Big Churches in Little Europe: St Mungo's, Glasgow

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A collage of cathedrals from around Europe.

St Mungo’s, Glasgow

The Glaswegians have done much to preserve their Cathedral. During the reformation many of their historic churches underwent involuntary refurbishment. In Glasgow the city's entire compliment of master tradesmen turned out and protected their cathedral against its reconstruction. What they preserved is a delight.

Unlike Paris (or London) Glasgow's centre has moved around over the years and the city's cathedral is now quite a way out of the centre. It is only a ten minute walk but you do need to go and find it.

The building itself is quite small but it is beautifully proportioned. The amount of detail in the construction completely disguises how small it is (my guess is that the main part of the building would seat just about 500). It is a proper medieval building with all of the little stonework jokes that the stone masons inevitably added to buildings like this: little frogs in unexpected places, "green men" with flowers and vines sprouting out of their mouths and so on.

As you go to the front (this isn't a church swamped with visitors, you may even be the only ones) there is an ancient wall that separates the front and the back. At various times it has been bigger and smaller. It originally provided the western wall to the church within a church needed by the monks who used the choir space for their six services a day, while the rest of the church was used for other things. During the reformation, the post-reformed had one half of the church and the pre-reformed had the other and the wall was extended to the roof and used to keep them apart. Now many services are held in the front part of the church (which is a fair proportion of the space) or in the back part, depending on the type of service.

The wall also has two sets of grand stairs leading either side down into the under-church. It was built as a crypt but now it hosts the most delightful space, beautifully decorated with love, containing the mortal remains of Glasgow's patron saint Mungo. It is a fundamental fact of religion that the way people live it bears little relation to formal church policy. I am fairly sure that the official Scottish Reformed rules do not contain provisions for the veneration of dead saints by candles, embroidery and flowers. However, the patron saints of old, major cities like Glasgow do not belong to the clergy and never have. They belong to the people of their city (as do their cathedrals) and those people will do as they damn well please which is often what their parents did before them.

Much of the window glass is German from the same period of the Arts and Crafts period in the UK and France. Unfortunately it was done on the cheap and is fading. It took forever for the city, parishioners and cathedral authorities to decide to get it. Now they are trying to preserve it. It may be only a short amount of time before it goes into a museum and is replaced.

Church services are pure Scot's Reformed done in a good way but, I will admit, not really to my taste and perhaps a bit out of touch with the pre-reformation character of the building and decorations. I am not a Scot nor terribly reformed so I will leave commenting on the service quality to those who are expert. If you wanted to find a clerical reverend for prayer, assistance or advice I am sure you could ask one of the volunteer staff wandering about and it would be organised quickly and with minimal fuss.

Next door is the St Mungo's Museum of Contemporary Religion which is a wonderful example of its type. It is not particularly centred on Christianity and even includes a nice example of Australian pre-colonial religious art (the painting itself is post colonial) which I didn't expect to see. The second floor of the exhibition is a bit of a dud but it isn't expensive and worth the trip. You can also leave your bags there. The cafe looked to be well priced.

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