The first reference I found to this relatively obscure English parish church was in Peter Hammond's Liturgy and Architecture (1960). Hammond pairs it with the later St Peter, Gorleston-on-Sea (full analysis of this church, which I visited last year, forthcoming). With the exception of a few other brief references (notably Eric Gill and John Betjeman), I was unable to discover much more about it or even to find images of it. So I was ecstatic to receive correspondence from Langtry-Langton's firm, still alive and well in Bradford, including some wonderful recent photographs of the church.
This is an inestimably significant church in light of later developments in 20th century church architecture, but it must also not be blindly lumped into an overly-simplified categorization of the "central plan," a phrase which requires careful parsing itself before any claims of universal adoption or abolition are made. This church should either please or confound either party, and as such is to me a valuable ally in the reconsideration of current party lines in ecclesial architecture.
First Martyrs, Bradford provides insight into the redemption of the central altar concept in light of the importance of a common direction in and divine orientation to the liturgy.
First Martyrs of Rome, Bradford was initially founded as a "chapel of ease" from St Cuthbert. The church opened in 1935. The young local Catholic architect Jack Langtry-Langton designed the building in collaboration with Father (later Monsignor) John O'Connor of St Cuthbert, known largely for his association with G.K. Chesterton; he inspired the beginning of the process of Chesterton's conversion and received him into the Roman Catholic Church in 1922. Fr O'Connor also formed the basis of Chesterton's character Father Brown.
While we do not know the details of the working relationship between Father O'Conner and Jack Langtry-Langton, any innovation in the church's form cannot be written off as the unprincipled investigations of progressive architects Progressive priests, perhaps. Hammond describes the church as "the result of Fr John O'Connor's desire to create a building which would express the essential character of the eucharist as a corporate action in which the laity as well as the celebrant have their part to play."
The essential question, of course, is what are those parts and what are their right relationships. The choice of altar placement relative to the volume of the nave goes a long way to establishing the roles and relationships of the assembly. In fact, it is so strong a gesture that in any instance it requires some degree of tempering no matter what placement is chosen. Central and terminal altars both reflect core realities of the nature of the church, and both present potentials for misinterpretation or negative connotations. Making the distinction between right reality and misapplied image lies substantially in the architecture.
Many later central altar plans fail when the emphasis shifts from the central significance of the altar to a percieved significance of the people. In part this failure stems from human tendencies towards complacency and self-interest. But this is typically fed by an architectural expression which combines circular surround seating with a de-emphasized sanctuary.
In the case of First Martyrs, Bradford, Langtry-Langton and O'Connor achieved the tempering of the central altar through volume and light. The space of the altar does not occur just on the floor; it has a strong vertical presence which dominates the space of the church through its height and natural light. The altar's dome of God's light rests atop and enlightens humanity's constructed dome of darkness. (And the altar rails don't hurt, though that is a completely different can of worms that we'll leave the lid on for now.)
Above and beyond the emphatic volumetric expression of centrality, the orientation of the liturgy formed by the church building redeems and completes the image that "the sacrifice is offered not only for the people, but by and in the midst of them" (Eric Gill, Letters. Note that this does not refute or diminish that the Eucharist is a sacrifice or that it is offered for the people but instead adds to these realities the participation--potentially more active through an engaged posture and improved proximity--of the people).
A central altar has the potential to clearly show a common direction of the liturgical prayer at the cost of obscuring the orientation and its ultimate object. Here the cupola acts as an apse of sorts, providing a referential orientation to the God the Father as imaged by light. But I have my doubts about the effectiveness of that image as the object of focus.
There is more going on here than just centrality and radial symmetry. The octagonal plan has laid over it a linear axis. Note that the (liturgical) east and west sections are kept empty while the altar-surrounding seating fills the remaining six sections. The east section serves roughly as a chancel with a tabernacle at the far wall. The west section serves as the entrance and contains the ambo. This establishes a linear liturgical arrangement with antiphonal seating very similar to the much later communio raüme configurations.
I would also like to posit that this type of elliptical--and perhaps more precisely in parabolic--seating configurations for the laity has the potential to develop into a symbol of concelebration. The posture of concelebrating priests, by nature of a single common focus and and an internal hierarchy, is not a uniform orthogonal rank. The priests form an arc with the primary celebrant clearly in the center. The arc also provides a greater orientation: they not only face a direction, but enclose it.
The relative postures of the laity and clergy in First Martyrs, Bradford with the celebrant facing the tabernacle/apse replicates this arc of concelebration. If extrapolated further, such an arrangement would come closer to fulfilling the contradictory requirements of liturgical orientation whereby, according to a clarification by the Congregation for Divine Worship, "the liturgical assembly participates in the celebration in virtue of the common priesthood of the faithful which requires the ministry of the ordained priest to be exercised in the Eucharistic Synaxis."
The symbolic model of the posture of concelebration following on the example of First Martyrs, Bradford seems like it would be a fruitful course of development, provided--it should go with out saying--that "all these elements, even though they must express the hierarchical structure and the diversity of ministries, should nevertheless bring about a close and coherent unity that is clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people." (GIRM §294). This is a theme we will continue to explore here.
As for the general Architectural merits of the building, both Eric Gill and Peter Hammond are ultimately dissatisfied with the church. Gill concludes that "actually, it is not a very notable piece of building." Hammond follows suit, saying that "apart from its unconventional plan the church of First Martyrs, at Bradford, has little interest" and dismissing its design by a "local architect." Perhaps it has just aged well, or perhaps the contrast of what now appears as a clearly "modern" arrangement in a "traditional" language is now more exotically intriguing, but I must politely disagree with their assessments.
Granted, it is somewhat confused in its articulation between exterior. But I have a somewhat difficult time reconciling Gill's usual criticisms of "architectooralooralism" in church building. It is certainly not "sham Gothic" or sham anything else. It is a well-built, unique architectural expression of the liturgical realities of the church, and it is one that deserve much greater attention.