Madrid: a modern office block reflects an older church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)
I had long avoided visiting Spain. At first, my excuse was the Franco regime and the lack of human rights. Later, in my own stupid snobbery, I pretended I was being deterred by images and prejudices created by popular package holidays and high-rise beach resorts.
But my interest in Christian-Muslim dialogue should have brought me to Spain many years ago: the Iberian Peninsula was part of the Islamic world for more centuries than Spain has been regarded as a Christian country. The Moors gave Spain a wonderful legacy, including Alhambra, Grenada and Córdoba.
Eventually, Ryanair persuaded me I was wrong, and I spent the May bank holiday weekend in Madrid. I quickly realised the city is one of the architectural capitals of Europe with some of the finest art galleries and museums, including the Prado, with its collections of Goya and Velazquez, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses Picasso’s Guernica, and the Thyssen Bornemisza, with major works by Titian, Goya, Picasso and Rubens.
But Madrid’s history really only begins in the year 852, when the Moors built a fortress near the banks of the Manzanares River. Those Moors had crossed from North Africa in the early eighth century, conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula within a few years, and established an independent emirate based in Córdoba.
In the year 852, as part of his plans to protect the northern approaches to Toledo, Emir Muhammad I built a fortress (alcázar) on the site of the present Royal Palace in Madrid. A small community grew up around this fortress or alcázar with the name Mayrit, which gives us the present name of Madrid.
In time, the resistance to the Muslim Moors grew, and Ramiro II briefly occupied Mayrit in the 932. Eventually, in their drive to capture Toledo, the sleepy outpost of Mayrit was taken by the army of Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085. Despite these upheavals and a failed attempt by the Moors to retake the fortress in 1109, Mayrit remained a sleepy village outpost. Its remote location attracted many monks and new monastic settlements, and Madrid soon had 13 churches – more than enough for its tiny population.
It was not until 1202 that Madrid acquired the status of a town. But it was still dominated by Church interests, and when a dispute arose over hunting rights in the area, a compromise was worked out recognising that the Church owned the soil while the local people, but the local people, the Madrileños, had the rights to hunt everything above the soil.
Those hunting rights soon attracted the ruling Castilian royal families, who made the area their own hunting ground. In 1309, the first royal cortes or parliament was called in Madrid, and in 1339 Alfonso XI held court in Madrid. However, Madrid remained a provincial town, and in 1498 – six years after Columbus reached America and the Inquisition had expelled the Jews from Spain – it was necessary to issue an edict banning pigs from roaming freely through the streets of Madrid.
Spanish unification was completed in 1521, and by then – despite the failure of the Spanish Armada – Spain was unrivalled as a military, naval and political power. But it was forty years before Felipe II moved the capital from Toledo to Madrid in 1561. Within four decades the population of the once remote provincial town had grown from 20,000 to 85,000.
Through all the political changes and upheavals of the centuries that followed, including the Habsburg dynasty, the 14-year War of Spanish Succession, the Napoleonic occupation, coups, revolutions, dictatorships and civil wars, and even a brief period when the capital was removed to Valladolid, Madrid continued to grow and expand, with some of the most beautiful experiments in public, ecclesiastical and domestic architecture.
Apart from Madrid’s new Roman Catholic Cathedral, many of the churches I tried to visit on May Day were closed – including Colegiata de San Isidro, which served as the city’s cathedral for centuries, the Basilica Pontifica de San Miguel, now run by Opus Dei, the parish church of Santa Cruz, next door to the Foreign Ministry, Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, where Goya is buried, and the Anglican Church of Saint George.
Saint George’s is on a quiet corner of Calle de Hermonsilla in the Barrio de Salamanca, a pleasant residential area near the city centre developed as a middle-class suburb by the Marqués de Salamanca in the 1860s. Over a dozen nationalities make up the weekly congregations in Saint George’s, where the chaplain is the Revd Ian Hutchinson Cervantes.
Saint George’s was consecrated in March 1925, but the Book of Common Prayer was first published in Spanish by SPCK in 1839 and there has been an official Anglican presence in Madrid since 1864, when the Revd William Campbell was appointed chaplain to the British Embassy and began holding services in a small room in a private house.
Today, Saint George’s holds three services on Sundays, two mid-week services that provide quiet and reflective moments in the middle of busy lives in this bustling capital, and hosts a number of week-day activities, including self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers, and two mother-and-toddler groups.
Larger premises were soon provided by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and in 1900 the coach house of the old British Embassy was converted into a church. Later on, a generous bequest from Edgar Allen and contributions from the English-speaking community were used to build the present church.
Saint George’s is among Madrid’s listed buildings of historical interest. It was designed by a Spanish architect, Teodoro de Anasagasti, who used elements of the Spanish Romanesque style, including the cruciform plan, semicircular apse, bell tower and tiled root, and the characteristic brick -and- stone style of Spain’s unique “Mudéjar” tradition. He blended these with specifically Anglican forms such as the porch or the chancel with its dossal, and skilfully introduced light into the nave through the children’s chapel under the tower.
The chancel in Saint George’s has remarkable stained-glass windows representing Saint George, patron of England, Saint James the Great, patron of Spain, Saint John, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The windows in the nave portray Saint David of Wales, Saint Andrew of Scotland, Saint Patrick of Ireland and Saint Francis of Assisi. The windows in the north choir depict Saint Cecilia and Saint Antony Abbot, and thee is a window in the porch depicting the Nativity.
The other Anglican presence in Madrid is provided by the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church (Iglesia Española Reformada Episcopal), which traces its apostolic succession and the three-fold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons to the Church of Ireland in the 19th century. The late Archbishop John Gregg, who frequently visited the Reformed Episcopal Churches in Spain and Portugal, once described them as “the adopted children of the Church of Ireland.”
The Spanish Church has full membership of the Anglican Communion and is in full communion with the Old Catholic Church and part of the Porvoo Communion and European Anglican and Scandinavian Lutheran Episcopal Churches.
The Church dates from the 1870s and 1880s, when dissident priests from the Roman Catholic Church, including Juan Bautista Cabrera, wished to reform Spanish Catholicism along Reformation principles but to maintain apostolic succession.
In 1878, the Church of England declined a request from Cabrera to consecrate a bishop for these priests. Two years later, the Episcopal Church in the US sent the newly-consecrated Bishop Henry Chauncey Riley from Mexico to Spain and Portugal to help organise the dissident congregations in both countries, each with synodical government. After the Spanish synod in Seville in 1881, the Bishop of Meath, William Conyngham (Lord Plunket, later Archbishop of Dublin) visited Madrid in 1884 with the Bishop of Down, and expressed an interest in consecrating bishops for the two emerging churches. However, those plans were opposed by the 1888 Lambeth Conference and by Archbishop Edward White Benson of Canterbury, but on 23 September 1894 Cabera was consecrated as the first bishop of the new church by Archbishop Plunket and Bishop Charles Stack of Clogher and Bishop Thomas Welland of Down.
When Bishop Cabrera died in 1916, the Spanish Church was left without a bishop. Eventually, the Church was placed under the episcopal authority of Archbishop Gregg of Dublin, and from 1924 he made regular visits to Spain for confirmations and ordinations, even at the height of the Spanish Civil War.
During the civil war, and then under the Franco regime, the new Church suffered persecution and felt isolated, with churches and schools being closed forcibly. Then in 1954, Archbishop James McCann of Armagh – assisted by the Bishops of Minnesota and Indianapolis – consecrated Santos M. Molina as the second bishop of the Spanish Church.
Since then, the Church has experienced new growth. Many restrictions on the Church were lifted after the death of Franco in 1975. Tthe Church gained legal recognition and full liberty in 1979, and in 1980 it became a full member of the Anglican Communion as an extra-provincial diocese under the care of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Today, the Church sees itself as continuing the tradition of the ancient Hispanic Church, and has its own liturgy, known as the Mozarabic Rite or Visigothic Liturgy. The term Mozarabic describes the Spanish Christians who lived under the Muslim rulers in al-Andalus, and the rite, which dates from the seventh and eighth centuries, is attributed to Saint Isidore of Seville, who played an influential role at the Fourth Council of Toledo in 633.
The Church had one diocese and 20 parishes, served by one bishop, the Right Revd Carlos López-Lozano, and 22 priests, including one woman. The Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church is divided into three administrative areas, each with an archdeacon: Catalonia, Eastern Spain, and the Balearic Islands; Andalusia and the Canary Islands; and Central and Northern Spain. Apart from Madrid, there are parishes in Salamanca, Valencia, Valladolid, Seville, Oviedo, Tarragone, Murcia and Alicante.
The Cathedral of the Redeemer on Calle de la Beneficencia, near the Municipal Museum, was built in 1880 by the architect Enrique Repullés, and its congregation, organised in 1869 by the Revd Antonio Carrasco, is the oldest surviving non-Roman Catholic congregation in Madrid.
As I strolled in the atmospheric streets south of Plaza Mayor on May Day, I noticed many elderly couples proudly wearing lapel pins with the flag of Republican Spain. I thought how they and any others, including members of the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church must have endured decades of suffering and oppression and cruelty under the Franco regime. And I rejoiced in their freedom and in mine.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the June editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine(Cashel and Ossory).
The website of the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church is: http://www.anglicanos.org/