From its earliest days St Matthew’s has been closely associated with the recovery of the Catholic heritage of the Church of England. One of the foremost leaders of that movement, Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, served at St Matthew’s from 1916-18.
The church, except for the Lady Chapel, was almost totally destroyed by fire in May 1977. The new church was dedicated in November 1984 and, while much smaller than the previous church, retains much of its atmosphere as well as some of the original stone-work and many of the contents rescued from the destruction.
Entering the church, via the narthex, visitors will see a stained glass window of St Michael by Tower. All the stained glass was badly damaged but some of the figures were saved and placed in new settings (most notably the east window and the Annunciation scene in the N.E. window). Here also is Tower’s panel of the crucifixion. The 14 Stations of the Cross line the walls and were sculpted by Joseph Cribb, a pupil of Eric Gill. They trace the final journey which Jesus made on the way to his crucifixion and are used as an aid to prayer and meditation.
The Lady Chapel is the earliest example of Comper’s work in England, and the ‘English altar’ with its riddle posts is, he maintained, the first of its type since the Reformation. The Chapel has been completely renovated, and is used every day for Morning and Evening Prayer as well as for weekday masses. There is a fine statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Next to the Lady Chapel is the Reconciliation Room, which is used for the hearing of confessions and private discussions.
St Michael’s Chapel houses a stone altar by Bodley, and is open every day for private prayer and reflection. Through the iron-work grille, also by Bodley, can be seen the magnificent reredos by Tower, depicting an amazing variety of saints and angels surrounding the scene of the Nativity. On the High Altar is the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved so that Holy Communion is available at any time for those in need. It also acts as a focus for prayers. This altar contains a relic of St Matthew.
Entering the main church one passes a fine Spanish lectern from the 15th century. The modern statue of Our Lady, Queen of Peace, is by Mother Concordia OSB. The other statues are the work of Tower and depict St Edward the Confessor, St George (with dragon), St Michael and St Matthew. The High Altar and reredos were originally under the east window, surrounded by wooden panelling. This panelling was removed after the fire and beneath it was discovered the mosaic mural and painted arcading you see today.
The recent addition of a modern carving of the Madonna and Child maintains the creative link between the church and the arts. It was sculpted by Guy Reid, a former Artist in Residence at St Matthew’s, and has a real theological intensity.