The chapel at Lambeth Palace is one of the oldest extant parts of the site, dating back to the early thirteenth century. In the intervening years, it has been subject to many alterations and additions, some of which have been unwittingly forced upon it: most dramatically, the direct hit by an incendiary bomb on 10 May 1940, when the Victorian stained glass and vaulted ceiling, richly decorated by William Burges, were completely destroyed.

H5195.S9L2 1883FR
Victorian decoration of the Chapel (ref: H5195.S9L2 1883FR)

Subsequently, the chapel fabric was restored under the auspices of Archbishop Fisher in the early 1950s, with the reinstatement of the vaulted roof and the installation of newly commissioned stained glass.

Archbishop Fisher with Sir James Raitt Brown, Third Church Estates Commissioner (ref: CIO/PHO/NEG/5)

However, perhaps the most striking feature to anyone who visits the chapel today is the brightly, some might say garishly, painted murals on the vaulted ceiling. These were painted by the British artist Leonard Rosoman (1913-2012) between 1987-1988, during the archiepiscopate of Robert Runcie (1980-1991), who wanted to brighten up and beautify the interior of the chapel.

Rosoman, who was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Royal Academy and a book, is perhaps best known for his depictions of the Blitz, largely informed by his time in the Auxiliary Fire Service during World War II, and for his role as Official War Artist from 1945.

But in 1987 he undertook a very different commission when he was given an open brief by the newly convened Chapel Advisory Group to enhance the plain white ceiling that was a result of the 1950s restoration. The Advisory Group had begun meeting at Lambeth Palace in May 1987, and after selecting Rosoman, they gave him free rein to come up with ideas; the only firm stipulation they made was Archbishop Runcie’s desire for a depiction of Christ to be placed above the altar.

The ceiling, 36 metres long and 10 metres wide, consisted of five vaults. Using Lambeth Palace Library, Rosoman extensively researched his topic and after some false starts settled on five subjects: St. Augustine’s arrival in England; the life of Becket; the consecration of Matthew Parker; the Lambeth Conference and, as Runcie had requested, the head of Christ at the east end.

Work commenced in October 1987, with the chapel ceiling primed in acrylic gesso and then painted in acrylics by Rosoman and three students, using similar methods to those of the great Renaissance painters. The work was physically demanding, with Rosoman often forced to paint lying on his back or crouching down, and he lost twenty pounds during the project as a result.

Rosoman at work (ref: L-2016-21). Copyright: reproduced with permission from Keith Collie.

Despite some frustrations and delays, once underway work progressed quickly, with Rosoman completing nearly three of the panels in under a month. The colour scheme of the ceiling moved from dark to light as it progressed from west to east, with the initial panel of Pope Gregory assigning St. Augustine to take Christianity to England painted in austere monochrome, with the two figures in white against a dark background.

The life of Becket interested Rosoman, and he was particularly taken with a story from his early life, when the young Becket dived into a mill-race to rescue his hawk, miraculously escaping death. This supposed turning point in his life was unknown to the Chapel Advisory Group, but was depicted in the second panel along with another lesser-known event: the ritual of the Thames boatmen doffing their caps to the martyr’s statue that was situated in the river-facing wall of the palace as they passed it. In contrast, a final image of the martyrdom of Becket completed the panel.

The consecration of Archbishop Parker in 1559 was depicted as it reflected a turning point in the history of the Church of England. Parker, whose bones are interred in the chapel, is shown being anointed by four fellow bishops and Rosoman also slyly represented himself, depicted as a choirboy.

The final panel, showing the head of Christ with a crown of thorns, apparently made Runcie uneasy due to its size and the expression of anxiety the face conveyed, but Rosoman was insistent that it conformed to the medieval tradition and that the expression was one of suffering. Runcie’s concerns were allayed and ultimately the Chapel Advisory Group were very pleased with the results.

The project was completed in June 1988, with relatively little publicity, and on 2 November 1988 a service of thanksgiving was held in the chapel, with a sermon preached by Runcie which focused on the iconography of the ceiling.

The records of this commission and the work that Rosoman undertook are preserved as part of the papers of Archbishop Runcie (Runcie/CHAPEL/1-64). This collection also documents other works that were undertaken in the chapel at the same time as part of a substantial restoration. The papers include the correspondence and minutes of the Chapel Advisory Group, which documents the selection process for the ceiling commission, and Rosoman’s proposals; as well as the various works that were undertaken to other parts of the chapel including the Laudian screen, the floor, and the furnishings. Supplementing these papers are photographs which document the various elements of the chapel before, during, and after the restoration process. Although some of the material is currently closed, it will be made available gradually over the next few years in line with release of other Archbishops’ papers via the Library’s online catalogue. The papers will provide an invaluable resource for understanding the lasting contribution of Leonard Rosoman to the restoration of this ancient chapel.

“We have found faith in the city”: The records of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Commission on the Urban Priority Areas (ACUPA)

“We have three problems: poverty, poverty and poverty.” So said a Councillor from the North-East to ACUPA. Archbishop Robert Runcie set up the Commission in 1983, and tasked it with examining the needs of the Church’s life and mission in inner city areas. ACUPA published its recommendations two years later, generating considerable political controversy, and setting in motion numerous initiatives whose impact continues to this day.

The commission was established in July 1983, following the widespread rioting that had overtaken Brixton and parts of Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool in 1981. Chaired by Sir Richard O’Brien, ACUPA’s 18-strong committee was predominantly lay and professional, with just 7 clergy representatives. ACUPA spent two years conducting extensive research, visiting 32 cities and 9 London boroughs, commissioning a Gallup poll of 400 clergy and receiving 283 written submissions of evidence from a range of charities and statutory bodies with the following terms of reference:

“To examine the strengths, insights, problems and needs of the Church’s life and mission in Urban Priority Areas [an Electoral Ward or Parish with high levels of deprivation] and, as a result, to reflect on the challenge which God may be making to Church and Nation: and to make recommendations to appropriate bodies”

According to other commission members, O’Brien insisted that every claim in the report should be backed by evidence so that it would be impossible to criticise it on a factual level.

Faith in the city cover

The 350-page report, Faith in the City: A Call for Action by Church and Nation, was published in December 1985.The introduction conveyed the profound shock that many committee members had experienced on delving into the issues surrounding Urban Priority Areas (UPAs):

“We have to report that we have been deeply disturbed by what we have seen and heard. We have been confronted with the human consequences of unemployment […], decayed housing, sub-standard educational and medical provision, and social disintegration”

Equally critical of both Church and State, the report claimed that with respect to UPAs “no adequate response is being made by Government, nation or Church. There is barely even widespread public discussion”. Of the report’s 61 recommendations, 38 were directed specifically at the Church, with the remaining 23 at the Government and nation. Of the latter, the general emphasis lay in using taxpayers’ money to alleviate inequality by increasing various benefits, spending more on job creation, regeneration and expanding the provision of council housing. As for the Church, it was recognised that attention needed to be directed at clergy staffing levels, training for ordained and lay leaders and acquiring flexibility in liturgical needs, styles of work with children and young people and use of buildings. The flagship recommendation, however, was the establishment of the Church Urban Fund, an ambitious plan to raise £18 million to be spent on inner city projects over a period of 20 years.

Its publication caused an immediate media storm, as various members of Margaret Thatcher’s government rushed to condemn its contents as “pure Marxist theology” and proof that the Church was governed by a “load of Communist clerics”. The Daily Mail labelled it “a flawed gospel […] intellectually beneath contempt” whilst Thatcher complained that it contained nothing “about self-help or doing anything for yourself”. Others, though, were more admiring. Home Secretary Douglas Hurd was struck by the conclusions on crime whilst Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine told Archbishop Runcie: “Your bishops have it wrong. Conditions in the inner cities are much worse than they say”.

The publicity generated huge interest and within a few months over 17,000 copies of Faith in the City had been sold, along with 66,000 copies of an abridged version. The impact of the report and the resultant discussion was profound and far-reaching. Speaking in 2005, the Dean of Norwich Graham Smith remarked:

“Faith in the City began a movement which was partly political (with a small p), partly theological and partly spiritual. In all three senses, it was a beacon of hope to a lot of people […]. [It] began a discussion across the nation and a movement within the Church. It showed that our common concerns could be harnessed in the common good”

Though Archbishop Runcie had no direct involvement in its writing, Faith in the City remains one of the greatest achievements of his primacy. The Church Urban Fund, launched in 1987, with an appeal to donate read from every pulpit in the land, is still going strong almost 30 years later, and to date has distributed over £70 million in funding.

The records of ACUPA are now available to researchers as of the beginning of 2016. They are held at the Church of England Record Centre and will be accessible via the online catalogue, searchable by entering ACUPA* into the OrderNo box. These records are complemented by records relating to ACUPA within the Main Series of Robert Runcie’s papers for 1985, held at Lambeth Palace Library, which are now also available to researchers as of the beginning of 2016.