Marooned amid the tired tenements and shabby shops on Lewes Road in Brighton, St Martin’s Church is a symbol of permanence in a sea of transience. The architecture is a product of the panic which gripped the Church of England in the mid-to-late 19th century. When John Henry Newman converted from Anglicism to Catholicism in 1845, the effect was seismic. To get an idea of the shock, imagine if Richard Dawkins were to announce that he has accepted the position of Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells.
The upshot was an enthusiasm for the more mystical elements of religious worship and an architectural revival of the Gothic and Early English styles. Saint Martin’s is an exemplary instance of that movement. The entrance is raised above the rest of the building, underlining the idea that you are stepping down from the secular world into the eternal. According to Anthony Dale’s ‘Brighton Churches’, Brighton-based building contractor Jabez Reynolds carried out the building work, under the supervision of architect was Somers Clarke (junior). The whole thing was the brain child of a former Vicar of Brighton, Rev. Henry Michell Wagner, who died before its completion. His son ensured the project was completed and that his father’s collection of stone and marble from Cairo and Pompeii were used to decorate the font.
The marble altar was added in 1949, but the reredos survive from the original building. It comprises of 20 pictures and 69 statues, which were carved in Oberammergau in Germany.. The pulpit dates from 1880, the base of which features olive wood collected from the Mount of Olives.
You don’t have to be a believer to feel a sense of wonder as you stand beneath the soaring arches; but the church is a testament to the persistence of the religious imagination.