St John the Baptist, Buckland, and Ecclesiology

St John the Baptist, Buckland,

and Ecclesiology

Often when you least expect it, you discover something special.  This is also what happened during our recent holiday in Tasmania.  One day, we drove from Hobart north east to Swansea, with some stops along the way.

Our first stop was in Buckland, where we spotted the Church of St John the Baptist. The door was not locked, so we could have a look inside.  We were amazed by the glorious stained glass windows, which were unexpected for a church in a small village.  Trying to find out more about this church, lead me to a fascinating tale, of a church with many architectural features and a fair amount of intrigue around it.  You could make a movie out of it.

St John the Baptist, Buckland, and Ecclesiology

Church of St John the Baptist, Buckland Tasmania

The church is considered to be one of the first ecclesiologically correct churches in Australia.  I have to admit, when I first read the phrase, I didn’t have a clue what it meant. Maybe it’s the same for some of my readers.  Therefore I would like to start with some background on ecclesiology.

In the 1820s the Anglican church felt under pressure, on the one hand by nonconformists, on the other by Catholic Emancipation, but above all by the state.  Several High Church academics and clerics from Oxford suggested that a return to the church’s historical roots would be the only way to save the Established Church.  A return to earlier forms of worship was seen as a way to revitalise the church.  In this context “modern” was a negative term, while the medieval past was desirable.  The group started publishing their thoughts in penny tracts in 1833.[i]

Their ideas were of interest to a group of Cambridge undergraduates, though they were more concerned about the way services were conducted and the way churches were designed.  They criticised the typical Georgian style of their time, particularly the enclosed pews, the altar hidden away at the back, with parishioners even sitting on it if they didn’t have a seat.[ii]  Communion was only rarely celebrated. The services were nearly entirely conducted from the pulpit, and the chancels were no longer used.  Once Queen Victoria came to the throne, many thought that the time was right for a change.  In the spring of 1839, the Cambridge undergraduates as well as some churchmen founded the Cambridge Camden Society (Camden after the antiquary William Camden, 1551-1623).  One of the founders was John Mason Neale. The original Society evolved in 1846 into the Ecclesiological Society.

The object of the society was

the promotion of the study of ecclesiastical architecture and antiquities, and the restoration of medieval church remains … [They] reintroduced the medieval notion that every material object connected with a church edifice and its interior arrangement is infused with a vital symbolic meaning, the mastery of which held the key to the re-emergence of Catholic piety.[iii]

They started publishing a newsletter, The Ecclesiologist, in 1841, and, also in 1841, a short booklet, A Few Words to Church Builders.  This booklet outlined the most important points to which church architecture was supposed to adhere.  The author, probably Neale, made it clear that he was not speaking as an architect.  His “intention [was] to dwell on the Catholick [sic], than on the architectural, principles which ought to influence the building of a church.”  His demands were:[iv]

  1. The orientation of the church should be to the east, or that part of the horizon where the sun rises on the day of the foundation of the church or the day of the patron saint.
  2. The church should be built of stone. The kind of stone is determined by its locality.  Brick was not to be used.
  3. The situation of the church tower was not prescribed, as long as it was not placed directly above the altar. However, a tower was not essential, a bell gable would do.
  4. Two parts were essential to a church, a nave and a chancel. Aisles were not absolutely necessary and, if money was tight, could be added later, one at a time.
  5. The most important part was the chancel, which should be on the eastern end of the church. The chancel is seen as the Church Triumphant, distinct from the Church Militant, the nave. The chancel must not be entered by laypeople except during communion.
  6. The chancel had to be separated from the rest of the church either by a chancel-arch or a screen. A roodscreen, the “most beautiful and Catholick [sic] appendage to a church”, would be desirable. The roodscreen could be made of wood or stone, though stone was considered not suitable for small churches.    The chancel floor was to be raised.  It had to be narrower than the nave and the ceiling lower.
  7. The east end of the chancel was the sacrarium with the high altar. This area should again be higher than the chancel. The altar had to be made of stone (although small country churches were allowed wooden ones as long as they observed certain criteria).  Altar rails were not encouraged.
  8. A reredos was considered one of the most beautiful ornaments of a church.
  9. The “proper design and execution of the east window” of stained glass was very important. It should be a three-light window to represent the Trinity.  It should have a pictorial theme.  The representation of Christ and the apostles had to reflect their “spiritual glory” instead of trying to show their earthly appearance.  Stained glass would give a “chastened and solemn effect to the church”.  If possible, old window fragments should be used (according to the writer of A Few Words to Church Builders these could be picked up cheaply on the continent from deconsecrated churches).  If no old glass was available, the new windows should imitate the design of old ones.  A list of symbolism to represent saints is given (St John the Baptist is associated with the Agnus Dei).
  10. For the flooring of the chancel, they advised to use encaustic tiles, with detailed instructions for their appearance. Minton tiles were regarded as the best and most widely available encaustic tiles.  Stone was acceptable too, but brick or wood were to be avoided.
  11. Chancel-stalls should be used instead of prayer-desks, which were considered ”very ugly, very inconvenient, and totally repugnant to all Catholick [sic] principles of devotion”.
  12. Needlework and embroidery should be used for altar-cloth, napkin to cover communion dishes etc. There should be several sets in different colours signifying special holidays.
  13. Altar candlesticks and communion vessels should be made of precious metals. There were to be two candlesticks. The candles signify Christ is the Light of the world, two candlesticks symbolise Christ’s divine and human nature.  The chalice must have an octagonal base and a circular bason.
  14. The font must be in the nave and near a door to symbolise the child’s admission into the church by baptism. The shape can be either square, circular or octagonal.  The octagon is an ancient symbol of Regeneration.
  15. The pulpit can be situated either on the north or south side of the chancel arch. Preferably it should be made of stone, then it should be octagonal, richly panelled and projecting from the pier.  If made of wood, it should be octagonal on an octagonal stem, may be sculptured, painted.
  16. The seats should never be enclosed pews, but wooden seats or chairs were acceptable.
  17. A vestry is difficult to position as it may spoil the outline of the building. It must never be “profaned” for parish meetings etc.

As seen in the list above, the chancel floor should be covered with encaustic tiles.  While tiles were used in earlier churches, they were very expensive and not necessarily up to the wear and tear. In the 1830s the Staffordshire company Minton’s began experimenting with encaustic (inlaid) tiles.  By 1840 they had developed the process to a degree where the tiles could be mass produced. As Moore[v] explains: “These tiles were made with a ‘plastic’ clay body, the shape of the pattern was impressed and the indented area was filled with a different coloured liquid clay slip.”  One of the earliest examples of Minton tiles (1844) is a decorated pavement at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s residence on the Isle of Wight.  Many commissions executed for the Royal Family followed.  Pugin used Minton tiles in the flooring of the new Houses of Parliament.

St John the Baptist, Buckland, and Ecclesiology

John Mason Neale

The Society declined in the 1860s and the last Ecclesiologist was published in 1868.  However, they claimed in their last issue that “we have the satisfaction of retiring from the field victors”.  And there is certainly some truth in this.  The new St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society was founded on 1 April 1879 as a “successor” to the original society. It dropped the prefix “St Paul’s” in 1936 and is now known as the Ecclesiological Society.  It is aimed at people “who find churches and their use a fascinating subject for recreation and study, and who enjoy, from time to time, meeting others of a similar turn of mind, making it ‘the Society for those who love churches’”.[vi]

I have to admit that I used to regard 19th century Gothic churches as fake medieval, just imitating a medieval design, without any meaning.  However, reading up on ecclesiology made me realise that this was just my ignorant arrogance.  Much more thought went into building these churches than mere imitation.

In my next post I will look at how the ecclesiological guidelines were realised in the building of the church of St John the Baptist in Buckland, making it one of the first ecclesiologically correct churches in Australia.

Further posts on St John the Baptist, Buckland:

St John the Baptist, Buckland – the Church

St John the Baptist, Buckland – a disagreement between gentlemen


[i] Banerjee, J., ‘The Cambridge Camden Society and the Ecclesiological Society’, The Victorian Web.  URL: [last accessed 7 Jan. 2016]

[ii] The following is based on: Fisher,, B. ‘Ecclesiology and the Deep Chancel: From Cambridge to New York’, Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Sept. 1978), pp. 313-331

[iii] Fisher, B., pp.314-315

[iv] Fisher, B.;  Neale, J.M., A Few Words to Church Builders.  Cambridge Camden Society. Cambridge 1841.  Available from Internet Archive, URL: [last accessed 23 Jan. 2016]

[v] Moore, G.M., Antipodean Gothic, Masters Research Thesis, Dept. of Fine Arts, The University of Melbourne (1984), pp.180-186

[vi] Cooper, T., ‘‘The non-professional study of Ecclesiology’: a brief history of the Ecclesiological Society’, Ecclesiological Society (Jan. 2004).  URL: [last accessed 23 Jan. 2016]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s