St. Aelred’s RC Church, Tang Hall
Stephen Simpson (1956)

Who Knew Tang Hall Was So Gay?

On First Avenue, a gabled brick tower and its protruding crucifix mark the Roman Catholic church in Tang Hall, a suburb of York. The Tang Hall estate, formerly greenbelt land, was bought by the City of York council in 1921 to provide high-quality housing for workers, many coming from demolished slum housing in Walmgate and Hungate. There was a previous Catholic church on this site built in 1932, along with a presbytery (still extant), and a school which has since been relocated. The post-war years saw the estate expand exponentially. It was also the peak period of immigration of (especially Irish and Polish) catholics. Church attendance in catholics being far higher than other denominations, to meet the demands of an expanding congregation – including accommodating many catholics originally from St George’s Church on Peel Street – the present, larger church was built in 1956. The architect was Stephen Simpson ‘of Leeds’ (according to The Buildings of England), albeit it is unclear what other buildings he was involved with whether in Leeds or anywhere else (do any readers know?).

Building with cross-shaped window
Fig. 1: view of St Aelred’s Catholic Church. Photo: © Joshua Mardell, 2021.

St. Aelred’s church is a big brick box on a transeptal plan. Its east end steps outwards, and a thin cross formed by six concrete slabs finds shelter under the projecting eaves of the shallow-pitched copper roof. Above the west entrance signalled by wiry piloti, on a canvas of York stone slabs, the titular saint, Aelred (1110–1167), stands soberly on a concrete pedestal holding his book De spirituali amicitia (Spiritual Friendship); he can be illuminated at night by soffit lighting. The sculptor was the Hungarian Julius (a.k.a. Gyula) Maugsch (1882–1973), who left Austria after WWII, lived nearby in Tang Hall’s Penyghent Avenue, and set up a studio in the Shambles in the city centre.1

The flanks of the building are amply fenestrated, at clerestory level, by long square-headed windows of honeycomb-patterned tracery. Honeycomb references the word of God — David (Psalm 19:10) told us that “the judgements of the Lord are … sweeter… than honey and the honeycomb.” And the motif abounds inside: in the reredos, and the gates of the former baptistery, now cut open, allowing access to a shop. Two further crosses, of glass blocks, in the projecting transepts, modulate the interior light.

Architectural plan of building
Fig. 2: plans, sections and elevations signed off by Stephen Simpson in June 1954. Photo: courtesy of Fr. Bill Serplus.

Inside, the space is capacious and free of internal columns, enabled by its lightweight (and inexpensive) portal frame construction. The concrete structural members, painted white, make transparent the building’s structural logic, while the brick in-fill and envelope ties the church to the Tang Hall vernacular. The church’s construction just preceded the discussions since summarised as the ‘Liturgical Movement’ (albeit rooted in the 19th century), that began to take off in architectural circles as vocally in the Catholic church as the Anglican and led to great experimentation, which might explain its conventional aisled nave plan with a gallery to the west and two transeptal chapels. The raised sanctuary, open to the nave, occupies the eastern-most bay.

View of altar and cross inside church from behind pews
Fig. 3: interior view of St Aelred’s, facing the altar. Photo: © Joshua Mardell, 2021.
Rows of pews lining aisle
Fig. 4: interior view facing the western gallery. Photo: © Joshua Mardell, 2021.

St. Aelred, previously a friend of King David of Scotland and sometime adviser to Henry II of England, was the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx. He has been held up by some hagiographers as having idealized love between men. As John Boswell put it in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century: “There can be little question that Aelred was gay and that his erotic attraction to men was a dominant force in his life.”2 It is held that he fell in love with two monks of his order, and (uncommonly) allowed his monks to hold hands and express affection. He tops the “Queer and Saintly” list.3

Aelred is a rare and welcome queer figure in a city where queer spaces are all but non-existent today (although “queering the map” presents a different picture). Who knew Tang Hall was so gay?

Church tower with crucifix from below
Fig. 5: exterior view of St Aelred’s Church with crucifix. Photo: © Joshua Mardell, 2021.