Monday, 13 April 2009

Dublin’s oldest north-side church

Saint Michan’s Church, Church Street, Dublin (Photograph: Bernd Biege,

Patrick Comerford

I celebrated the Easter Eucharist on Sunday morning (12 April 2009) with the small, inner city congregation of Saint Michan’s on Church Street, Dublin. This church is tucked away behind the courts and the fruit and vegetable market, and is the oldest parish church on Dublin’s north side.

This is a living inner city church, with a faithful congregation and a fascinating history, and interesting literary and artistic connections.

Saint Michan’s – the first church built on the north side of Dublin – was first built in 1095 and was dedicated to a Danish saint.

The church was rebuilt in 1686, using the foundations of the old Viking church, and much of the interior dates from the period immediately after this rebuilding.

The baptismal font dates from about 1700, and those who were baptised here include the statesman Edmund Burke.

The pulpit, which is now at the back of the church, and which I did not preach from on Easter morning, was commissioned in 1724. About the same time, the organ – which was played on Easter morning – was built between 1723 and 1725 by Jean-Baptiste Cuvillié. The organ trophy, a wood caring depicting 17 musical instruments, was carved by Henry or John Houghton, and is dated 1724. Local lore says that that Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759) practised on this organ for his first performance of his Messiah in the Temple Bar area of Dublin in 1742.

Appropriately, our final, Post-Communion Hymn on this organ on Sunday morning was Thine be the glory, using a tune adapted from a chorus in Händel’s Judas Maccabaeus, written in 1746.

The church also has a penitent’s desk dating from 1724 – used for public confessions by those accused of bad behaviour. This was not used on Sunday morning.

At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Saint Michan’s appears to have been a hub of revolutionary activity. The parishioners at the time included the brothers Henry and John Sheares, two leaders of the United Irishmen in Dublin in 1798 who were executed for their part in the revolution. Robert Emmet, who was executed five years later for his part in the 1803 Revolution, is said to be buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard.

When the church was renovated in 1825, much of the 17th century building was preserved. However, the altar I celebrated is only 100 years old, dating from 1909. The altar frontal is the original altar front from the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. It was removed from the Chapel Royal in 1922, and was later rescued from a market stall in the Liberties, restored and presented to Saint Michan’s.

Saint Michan’s is best known to schoolchildren and tourists for the mummies in the five long burial vaults underneath the church. The bodies there have barely decomposed because of the dry atmosphere created by the church’s limestone walls, leaving the preserved bodies, complete with skin and strands of hair. The bodies are said to include a 400-year-old nun, a crusader and the Sheares brothers. There is a body with its hands and feet mysteriously severed. Some of the Earls of Kenmare and the notorious Earl of Leitrim are also buried here.

Bram Stoker is reputed to have visited the vaults, where some family members were buried, and to have started developing some of his ideas for Dracula. In more recent years, Saint Michan’s mummies featured on the National Geographic television series, The Mummy Roadshow (2003).

Two events in Dublin next Thursday evening (16 April) are linked to the artistic and literary life associated with Saint Michan’s. The Dublin Händel Festival, from today (13 April) until next Sunday (19 April), marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Händel. The programme includes a special performance of Händel’s Messiah by Christ Church Cathedral Choir and the Orchestra of St Cecilia in Christ Church Cathedral, directed by Judy Martin, on 16 April.

Meanwhile, in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, there will be an atmospheric evening of readings from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and music with Bill Golding, Laurence Foster, Crux Ensemble and visiting organist Simon Weale – that event is hosted jointly with Dublin City Council as part of the Dublin: One city, one book programme.

Today, Saint Michan’s is part of the Christ Church Cathedral group of parishes, with the Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, as incumbent, and the Archdeacon, the Ven David Pierpoint, as vicar. Church services are held at 10 a.m. on the second and fourth Sunday of each month, and the churchy is open to visitors this summer from Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 12.45, and from 2 p.m. to 4.30 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 12.45 p.m.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

‘Liturgy after the Liturgy’: liturgy as mission

Patrick Comerford at the U2Charist in Saint George and Saint Thomas Church in Dublin ... exploring the mission dimension to the Liturgy

Patrick Comerford

At the best of business meetings, and even the best of vestry meetings, good chairing will see that before the meeting concludes a summary of the meeting is presented, with a summing up of the decisions and the undertakings agreed by all.

If the Sunday Liturgy can be seen as the principal meeting of the Church, then that summary of decisions and undertakings is provided in the Book of Common Prayer at Holy Communion Two, before the dismissal, with the prayer: “Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory” (page 221). This commission for mission is less explicit, but nevertheless is to be found in Holy Communion One in the second prayer after the Lord’s Prayer, asking that we may “do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in …”

We are sent out after every Sunday Eucharist in mission, to be authentic witnesses to Christ and his kingdom in the world. But the commission to mission at the end of the liturgy is not merely an extra dimension coming after all has been said and done: the whole action of the Eucharist is missionary, and the event of the liturgy is a mission event itself, in which the Church is formed as a missionary community and is end out to engage in mission, in what the Eastern Orthodox Church calls “the liturgy after the Liturgy.”

As the new Book of Common Prayer was introduced in parishes and dioceses throughout the Church of Ireland in 2004, I was worried that there was a risk that in some places the emphasis would be on getting words and actions right, forgetting those words and actions are expected to follow them in the “liturgy after the Liturgy.”

The Eucharist is not just a remembrance of things past but is also a foretaste of the heavenly banquet: “We look for the coming of his kingdom” (page 210), “we look for his coming to fulfil all things according to your will” (page 215), and we ask to brought “with all your people into the joy of the eternal kingdom” (page 215). The invitation to the banquet is constantly voiced and addressed not only to the members of the Church, but non-Christians and strangers too, in an invitation that is missionary in intention and scope.

The Romanian Orthodox theologian, Professor Ion Bria, had pointed out that there is a double movement in the Liturgy: on the one hand the people of God remember the saving acts of Christ “until he comes again”; and on the other, the Eucharist is a symbol of and realised the process by which the cosmos, the whole of creation, is becoming ekklesia, the Church. The liturgy is both an invitation to the world into the Lord’s House and to seek the Kingdom to come. Because the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, and because missionary activities provide symbols of our hope for the Kingdom of God, then it is only natural that we should have a proper theology of liturgy as mission.

As Greek Orthodox theologians insist, the Liturgy is not an escape from life. It is a continual reorientation and openness to efforts aimed at challenging structures of injustice, exploitation, agony, loneliness, and at creating real communion of persons in love. And so, when we go out, “the liturgy has to be continued in personal everyday situations,” Bishop Anastasios Yannoulatos told an Orthodox consultation on the liturgical life of the Church back in the mid 1970s. “Each of the faithful is called to continue a personal ‘liturgy’ on the secret altar of his own heart, to realise a living proclamation of the good news ‘for the sake of the whole world’. Without this continuation the Liturgy remains incomplete.”

Personal everyday life becomes liturgical, and that liturgical everyday life becomes missionary when it is empowered by the liturgy, draws power from participation in the Eucharist.

There is a danger, at times, of thinking that the Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist is very limited. But there is a vitality in many Orthodox circles that enables them to see the intimate link between liturgy and mission, and these insights have shaped the seven principles underpinning the Orthodox approach to mission.

Firstly, mission is about community. Mission is not just about the proclamation of truth, or a calling of individuals, it is about the building of a community of faith that lives the truth of the Gospel. And so, the local church is the primary focus of mission.

It follows, secondly, that worship is the beginning of mission. As Ion Bria has said, worship constitutes the permanent missionary impulse and determines the evangelistic witness of every Christian. The mission of the Church rests upon the radical and transforming power of the Liturgy. As the glory of God is revealed in corporate worship, so those who are inside are sent out in mission and those who are outside are drawn in by the revelation of the glory of God. If our worship is not attracting the attention of those who do not know God, then it fails to please God.

Thirdly, mission and unity belong together. God is one, and for churches to be engaging in mission apart from each other is a denial of the Gospel of reconciliation in Christ that they seek to proclaim.

Fourthly, mission is based on the love of God. We reach out to each other because God first loved us. The key mission text in Orthodox theology is not Matthew 28: 19 but John 3: 16: “God so loved the world …” Love is the superior motivation, higher even than obedience to the commands of Jesus.

The goal of mission is life, so, fifthly, the Orthodox doctrine of theosis teaches that the believer can experience life to its fullest potential, even participating in the inner life of the Godhead. In this thinking, John 10: 10 provides the missionary objective “that they may have life in all its fullness.”

Sixthly, there is a cosmic dimension to mission as there is to liturgy. Saint Paul’s teaching that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5: 19) provides the cosmic dimension for mission. Our turning to God, to find in him our peace and fulfilment, is but a very small part of a universal movement initiated by Christ on the cross.

And lastly, mission must be holistic mission. Saint John Chrysostom, who shaped the order of the eucharistic Liturgy ordinarily celebrated by the Orthodox, speaks of the “sacrament of the brother”. For him, there is a basic coincidence between faith, worship, life and service. Therefore, the worship at the Holy Table is complemented not at the dismissal but in the offering on the “second altar”, the altar of our neighbour’s heart.

These Orthodox insights into mission and liturgy teach us that mission begins in worship, that it continues in the proclamation of the Gospel, and that it is completed in the service we offer to others. As Ion Bria has argued, in the Liturgy after the Liturgy the Church witnesses to the comic dimension of the event of salvation, and puts into practice – daily and existentially – its missionary vocation. Hopefully, the Book of Common Prayer helps each of us in putting that missionary vocation into practice.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This is an edited version of a paper that was first published in the Church of Ireland Gazette after the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 2004.