing that Anglican belief was different to Roman Catholic belief, and it avoided pictures of saints and miracles of the type which could be seen on reredoses in Catholic countries.
The reredos is also a backdrop to the communion table, which stands in front of it. The carvings on the reredos show bunches of grapes and ears of wheat, which refer to the bread and wine of the communion service. They were made in limewood by the famous carver Grinling Gibbons, who also worked at St Paul’s Cathedral and many royal and aristocratic palaces. Limewood is a lighter coloured wood than oak. In its original unvarnished state, Gibbons’ carved pale limewood would have stood out much more from the oak background (which was also originally unvarnished).
In the centre of the reredos is a what is called a “Pelican in her Piety”. It is also a symbol of communion from ancient times. It depicts a mother pelican pecking at her own breast to feed her young with her own blood, which symbolises the way in which Jesus shed his own blood to save the world. The Pelican in her Piety is also the symbol of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, which has been connected with St Mary Abchurch since 1568.
Reredos: The Lord’s Prayer
The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, and that we now call the Lord’s Prayer, has been a permanent element of Christian public and private prayer for two thousand years. A different version is found in Luke’s Gospel:
The version printed on the reredos is the version that would have been familiar to seventeenth century worshippers. The traditional ending, which is not found in the gospels, is found attached to some instances of the Lord’s Prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but not to others.
The reredos: The ten commandments
These ten commandments have always been at the heart of the Jewish Faith. When Jesus was asked about the Law, he quoted from elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12:28–31, NRSV, quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18)
He also gave to his disciples a
However, the ten commandments have remained important to Christians alongside Jesus’ own prescriptiona. The version printed on the reredos is the one that would have been familiar to worshippers during the seventeenth century.
The reredos: The Apostles’ Creed
When the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Church in Philippi, he included what is probably one of the earliest declarations of Christian belief, or creed. Numerous creeds have been published during the two thousand years of the Church’s existence: in the early centuries by the Ecumenical Councils at which bishops gathered to debate doctrinal controversies, and later on by all manner of church and other organisations and individuals.
The Apostles’ Creed written on one of the side panels of the reredos was probably written during the fourth century of the common era, and not by Jesus’ twelve apostles.
When the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Church in Corinth he included the earliest extant account of the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples during the evening before he was crucified. Ever since then, Christians have been taking bread, giving thanks, breaking the bread, and sharing it; and taking wine, giving thanks, and sharing that too.
Throughout the Christian centuries there has been disagreement among Christians as to what Jesus meant by ‘This is my body’. Was he referring to the bread, or to the breaking? Did he mean that when Christians perform these actions he is physically present? or present in the action? or present in the Christian’s soul? Or perhaps the regular event is simply meant to remind Christians of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If Jesus is physically present in the bread and wine, then we might call the table on which the elements are placed an altar: but if we choose a different interpretation then we might call it a communion table.
After the Great Fire of London destroyed the old medieval church of St Mary Abchurch, the parish met for worship in a temporary building which they called a ‘tabernacle’: not much more than a large shed. The communion table we have today was made for the parish tabernacle by a joiner called Almandy Howart and was moved to the new church when it was completed.
When first built, the triple-decker pulpit stood more prominently than now. Placed in the same line of sight as the communion table and reredos, they together proclaimed that the Church of England was a Church of preaching (the top part of the pulpit), of liturgical worship (the two desks at its base) and of the sacraments (the communion table).
The word translated ‘Lord’ here is the Hebrew word יהוה, YHWH, the ‘tetragrammaton’, pronounced Yahweh or Yahveh, although no orthodox Jew would ever pronounce such a sacred word. This is the word in gold at the apex of the dome. In continental Roman Catholic churches of the time the apex might have held an image of God the Creator, or of Jesus Christ, but many in the English Church of Wren’s time were averse to images, so the Hebrew name of God was written instead.
Around the tetragrammaton angels worship God, and around the edge of the dome a variety of Christian virtues are depicted.
The dome was painted in 1708 by William Snow, a parishioner.
The Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae reveals that music was an important aspect of communal worship. And so it has always been. Some churches have resisted instrumental accompaniment, such as the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but most Christians have been pleased to sing accompanied: often by stringed instruments until pipe organs took over, mainly during the nineteenth century.
An organ was first installed in St Mary Abchurch in 1822 and has been adapted several times since then. The current organ was built in 1955 and uses pipes from the previous organ as well as new ones. The organ case includes parts from a case made in 1717 for another Wren church – All Hallows, Bread Street – which was demolished in 1877. The case moved to All Hallows, East India Dock Road, before coming to St Mary Abchurch after All Hallows was badly damaged during the Second World War.
The St Mary Abchurch organ is unfortunately unplayable because of the state of the electrics, so a good quality digital organ is in use. The replacement of the wiring and the refurbishment of the organ are on the long list of refurbishment tasks for which the Guild Church Council is attempting to raise funds.
The royal coat of arms
This early letter reflects the fact that if the early Church was to survive then challenging the Roman authorities was not on the agenda. This policy did not prevent occasional fierce persecution when Christians believed that the authorities had crossed a red line—for instance, by requiring worship of the Emperor—but on the whole it enabled the Church evolve into a model of a new inclusive society that became an implicit judgement on the status quo: until Christianity itself became the status quo when the empire adopted it as its official religion during the fifth century of the common era.
Wren’s era was at least as tense as those early Christian decades. Following the civil war, King Charles I had been executed in 1649, only seventeen years before the Fire of London: and for most of those seventeen years England had been a republic. The monarchy had only been restored in 1660, and the installation of large royal coats of arms in prominent positions in Wren’s churches was an expression of hope for a period of stability following the turbulence.
The Arms are those of the House of Stuart. Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and was succeeded by his brother James II in 1685. Opposite the Royal Arms you can see James’ cypher, or monogram above the reredos. His initials are surrounded by the Garter (the symbol of the Order of the Garter) and held up by two winged cherubs.
The Apostle Peter preached this sermon seven weeks after Jesus’ resurrection, and ever since then new Christians have been baptised: initially by full immersion in a river; then whole households were baptised; and finally Christian households began to ask for new-born infants to be baptised as well—hence the transition from full immersion in a river to the pouring of water from a font.
The font was made by the stone-mason Christopher Kempster, who was also the mason who built the church itself.
The Apostle Paul’s companion Luke wrote this at the beginning of his gospel, and a similar paragraph at the beginning of his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, that charts the early history of the Christian Church.
In the fourth century, Jerome, who translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, assigned to the four gospel writers a set of images listed in the book of the prophet Ezekiel:
Jerome ascribed the human being to Matthew, the lion to Mark, the ox to Luke, and the eagle to John. A splendid representation of the four images can be found in the ninth century Book of Kells. The carved figures on the four sides of the font cover at St Mary Abchurch are of the four traditional gospel writers, each accompanied by their image.
The font cover was made by William Emmett and cost £12. It is attached to a counterweight located in the vestry.
By the seventeenth century legislation in England required local guardians to collect a tax and to use the proceeds to provide cash or bread for those unable to provide for themselves. But there was already a long tradition of churches providing for the poor, so many parish churches continued to operate ‘poor boxes’ into which donations could be placed to be used by the clergy and churchwardens to supplement the often meagre statutory provision.
St Mary Abchurch still has its original poor boxes.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
We need your consent to load the translations
We use a third-party service to translate the website content that may collect data about your activity. Please review the details and accept the service to view the translations.