07 May 2007

My pilgrimage to a mediaeval hospital in the ‘city of philosophers’

Saint John’s, John Street, Lichfield

Patrick Comerford

The China Forum of CTBI (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland) met recently in Birmingham. Bourneville and Selly Oak are pleasant, leafy suburbs that owe their planning and prosperity to the Cadbury family and the wealth of the chocolate industry. Although few people think of visiting Birmingham as tourists, the city has many associations with JR Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings cycle, and in between the motorway junctions, high-rise shopping centres and office blocks, Saint Martin’s in the Bull Ring is a spiritual oasis.

The China Forum met at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre that was once the home of the Cadbury family, and Gandhi was their guest there in 1931. After the forum, I took the train from Selly Oak to Lichfield, a small, charming cathedral city north of Birmingham. I last stayed there over 35 years ago, and my return was both a quiet personal retreat and a pilgrimage of thanks.

I first visited Lichfield as an 18-year-old in 1970, researching supposed family connections with the area. The Comberford family from the nearby village of Comberford gave its name to the Comberford Chapel in the North Transept of Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth. In the 15th century, John Comberford left a bequest to the Franciscan Friary in John Street, Lichfield. In the 16th century, Canon Henry Comberford was dismissed as Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral when the bailiffs accused him of “lewd preaching and misdemeanour.” In the 17th century, Colonel William Comberford took part in the first of three sieges of Lichfield at the height of the English Civil War. And in the 18th century, Joseph Comerford of Clonmel erected a plaque in the Comberford Chapel, claiming kinship between the Comerford family in Ireland and the Comberford family of Lichfield and Tamworth.

A light-filled evening

Over a period of three or four years in the early 1970s, I was a regular visitor to Lichfield, staying in Birmingham Road, just 10 minutes walk from the city centre. My first articles as a freelance journalist were published in three local newspapers, the Lichfield Mercury, the Tamworth Herald and the Rugeley Mercury. Early one summer afternoon in 1971, having spent a few days at Wilderhope Manor in Shropshire, I was back in Lichfield for the weekend. By then, I was thinking of moving to Lichfield and working there. That evening, by chance or by accident, as I strolled into the centre, I found myself outside Saint John’s Hospital, on the corner of Birmingham Road and Saint John’s Street.

Despite its name, Saint John’s is a mediaeval almshouse, not a medical centre. Its tall Elizabethan chimney stacks are one of the best-loved landmarks in Lichfield. Behind them, a courtyard leads to the almshouse and Saint John’s Chapel. My curious mind led me in, I lifted the latch on the church door, and little did I realise what would happen and how my life would change for ever.

At 19, I had little interest in religious matters, and I was entering Saint John’s with an inquisitive mind, out of historical and architectural interest. Inside, the church at first appeared quaint and dark. But as I sat down, I felt slightly uneasy. Then, for the first time in my life, I felt surrounded and filled by the light and love of God. It is a feeling that has remained constant and that has stayed with me since every day of my life.

How could I respond to this new, warm and glowing sensation? This was unlike any previous emotion or sensation. I stood at the eagle lectern and turned the pages of the open Bible. If I decided to do nothing, I would still know for the rest of my life that God loves me, and that the light of God is there to light up my whole being and existence.

A lifestyle challenge

I headed out and down Saint John’s Street, up Beacon Street and into Saint Chad’s Cathedral. There I slipped into the chapter stalls, in time for choral evensong. Never before had public worship or a church service been so meaningful. I was slightly disconcerted when a residentiary canon asked whether I had come to evensong because I was considering ordination. I had no idea of what he was suggesting, and no idea of what the future held for me.

In the weeks and months that followed, I had to think about responding to this new, life-changing experience. I continued to write for the Lichfield Mercury and the other local newspapers, and also wrote for the Kilkenny People. But within a year I had found a full-time job with the Wexford People. My lifestyle and my values were changing gradually. During that process, I was impressed by the actions of the Anglican Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, as he resisted apartheid and gave sanctuary and refuge to the victims of police brutality.

Over the years, my response to that first experience of Christ in my life in Saint John’s was one of adventurous discipleship. I became a vegetarian and a pacifist by choice, and my political values were challenged radically. I became involved in campaigns and causes, including Amnesty International, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Christian Aid. For some years I was an active Quaker. But active discipleship also needs reflection. I returned to third-level education, studied theology, and eventually – after a long and interesting pilgrimage – found myself back within Anglicanism and considering ordination.

Return to Lichfield

It is almost 36 years since that beautiful, sunny, light-filled afternoon. Eventually I stopped writing for the Lichfield Mercury and later lost contact with the friends I had in the area in my late teens and early 20s. Now, at last, it was time to write for the first time about that first real experience of God coming into my life. And so, for the first time after 33 or 34 years, I returned to Lichfield this year, not to renew old contacts, but on a pilgrimage and for a retreat.

Stepping into Saint John’s once again for the first time in over three decades, the small pews, the tiled floor, and the warm feeling were still there. I sat down and prayed, and humbly thanked God for a life that has since been filled with love and light, and blessed with many opportunities. Yes, some things had changed. There was no Bible on the Eagle Lectern, and the East Window was aglow with a new stained glass window designed by John Piper, “The Christ in Glory.”

After that, it was only natural to return to Saint Chad’s Cathedral. I was sad to hear that on Wednesdays there is normally no Choral Evensong in the cathedral. But this week was exceptional … there was a visiting choir from Abbot’s Bromley School for Girls. Once again I slipped into the chapter stalls, and was fed spiritually by one of the riches we should treasure in Anglican liturgical tradition. I returned again to Saint John’s that evening for Compline and a Lenten talk, and in the morning for the Eucharist, celebrated by the Master of Saint John’s, the Revd Canon Roger Williams.

Lichfield traces its history back to the Romans. When they left in the fifth century, a Celtic settlement may have continued in the area. In 669, Saint Chad moved his bishopric to Lichfield. His first church probably stood on the site of the present cathedral. Although Chad was only bishop for three years, he converted many, and after his death his shrine attracted pilgrims in great numbers.

In the 12th century, Bishop Roger de Clinton rebuilt the Saxon cathedral and laid out ladder-shaped street pattern that survives to this day. Under Queen Mary’s charter, Lichfield became a county in its own right in 1533. The cathedral suffered badly during the English Civil War, and the central spire collapsed under bombardment from Parliamentarian forces in 1646. Bishop John Hacket began rebuilding the cathedral and the close in 1662. The city prospered again and became a thriving coaching city on the main route from London to the north-west of England and Ireland. By the 18th century, Daniel Defoe described Lichfield as the best town for “good conversation and good company.” By then, Lichfield was a centre of great intellectual activity and home to Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward.

Johnson said Lichfield was “a city of philosophers” and in 1776, he took Boswell there to show him “genuine civilised life in an English provincial town.” Lichfield retains its civilised life, with many charming buildings, including the house where Johnson was born, and the Cathedral Close. The three spires of Saint Chad’s Cathedral, known affectionately as “the Ladies of the Vale,” are unique among mediaeval cathedrals. The octagonal Chapter House, dating from 1249, has an unusual medieval pedilavium, where feet were washed on Maundy Thursday, and houses the eighth-century illuminated Lichfield Gospels.

In the early 19th century, the cathedral acquired two other treasures: Sir Brooke Boothby bought the magnificent Flemish stained glass from Herckenrode Abbey which was placed in the windows of the Lady Chapel; and Francis Chantrey sculpted “The Sleeping Children,” a monument to two young sisters who died in 1812.

Saving a priory

The story of Saint John’s Hospital begins in 1129 when Roger de Clinton became Bishop of Lichfield. He rebuilt the cathedral and built a defensive ditch and gates, or barrs, around the southern part of the city. Pilgrims to the shrine of Saint Chad who arrived at the city gates after the curfew were not allowed to enter and had no place to shelter. The bishop built a priory outside Culstubbe Gate, completed in 1135. Augustinian canons were installed to provide hospitality for pilgrims, and so began the “Hospital of Saint John Baptist Without the Barrs of the City of Lichfield.”

By 1458, Saint John’s no longer had a prior, and was a benefice held by ordinary diocesan priests. In 1495, Bishop William Smith re-founded Saint John’s as a hospital for aged men and as a free grammar school. At the dissolution of the monasteries, Bishop Smith’s wise changes saved, Saint John’s, which remained untouched, unlike the neighbouring Friary.

Since the Tractarian revival, Saint John’s Chapel has stood within the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism. Recent improvements include new flats, a common room, and the completion of the quadrangle. John Piper’s stunning East Window was installed in 1984.

This ancient chapel, with its daily and weekly round of services, attracts a regular and substantial congregation of both residents and visitors. Returning to Lichfield for my own quiet retreat and to Saint John’s for my pilgrimage was an opportunity to thank God for a life-changing moment that has left me ever since with that constant feeling of his love and light.

Revd Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Theological College. This article first appeared in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough, May 2007) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in May 2007

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