An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile                                
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile

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          St Helen Bishopsgate                                          
          St Helen                                    
          Here we are amidst the Dubai-ification of Bishopsgate, and yet the west frontage of St Helen is rather pleasing in its little courtyard beneath the Aviva building. It is a different story to south and east, however, for although the Gherkin has created a focus for St Mary Axe, the peripherals of the space are messy and ill-considered, and beside St Helen the car park entrance has all the charm of the neglected bit of a provincial shopping centre. However, all this will go for the construction of the City's tallest tower, the Undershaft building, and the two lower storeys being left open will give St Helen and its near neighbour St Andrew Undershaft the chance to talk to each other for the first time in centuries.

Uniquely in the City, St Helen has a double nave, and this is because it was the church of a Benedictine nunnery, established here in the early 13th Century. There was already a parish church on the site, and a new nave for the sisters was built to the north of the parish nave. There was a major restoration in the early 17th Century which gave the exterior much of its current character, and the church was far enough north to survive the Great Fire. The Blitz also did little damage here, and St Helen might have continued being a pleasant if rather sleepy medieval survival among the office towers were it not for two significant events.

The first was the Baltic Exchange bombing on the night of 10th April 1992. A one tonne semtex and fertiliser bomb was exploded by the IRA immediately to the south-east of the church, its intention to cause as much damage to property as possible. In this it succeeded, for the 800 million repair bill to the City was almost twice as much as the entire repair bill for all the other damage caused by IRA bombs in the British Isles since the current spate of Troubles began in 1969. The south wall of the church was demolished, the interior blown out by blast damage. Repairs were already underway when the second event to shape the current church occured. On the morning of 24th April 1993, a Saturday, the IRA exploded another one tonne bomb, this time of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, on Bishopsgate, to the north-west of the church. Thus, the little church found itself exactly between the two largest terrorist bombs ever exploded on the British mainland. This time the west front was demolished, and blast damage took out all the windows and furnishings again.

The building's rebirth was very much a reflection of the character of its congregation. Unusually for the City, St Helen is very much in the staunch evangelical protestant tradition. The pre-1992 church had been full of the clutter of those resacramentalising Victorians, but controversially the architect Quinlan Terry was commissioned to design an interior more fitting for the style of worship at St Helen. Anti-modernist, anti-gothicist, anti-conservationist, Terry is an architect so far out of kilter with the mainstream of British design that it sometimes seems as if he is working in an entirely different discipline, running in parallel with the rest of the architectural world. Previously, his most significant church design was for Brentwood Catholic Cathedral, which I have seen described as having all the style, grace and charm of a shopping centre food court. It was never going to end happily, either for the conservation bodies or the City traditionalists.

Terry's reinvented St Helen is a preaching box for protestant worship. Memorials have been relegated to the south transept, and the rood screen moved across it to separate it from the body of the church. The two naves have been united in a cool, square, white space, the focus of the church turned to face the north wall. It is as if the Oxford Movement had never happened. And yet it is all done well, with that infuriating veneer of seemliness that so much of Terry's work conveys.

Well, you wouldn't want all medieval churches to be like this, but churches are constantly changing to suit the style of worship of the day, and so it seems fitting that St Helen should have been reinvented this way. Much of the outcry at the time must have been because the Bishopsgate bomb vaporised St Ethelburga, St Helen's near neighbour, a small surviving medieval church, and it was felt rather willful that another medieval church was being gutted by those who might have been thought responsible for saving it. Me, I'm not so sure. Church communities should have their head to design their churches to suit their current worship, otherwise we would not have the extraordinary accretion of historical artefacts that the great majority of England's 16,000-odd medieval churches now contain. St Helen is a good example of what can be done by people with passion and enthusiasm in the face of apocalyptic destruction. This was true after 1945, and it was true after 1993. Mind you, I'm not sure we'd have the confidence to do the same thing now.

Simon Knott, December 2015

location: Bishopsgate 3/028
status: working parish church
access: Locked. Access via church office when staffed (unless a sign warns they won't open that day)

St Helen St Helen my words St Helen Laus Deo St Helena 1633 St Helen St Helen St Helen

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An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile