Christopher McElroy

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The architecture of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral: PART 1


As well as the functional requirement of holding a cathedra, a cathedral church in itself is a theological statement reflecting the priorities and beliefs of those who worship in it. The theological and liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council have left many dioceses with the unenviable position of having a cathedral that may no longer accurately embody the theology expressed in the revised rites of the church. Consecrated in 1967, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King may be seen as among the first in a new generation of liturgical works of architecture that accurately support and teach of the ecclesiology proclaimed by the council fathers. This series of blog postings will explore the shape and form of the cathedral, noting the placement and relationships between key liturgical artifacts, both in terms of function and the truth that is revealed through them.

Of the five new cathedrals built in England during the twentieth century, three were staunchly traditional in conception, and four were liturgically conservative.  Firstly, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, the second largest cathedral in the world, designed in the gothic style by Giles Gilbert Scott, grandson of the eminent nineteenth century gothic revivalist.

Anglican cathedral liverpool

Also in a neo-gothic style, but of somewhat smaller proportions was Guilford Cathedral designed by Edward Brantwood Maufe.


Reminiscent of the early Christian basilicas was the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Westminster in London, which combined the Roman baroque style with touches of Byzantine splendor.


Extending the ruins of the nearly completely destroyed cathedral in Coventry, Sir Basil Spence showed qualities of spirit and imagination of the highest order to rebuild, though in a somewhat liturgically conservative fashion.


The current Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool was not the first attempt to build a Catholic Cathedral in Liverpool.  The first commission to design a Catholic Cathedral was entrusted to Edward Welby Pugin in 1853, son of the gothic revivalist Augustus Welby Pugin. Not surprisingly it was designed in a neo-gothic shape with a massive central steeple, but was only partially completed dues to a lack of funding.


Sir Edward Lutyens was responsible for the second attempt, planning for a Romanesque cathedral that would hold 10,000 people, contain no less than 53 altars and be crowned by a dome of epic proportions. However, a lack of funds and the intervention of World War II ensured that only the crypt of Lutyens’ dream was ever completed.


Lutyens design would have made the skyline of Liverpool look a little different!


After the war and Lutyens’ death, Adrian Gilbert Scott (brother of the architect of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral) was commissioned to scale down Lutyens’ plan into a more financially viable proportion, but his work was heavily criticized and eventually dismissed.


In 1958 a competition was held for what the Archbishop of Liverpool, John Carmel Heenan, described as ‘A cathedral in our time.’ Out of over 300 submitted designs, that of Frederick Gibberd was chosen. Building began in October 1962, and the Cathedral was consecrated on the Feast of Pentecost, 14th May 1967. Frederick Gibberd was not renowned as a religious architect, in fact aside from the Metropolitan Cathedral and work on a London mosque, his work was completely secular. Architects were very much in demand after World War II to design, plan and construct new buildings. Among Gibberd’s principal works was the complete redesign of Harlow town center and work on the expansion of Heathrow Airport. Ironically, it is the Metropolitan Cathedral for which he is undoubtedly best known today. The complete break in tradition with those buildings that we have described above was due principally to shape of the building – that of a circle.  The next blog post in this series will look at the use of circular space in worship.

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