– VISIT US
Discover one of the finest medieval churches in Oxfordshire. With a charming history and superb architecture, St Mary’s Henley has been a place of worship and welcome for nearly
The central main section of the Church is called the nave, a word which derives from the Latin navis, or ship. If you look vertically upwards, you can see, in the beams and planking of the roof, the resemblance to the ribs of a ship. The nave is arguably the oldest part of this stone-built church, and although rebuilt and altered several times in its history, is probably much as the first Rector saw it in the early years of the 13th century. At the start of the major restoration of the church in 1852 – a restoration which lasted four years during which time the congregation ‘moved out’ to the Kenton Theatre in New Street – the nave was cluttered and depressingly dark; high box pews filled the whole area, and the central aisle was filled with benches and, in the middle, the font. Galleries on cast iron pillars filled the two side aisles. Rectors and Churchwardens influenced by the Oxford Movement with its stress on liturgy and the visual appeal of churches removed much of this clutter and made many needed structural repairs. Here, the plaster was removed from the ceiling, revealing old and rotting beams; the clerestory (the upper part of the nave, with the stained glass windows of the saints, prophets and martyrs) raised the height of the nave and a fine crafted oak tie-beam roof was erected. Handsome oak pews replaced the pine box-pews and the font was removed. The result is a light and spacious interior, gracious, and with a particularly fine acoustic.
The Nave Sanctuary
The Nave Sanctuary was constructed in 2005 in response to the renewal of the Church’s Liturgy which had been developing for over 30 years. At the centre of the Sanctuary is the altar, positioned so as to allow the priest to face the people, rather than to have his back to them, as he celebrates the Eucharist – the Mass, or Holy Communion – in which Jesus fulfils his promise to come to us, and to spiritually feed us with himself. In this main service of the Christian Church, the people rightly gather together – one Body in Christ – and listen to the words of scripture, proclaimed from a lectern which stands nearby, and to celebrate the Lord’s life, passion, death and resurrection as he commended us to do, in the offering of the bread and wine of the eucharist. We hear again the words of Jesus himself – This is my Body; This is my Blood – and are reassured of his continuing presence and life within his Church. Although the Eucharist is not a ‘performance’ it is in every sense a drama; prior to the Reformation our churches would be used for all sorts of things apart from services. Notable instances would be the Passion Plays and the Mystery Plays, many of which have been revived in recent decades. For this reason, the Nave Sanctuary can also be completely cleared of furniture so that it can serve as a performance dais, or platform, for concerts and plays which take place here in St Mary’s. These can be splendid professional or semi-professional performances, or much simpler productions, such as our Junior Church’s annual Nativity play at Christmas. Local schools also use it often for concerts and similar events.
The Chancel Arch
The impressive oak rood-loft, or Rood Screen, depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus, flanked by St Mary and St John, dates from 1920, and was designed by E. H. Fellowes as a war memorial after the horrors of what we now call the First World War. The names of the dead from that war are inscribed to the left hand side, and were supplemented by the names of those who died in the Second World War, recorded on the right hand side. Henley was quite a small town, so that the number killed is a grim testimony to the carnage of war – especially when you see the full list of First World War deaths on the Remembrance tablet in the St John’s Memorial Chapel at the West End of the church under the Tower. Note also the two doorways at high level which would originally have led onto the top of the mediaeval rood screen – wide enough to accommodate an altar where a priest would say mass each day. On the wall above the arch itself is the mural of the Adoration of the Lamb, inspired by the vision of St John the Divine in Revelation. In the centre is the Lamb, standing on the sacrificial altar; he is surrounded by the four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and, from below, flows the Fountain of Life. Angels and saints fill the rest of the painting. It was designed and painted by the Rev’d Ernest Geldart in 1891. He was quite a prolific priest-architect, responsible for some 163 projects, mainly in Essex, but also here and at St Cuthbert’s, Philbeach Gardens in Earl’s Court. The work is based on Hubrecht and Jan van Eyck’s altarpiece in Ghent Cathedral (c1432).