Notes written by Sarah Menin, Architect
The Priory of St Antony was opened in 1984. It is the home of a religious order, the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM), and Anglican religious community of professed brothers who share a common life and who are engaged in educational, pastoral and missionary work. The community has a highly developed monastic, incarnational and sacramental theology. St Antony’s chapel was dedicated for use in 1992, the first monastic building to be constructed in Durham since the reformation.
The chapel, which is octagonal in shape, is designed as one homogeneous whole, on three levels: a ground floor garage, a first floor sacristy and storage area and the second floor chapel. The octagon shape may be symbolic of the believers’ co-resurrection with Christ who was raised from the dead on what the fathers called the eighth day, the first day of the week. There is no baptistery in the chapel. The chapel is connected to the main building by a glazed ink. The link also follows the outside surface of the building to stairs down to the sacristy.
The client (SSM) required a building sympathetic to unaccompanied sung services, which would be usable by both the present Community on a daily basis, and could be used by larger numbers on special occasions. The spiritual emphasis of the Christian life is inward looking and contemplative. This emphasis held alongside the outward looking concern for society, the splendid views of the Cathedral and the Priory’s relative isolation, lends itself to a unique scheme which embraces both these themes.
The inspiration of the chapel was for a space rising heavenwards lit by clerestories and with seating arrangements which focused around a centrally placed table. Internally and externally construction is of a natural stone (Dunhouse Sandstone) with Welsh slate roof. Green Westmorland slate is incorporated into the floor and tiered seating. In unity with the remainder of the scheme the chapel seeks to emphasise the richness of simple form, line and design together with durable materials.
Internally the chapel is circular with the altar in the centre. The altar is marked out as the principal feature and the point of convergence in the chapel. With clarity, the altar stands in stark simplicity. The space above the altar, its tower shape, may be regarded as an extension upwards to God and the heavens. The difficulty with this circular spatial concept is that it lacks direction. This is resolved by placing a glazed entrance door at one end and a high east window and tabernacle at the other. Thus there is a feeling of movement within the whole design. Light (both natural and electric) is over the most significant space, the altar.
The worship within the community and chapel takes place four times a day. Morning communion is celebrated by the Prior or visiting priest at the central altar. The brothers robe in their habits for this service. Vestments are worn for the celebration of communion. No occasional offices are held in the chapel.
The focus of the chapel and the mainstay of the community’s life is centred on the altar, a symbol of the presence of Christ, the daily feeding and meeting with Him. The altar is at the heart and centre of the worship and the centre and mission of the church. The entire community seated around the altar are seen in relation to it. The community are physically part of the enactment of the Eucharistic drama. The community can both see the altar and hear the spoken or sung words of the mass. In other words the chapel exists to house the community as well as the altar. Both priest and servers function and operate in relation to the brothers they serve, they are not separated from them, they are part of the worshipping community.