A tour of St Mary & St Giles
St Mary & St Giles stands on the south-west corner of the junction between High Street and Church Street (National Grid Ref. SP787405), within the Stony Stratford Conservation Area. At the south-east corner is a Calvary and lych gate (1931). To the south side is a former burial ground, closed in 1855. A path runs along the south side of the church between the lych gate and a gate to the Market Square at the west, joined by a path from Church Street across the west end of the church.
The burial ground and path are overshadowed by the adjacent buildings and by yew trees, amongst which are gravestones, one chest tomb and one lower table tomb. They are periodically the focus of complaints from local residents and businesses relating to graffiti, littering and the behaviour of some who use the lych gate as a gathering place. Although commonly treated as a thoroughfare, the path does not constitute a public right of way and the gates at each end are padlocked for at least one day a year. The area to the north and west of the church building, bounded by a low stone wall, is laid to lawn and beds and is well maintained by members of the congregation with seasonal flowers.
The principal entrance to the church is through the west doors at the base of the tower (1487), above which there are a statue of St Giles and the hind and a stained-glass window by Kempe & Co. (1903). The nave (1776) was rebuilt to designs by Francis Hiorne. Hiorne was the architect of the Gloucestershire church of St Mary the Virgin, Tetbury, and it is thought that this building was a prototype for that much larger structure. Choir and clergy vestries (1892) were added to the north side of the building by the local architect, Edward Swinfen Harris. In 1928, an ellipsoidal apse, reported as then being in poor repair was replaced by the present squared-off structure.
The space under the tower is used for display boards. Either side of this space are rooms formed by the closing off of the north and south porches. The room to the south houses much of the blower, mechanism and pipes of the Willis organ and the room to the north, above which are the remainder of the organ mechanism and pipes, provides rudimentary kitchen and storage space.
The decoration of the nave, originally in the ‘Strawberry Gothic’ style, is plain. The columns and vaulting are said to suggest the forest in which St Giles rescued the hind with which he is commonly represented. Chairs introduced in the 1960s re-ordering sit on areas of parquet flooring on either side of the central aisle that, in common with the flooring of the rest of the nave, is comprised of stone slabs. Above the west end of the nave is a balcony, on which sits the organ console and where some space for additional seating can be provided. From this balcony, galleries extend eastwards along the north and south walls, interrupting the lancet windows and providing further seating on wooden benches. Beneath the galleries is a series of stained glass tableaux by N. H. J. Westlake, installed in 1889–97. Above the gallery, stained-glass lozenges depicting saints and martyrs and scenes from Scripture are suspended in a general scheme of leaded clear diamond panes. Stations of the Cross are hung along the north and south walls of the nave and play an important part in the devotional life of the parish.
The sanctuary is bounded by a semi-circular altar rail, the pillars of which echo the style of the columns of the nave, and is floored with bare terrazzo tiling, edged with Portland stone blocks. Its focus is a large free-standing altar, behind which there is seating for the clergy and the team of robed servers. Against the east wall of the sanctuary is a glass-fibre depiction of the risen Christ against a wooden cross, by Anthony Weller, a local artist. A wooden pulpit is sited on the north side of the nave and a choir lectern on the south side is used for reading from Scripture and the leading of prayer by the laity.
This is a place of worship and prayer. The building is not the Church it is the “house of the Church” where we gather together for worship. The building’s primary function is to house the Altar so that Christ’s people can celebrate, with a validly ordained male priest, the, Eucharist or Mass. So the altar, which came from the church of St Mary the Virgin, Stony Stratford, is given the prime position.
But first we notice the Font standing near the main entrance indicating that it is through the Sacrament of Baptism that we enter the Church (Christ’s Body). The floor beneath the font symbolises the primordial chaos (the waves of the outer circle) receding as we near the font and the Sacrament of Baptism through which we are made members of the Body of Christ: the Church. From Baptism we proceed through our Christian Life to receive the Sacraments of Confirmation within the Body of Christ and then we are fed with Christ himself in the Mass in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, looking forward to his return in glory from the East. It was restored to this position during 2009 after being sited during the 1960s where the Blessed Sacrament Chapel is now.
The Lectern stands to the south of the altar at the front of the nave. It is here that the word of the Lord is proclaimed from the Scriptures.
The Pulpit (designed by Pugin) stands to the north of the altar at the front of the nave. It is here that the Scriptures are explained to us in the Homily (or sermon). If you look carefully you will see the scorch marks from the fire of 1964 on the pulpit. This pulpit is also a memorial to the Fallen men of this Parish during the Great War.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is situated in the south east corner of the church. Here is reserved the Blessed Sacrament. When we enter this church we acknowledge Christ’s presence by genuflecting (going down on the right knee). This Chapel is used by many to come and pray during the week, and most of our weekday worship takes place here. The Reredos is by Sir Ninian Comper is unusual in that Christ is beardless – both this and the Image of Our Lady came from the church of St Mary the Virgin, which was closed in 1968. The altar is the previous High Altar from St Giles Lady Chapel and along with the lectern in this chapel and the pulpit were designed by Pugin.
The Confessional is situated in the north aisle. A purple priest’s stole hangs over the back of a chair next to a kneeler. Here the burden of guilt is lifted in loving and total secrecy through the pronouncement of God’s forgiveness.
The Icon of St Giles situated in the north aisle recess was “written” (Icons are not referred to as ‘painted’ for the creation of them is an act of prayer and devotion) by the late Brother Leon Lidderment of the Russian Orthodox Brotherhood of St Seraphim in Walsingham.
The Stations of the Cross, seen in many churches, were erected in this parish church in 1987. During each week of Lent we trace Jesus’ final journey from Pilate’s judgement hall to his crucifixion and death, and beyond to his resurrection.
The Nave Ceiling, along with the slender fluted columns, is the first of its design. The second is in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Tetbury in Gloucestershire also by the same architect: Francis Hiorn. The story of St Giles protecting a Hind from being shot with an arrow by his own body gave the inspiration for this “forest” inside the nave (see the statue outside and above the west door as well as the Icon). The trunks of the tree’s soar above and the canopy of branches meet overhead. One interesting feature is that the columns are hollow and are not load bearing.
The Christus on the east wall is a modern interpretation of the Risen Christ, crafted in fibre-glass and mounted on a wooden cross. It is the work of Anthony Weller who was commissioned in 1968 to make a sculpture of ‘Christ in Majesty’ for this Parish Church.
Doors in the north-east corner of the nave now provide access to the new Hall, Vestry and Sacristy. When the small extension was built, it provided choir and clergy vestries, as well as wheelchair access to the nave via a path and door on the north side of the church. These structures were altered internally as part of the 1960s reordering and the Lady Chapel was moved into the largest single part of this space. Recently the Lady Chapel was moved back into the church into its previously well-established position at the east end of the south aisle and the new hall was built.