Friday, 14 August 2009

‘Lewd preaching and misdemeanour’

The Cathedral Close in Lichfield ... I stayed in No 8 while I was on my own retreat this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I spent a few days this week back in Lichfield on my own personal retreat and pilgrimage. The cathedral city has always been a favourite place of mine for a few days of quiet and prayer, and I needed this more than ever this week after my diagnosis of sarcoidosis. I was in search of time to think, to pray, to reflect and to give thanks to God for the health I have and the blessings I have in life.

I stayed in No 8 in the Cathedral Close, in a house opposite the main west door of Lichfield Cathedral, and I found it comforting during the night to hear the cathedral bells chiming out the quarter hours and counting out the hours.

John Piper’s window in Saint John’s, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Each morning, I was present in the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in the Hospital of Saint John without the Barrs, followed by the Eucharist, and the Master of Saint John’s, Canon Roger Williams, invited me to preach at the Eucharist on Wednesday morning, when the Church Calendar commemorated the saintly bishop and Caroline Divine, Jeremy Taylor, who died in 1667.

Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the evening, I was back in Lichfield Cathedral for Evening Prayer. With the choir on holidays, Evening Prayer was said most evenings this week. The Choir of Saint Andrew’s, Fulham Fields, London, sang Evensong yesterday [Thursday 13 August], but I was back in Dublin by then.

Visiting Lichfield Cathedral, I enjoy being reminded that there was another canon in the family story who sacked after being accused by one of his neighbours of “lewd preaching and misdemeanour.” After his trial, Canon Henry Comberford was described by a bishop as being “learned, but wilful.”

But Henry’s “lewd preaching and misdemeanour” was not the sort that would have excited tabloid journalists today … the polemical language deployed against him in the mid-16th century simply meant that Henry was too much of an Anglo-Catholic for his day.

Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586) came from Comberford, half-way between Lichfield and Tamworth. Along with his brothers Humphrey – one of the last Masters of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John in Lichfield, and Richard – a Staffordshire judge, Henry Comberford was educated at Cambridge, where he graduated BA (1533), MA (1536) and BD (1545), and went on to become became a Fellow of Saint John’s College and a Proctor of Cambridge University.

Like many of his contemporary clerics, Henry became a careerist and a pluralist. At one and the same time he was Rector of Saint Mary’s, Polstead, near Colchester, Suffolk (1539), Rector of All Saints’, Earsham, near Bunbay, Norfolk (1553), Rector of All Saints’, Hethell, near Norwich (1554-1559), Rector of Norbury, Derbyshire, in the Diocese of Lichfield (1558), and Rector of Yelvertoft, Northamptonshire, in the Diocese of Peterborough (to 1560).

The Precentor’s House in the Cathedral Close, Lichfield (Photograph, Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In 1555, he was appointed Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral. With that appointment, he also became Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington and the first residentiary canon of the cathedral. Like the other residentiary canons, he was also a Justice of the Peace for the Cathedral Close.

Henry accumulated most of his appointments during the reign of Mary (1553-1557), but when she died in November 1558 and her half-sister Elizabeth became queen, Henry appears to have been willing initially to accept the Elizabethan Anglican settlement, and his name appears on the coronation pardon roll of 15 January 1559.

However, it was only a matter of weeks if not days before Henry Comberford was in trouble for his true religious sympathies. In February 1559, the two bailiffs of Lichfield City, Edward Bardell, a pewterer, and John Dyott, a civilian and proctor, accused him of “lewd preaching and misdemeanour.” John Dyott is referred to in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, Act 3, Scene 2, in the dialogue between Shallow and Silence.

Henry was summoned before the Privy Council on 27 February. He was deprived of all his benefices because of his extreme Catholicism, and he was held in prison until April.

Four months later, in June 1559, Ralph Baynes was deprived as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. At the same time, the Dean of Lichfield, John Ramridge, was sent to the Tower – when he was released on bail, the dean made good his escape to Flanders, where he was later murdered.

In addition, the Chancellor of Lichfield, Alban Longdale, was deprived, the Treasurer, George Lee, resigned, and many of the prebendaries and cathedral clergy were deprived or forced to resign between 1559 and 1564.

In a report on the recusants of Staffordshire in 1562 by the Bishop of London, Edward Grindall, Henry Comberford is described as “learned, but wilful.”

In 1560, Henry was deprived of the parish of Yelvertoft. Then, after three years of protracted actions, he was sacked as the Precentor of Lichfield and Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington in 1562. He was succeeded as Precentor by Edward Leds or Leedes.

Later, Henry was ordered to live in Suffolk. But he may not have been as extreme in his Catholic views as his detractors claimed, for he was given the liberty to travel twice every year into Staffordshire, allowing six weeks on each occasion. Nevertheless, in 1570 – the year his old protagonist Grindal became Archbishop of York – Comberford was before the Yorkshire ecclesiastical commissioners for defending the Mass.

By 1579, Humphrey Comberford was a prisoner in Hull for his religious beliefs, which were regarded as dangerous to the state. It is hard to imagine how dangerous a man he could have been, for by then he was 80 years of age. Grindal was an argumentative and difficult prelate, with Puritan sympathies – even falling out of favour with Elizabeth – and by then had become Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry Comberford died on 4 March 1586 in Hull Prison at the age of 87.

The Precentor’s stall in the chapter of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a cathedral chapter, the Precentor’s particular responsibility is the choral and liturgical musical life of the cathedral. As Precentor, I like to imagine Henry Comberford would have paid particular attention to Sung Eucharist and Choral Evensong which remains a lively part of the tradition in Lichfield Cathedral. As a Cambridge graduate, he might also have relished the fact that the Alumni Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, arrives in the cathedral at the end of next week – even though Sidney Sussex was founded ten years after his death and was originally a Puritan foundation.

I was back to see my consultant again yesterday for the results of more hospital tests and to discuss how I can cope with Sarcoidosis over the next few months. Of course I can live with it. I know what it is. I now understand what has been happening to me over the past year or more. These past few days of prayer, quiet, stillness and reflection in Lichfield have been very helpful. There is so much to keep thanking God for.

And, while I may have Sarcoidosis, Sarcoidosis will never have me.

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