Great St Mary’s has always had to balance its role as a parish church and university space for preaching and debate. For a long time, there was a ‘Doctor’s Gallery’ which meant that some university staff sat on a raised gallery at the east end of the nave, with their backs to the altar. This was not universally popular, as you can see from this 1860 pamphlet written by Henry Luard, vicar of Great St Mary’s, debating the layout of the church:
“…though it requires only care in the management of the voice for the clergyman to make himself heard from the Communion Table, it yet would be very trying for a person of weak lungs ; and the sight presented to one officiating there of the back of the Doctors’ gallery in all its hideous deformity, while he catches faint glimpses of the congregation through the arches, is as dismal and disheartening as can well be imagined.
We have heard of some persons objecting to rood-screens, as in a slight extent depriving the congregation of a full view of the chancel and the services performed there ; what then must we not think of the whole being blocked up by a gallery, which, as far as the congregation is concerned, is absolutely useless, and which must convey to a careless observer the ideas of selfishness and luxury?”
– Remarks on the present condition and proposed restoration of the church of Great St. Mary’s, H.R. Luard, 1860
This was a hot topic at the time, and the “hideous deformity” that was the Doctors’ Gallery had its supporters, including William Whewell, Master of Trinity. Commenting on those who thought it was disrespectful for the academics to turn their backs on the altar, Whewell scornfully commented:
“the notion that their looking westwards rather than eastwards involves any irreverence, appears to me not only fanciful and puerile, but superstitious”
– On the proposed alterations in Great St Mary’s Church , W. Whewell, 1860