30 September 2013

Liturgy (2013) 2:2, The theology of space and the use of church buildings

A procession moves freely into Philadelphia Cathedral, which was re-ordered in recent decades by Dean Richard Giles

Patrick Comerford

EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Thursdays, Hartin Room:

3.00 p.m., 30 September 2013

Liturgy 2.2:
The use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church (Seminar, based on readings from Richard Giles, Re-pitching the tent, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 2004).

Chapter 8: pp 53-58.

Chapter 14: pp 103-108.

Introduction to the readings:

The Church of the Savior was built in 1898

The Diocese of Pennsylvania was established 1784, making it the second oldest Episcopal diocese in the United States and in the Episcopal Church (TEC). However, Philadelphia has one of the newest Episcopal cathedrals in the US. The Church of the Savior was first built in 1898 to a design in the Italianate style by Charles W. Burns, and was rebuilt in 1906 after a disastrous fire.

Its crowded and ornate interior – typical of the period – survived until the 1990s, when the rigidity of its layout was recognised as a severe handicap in the building’s new role as a cathedral. During this time, the number of pews was steadily reduced to create more space.

In 1992, the Diocese of Pennsylvania designated the church as its cathedral and set about reordering the ornate Italianate interior to reflect the life and theology of the people of the diocese today.

Dean Richard Giles blesses a young worshipper

In 1999, the Very Revd Richard Giles, an Anglican priest from the Church of England with a background in town planning, and the author of Re-pitching the Tent: Re-ordering the Church Building for Mission and Worship, was appointed Dean of the Cathedral, with a mandate to completely rethink the liturgical space.

Working with the architect George Yu, Dean Giles completed a comprehensive renovation of the cathedral’s interior in 2002. The original building by Burns was a basilica in shape, though not in internal layout, and the renovation sought to remedy this. The basilica was the first form of Christian church building, adapted from the public assembly hall of the Roman Empire. The cathedral interior now replicates the layout of a place of Christian worship in the 4th century. An Orthodox visitor described the space using a phrase from the Orthodox Rite of Burial; “homeland of my heart’s desire.”

Richard Giles’s vision for re-ordering churches, influenced by the Cistercians, favours a clean, austere space with architecturally strong lines. Furniture is spare and movable to allow for various seating configurations.

Much thought is given to light, both the natural light available through clear windows and illumination for evening use. In contrast to Saint Gregory’s abundant, almost riotous, variety in texture, colour, and iconography, which speaks powerfully of the rich diversity of God’s creation, Richard Giles worked to achieve a single focus – one crucifix, one icon.

This focus is in keeping with his insistence on one table, one ambo or reading desk, one baptismal font, and one cathedra, or bishop’s chair.

He created a space that comes most fully to life only with the addition of the real church: the gathered assembly.

Layout and Design

Each component in the renovated cathedral teaches us about who we are and where we have come from in our Christian journey. The space articulates with clarity the basic elements of Christian liturgy, giving prominence to the four basic elements – initiation, word, sacred meal, and episcopal presidency. Each of these is expressed by a single item of liturgical furniture, without duplication.

The Font

The baptistery is given special prominence, as a sign of our common baptismal covenant. The cathedral is essentially an assembly hall for the baptised. The font incorporates the old font from the former Church of the Savior together with a new pool to allow baptism by immersion (rather than submersion), water flowing continually between them. In this way the fusion of the old and new, past and future, is symbolised.

Around the edge are inscribed words from Revelation 22: 3: “The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the lamb, through the middle of the street of the city.” The font is a gift from the people of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), partners with the Episcopal Church since 2001 in the Call for Common Mission.

The Ambo

The ambo is the place from which God’s word in the sacred scriptures is proclaimed. In the first Christian buildings, the ambo served as both the lectern and the pulpit, the functions of which became separated in a later era. The design is based on the bema or reading desk of the synagogue, at which Jesus himself would have read the Scriptures (Luke 4: 16-17).

The ambo, like the altar-table, is set in the midst of the assembly. In this way it is a reminder that the people of God are fed at the two central tables – Word and Sacrament. The ambo is set on the central axis at the west end of the nave, facing east, as it would have been placed in the Christian basilicas in the early centuries. The ambo is inscribed in Hebrew with words from Psalm 16: 8: “I am ever aware of the presence of the Eternal.”

The Altar

The entire congregation gathers around the altar-table during the Eucharistic prayer

The altar-table is the central liturgical focus in Christian worship, for it is symbolically both a place of sacrifice (where we recall the sacrifice of Christ and offer ourselves sacrificially to God), and a place of communion (where we gather to celebrate the presence of the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread).

It is square in shape, symbolising the centring of the community, and indicative of the equal access to God’s table enjoyed by all members of the household of faithful. It is set in the midst of the assembly of faith, not set apart at the east end, to symbolise the rediscovery of the Eucharist as a participatory sacred meal, instead of a distant ritual celebrated exclusively by the ordained.

The Sanctuary, Philadelphia Cathedral

It is neither fenced off by rails, nor distanced from the worshipers by steps, for it belongs to the whole people of God. It is movable, reminding us that we are a pilgrim people like our spiritual forebears the Jews who carried the ark with them, and to allow for many different configurations in the same place.

The Cathedra

Drawing on ancient tradition, the cathedra, the seat of the Bishop of Pennsylvania is not a separate chair, but set in the midst of a presbyterium or synthronos, the semi-circular stone bench on which the bishop was seated among his priests and deacons), symbolic of shared oversight. This was its place in the first Christian buildings of the fourth century.

The bishop’s cathedra dominates the layout of the space, but with simple dignity rather than with ostentation.


Our excerpts for study this afternoon are from Richard Giles’s book, Re-pitching the Tent.

Richard Giles retired as Dean of Philadelphia in 2008. On his return to England, he became a Visiting Fellow of Saint John’s College, Durham. He continues to work as a consultant in liturgical design, and lives in Tynemouth. His work and his books remain influential in understanding the use of church buildings and liturgical space.

His particular expertise in the design of liturgical space bore fruit in the publication of Re-Pitching the Tent, now in its third edition, Creating Uncommon Worship (2004) and Times and Seasons (2008). His other works include Mark My Word, daily meditations on Saint Mark’s Gospel, How to be an Anglican, a light-hearted introduction to Anglican belief and practice, and Here I Am, reflections on the ordained life, all published by Canterbury Press.

In Re-Pitching the Tent, Richard Giles says that when it comes to the environment of worship, we should never underestimate the influence of our building upon the way we think about God, about each other, and about the relative importance of the activity we have come together to engage in. Our buildings need to speak clearly to us of what we are about as the people of God.

Throughout Christian history, every fresh insight into the nature and love of God, every reform or revival, has been worked out in bricks and mortar as well as in tracts and texts.

The re-ordering of the church building can be the catalyst by which a parish community is recalled to the pilgrim path, to the adventure of going with Jesus into the unknown, to essential Christianity. … Like the house-churches of the early centuries, our buildings should provide us houses which can become homes for the Christian assembly, showing us how to be fully human in order that we may become more fully church.

At the heart of Christian worship lies the mystery of the transformation of the people of God themselves into temples of the Holy Spirit, and the task of transferring this truth to the drawing board is not an easy one.

The people who stay outside our buildings vastly outnumber those who venture inside. … For those outside, our ecclesiastical world remains alien territory requiring considerable effort and courage to penetrate. Our task as Christians with a welcome to give and a story to tell is to remove one by one every obstacle which might just conceivably deter anyone from taking a closer look at who we are and what we are doing.

We are above all designing for mystery, for something beyond that which we can contrive or control.

Movement both recalls us to our nomadic roots as God’s journeying people and helps us in a practical way to involve all those present at worship to participate in the liturgical action. … Movement is the hallmark of a community which knows it has not arrived, but is in transit, discovering God not at the end of the journey but in the journeying. We move because we must.

We are beings-in-relationship rather than creatures in ourselves, and our buildings should demonstrate the corporate nature of our worship.

Next week:

Liturgy 3.1:
Creation, Trinity and theologies of worship and prayer.

Liturgy 3.2: Traditions of prayer (1): seminar with readings on Benedictine and Franciscan prayer.

Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998), pp 31-52.

Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (2nd edition, New York: Cross Road, 2010): Chapter 16, ‘The Celebration of the Divine Office During the Day’ (pp 119-121); Chapter 20, ‘Reverence in Prayer’ (pp 132-133).

Brother Ramon, Franciscan Spirituality, Following Saint Francis Today (London: SPCK, 1994), pp 111-125.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a lecture on the MTh module, EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality, on 30 September 2013.

Liturgy (2013) 2:1, The theology of space

How we arrange and use liturgical space shapes our priorities in liturgy and public worship (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Mondays, Hartin Room:

Liturgy 2.1: 30 September 2013

Liturgy 2.1:
The theology of space, and its implications for church buildings.

Liturgy 2.2: The use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church (Seminar, based on readings from Richard Giles, Re-pitching the tent, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 2004).

2.1: The theology of space and its implications for church buildings:


Last week, we looked at the origins of liturgy, looked briefly at the meaning of ‘signs’, ‘icons’ and ‘indexes’, and looked for liturgical or ritual expressions in various secular spheres, including theatre, cinema, sport and civic life and in domestic life too. This week, I want us to look particularly at space and its role in the liturgy: liturgical space as liturgical icon and liturgical sign.

But first of all, I want us to be aware of two problems as we think of some of these issues.

Identifying problem areas with liturgical space and sign:

1, Since the European Reformations, there has been a commitment to the language of the people and moves towards a commitment to ordinariness in language.

If we reduce worship to language, there is a danger of reductionism when it comes to signs and understanding, for example, when it comes to symbols, icons and manual action.

Many people regret the every-day style of language introduced in the Alternative Prayer Book in 1984. It lacked the language of poetry and drama associated with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the King James Version of the Bible, the English of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays.

This problem is addressed in The Book of Common Prayer (2004), which has tried to restore poetry, drama and beauty to the language of the liturgy, recognising that vernacular idioms of speech pose problems.

How do we bridge the gap between us and God?

How do we move from the chatter in the pews to the language of awesomeness, language that makes me feel I am in the presence of God?

Since the Reformation, we have been dependent on the primacy of language. By this, I mean there has been a singular dependence on the medium of verbally constructed language.

Is there a conflict between liturgical tradition (the interior of Saint Giles, Cheadle, Staffordshire) ...

... and the needs for a worship that engages with contemporary society? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

2, Secondly, since the Reformations there has been a commitment to the primacy of the individual, of the believer, and of individual faith.

This has been coupled with a triumph of informality over convention – in dress, clothing, manners, formality, music, &c – so that popular entertainment becomes more important than high culture.

This is reflected then in the use of space.

How do we make a multifunctional hall a sign of the kingdom, of heaven?

Do we want to?

And if we do not want to, how do we use appropriate language for people who are gathered to approach the heavenly throne in awe and in reverence?

Does Gospel music mean hymns whose only difference from modern music is words?

Is there a danger of creating a God who is immediately accessible and losing the ‘otherness’ and ‘awesome-ness’ of God.

If God is not different, then why do we worship God?

These are questions that I hope we can ask and seek answers for this week as we discuss a theology of space, and its implications for church buildings, and the use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church.

Exercise 1:

Close your eyes; create an image of a church that was important at a key stage in your life: perhaps when you were a child, or when you reached a particular stage in faith; or one from your holidays, or where you were married.

Just pick one church, enter it, and tell me:

What is the first thing you see there?

The altar/table?

The pulpit?

The font?

A stained glass window?

A monument to a local landed family?

A rood screen that separates the chancel from the people?

What we see first is not an accident of church architecture. It faces us immediately because it reflects not just the priority of the architect, but those who told the architect what they wanted.

The chapel of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge ... designed so the altar is seen immediately on entering the chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Ireland parish church in Collon, Co Louth, is a replica of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1, The altar: Many collegiate style churches have the seating along each side wall (north and south), so that the altar at the east end is the first to catch your eye. This is so the chapel in Trinity College Dublin, in many college chapels in Cambridge and Oxford, and in some churches in Ireland too, such as the Church of Ireland parish churches in Collon, Co Louth (Diocese of Armagh), based on the plans for King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and Glenealy, Co Wicklow (Diocese of Glendalough), based on the Chapel of Saint John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and one of Pugin’s great Gothic Revival chapels, the chapel in Saint Peter’s College, Wexford.

Pugin’s great Gothic Revival Chapel in Saint Peter’s College, Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

What is the liturgical priority here in terms of use of space?


Consider how many altars or tables are placed in a separate chancel area; from the outside, you can see it is a separate part of the building; inside it may have steps up to, be railed off, be surrounded by sacred images, have attention drawn to it by candles, a dramatic window or painting above it, special seating around it, or a chancel arch that marks the transition from the place of the laity to the place of the clergy.

What does this say about the roles of the clergy and the roles of the people?

What is being said, on the other hand, if the altar is in the centre of the building?

This may force an arrangement so that everyone is looking in rather than out, that gives the impression of introspection rather than a people being equipped for mission.

2, The pulpit:

The Comerford pulpit from Carlow Cathedral

The pulpit is usually to the side nowadays. But in the past, this may have been the first object you would have seen in a church, especially in the day when the triple-decker pulpit was common in churches in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.

The pulpit may still be the dominant feature in many Presbyterian and Methodist churches.

What is the liturgical priority here in terms of use of space?


Do you feel comfortable about going into the pulpit?

Or do you feel self-conscious, that you’re towering over people or even looking down on them?

Does it say Word is more important than Sacrament?

What do they expect from someone who preaches from the pulpit?

What is being said when you preach from the chancel steps or from the nave?

If you remember the previous layout of the chapel here, you may remember the way we emphasised the balance between word and sacrament, between pulpit and altar, between proclamation and celebration.

Inside the Benedictine Abbey Church in Ealing ... the Font is the first feature first-time visitors notice when they enter the church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

3, The font

The Baptistery and baptismal font in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Is anyone from a parish where the church has a separate baptistery?

In some churches, the font is near the door, and so if you are a child entering a church, and your eyes are at a level much lower than an adult’s, then this may be the first thing you see.

What is the liturgical priority here in terms of use of space?


Does the place of the font link it with the concept of welcome?

What about the distance between font and table?

Does this convey something about the pilgrimage of faith, the journey of the Christian life, from being incorporated into the Body of Christ to being invited to the Heavenly Banquet?

The Baptismal pool in CORE in inner-city Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In some Baptist and Brethren churches, and also in CORE in inner-city Dublin, instead of a font there is a pool or large water tank, often hidden under the floorboards.

4, The rood screen

The rood screen is an important feature of Pugin’s design for Saint Giles’ Church in Cheadle, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When you go into a Gothic or mediaeval cathedral, the rood screen separating the choir from the nave may be first thing you notice.

What function do you think it serves?

What is it saying about sacred space and secular space?

The icon screen plays a role in Orthodox churches that differs from the role of communion rails in Western churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

[Discussion. Compare with the function and role of Communion rails, and the function of the iconostasis in Orthodox churches.]

The vaulted roof of Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

5, The roof:

A vaulted roof may look like the hull of a boat or an ark; we are like the disciples in the boat, who find new direction, new meaning, when, in the darkness of their fear, they realise that Christ is with them as their captain, that Christ is in control.

6, The rector’s prayer desk?

Does your rector move from the prayer desk to the altar/table when it comes to celebrating Parish Communion?

I remember this as being a normal movement during what was known as “mangled matins” followed by short Holy Communion.

But what are we saying when we do this?


But is the ministry of word more or less sacred than the ministry of sacrament?

7, A monument to an old family?

An 18th century monument to an old family in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Is the place of respect we give to old families taking away from the attention to the living today? Is it a reason for people not wanting to worship in neighbouring churches? Is it harkening back to the kingdoms of the past instead of looking forward to the Kingdom of God?

A personal experience

The backs of people ...is this the welcome we offer visitors? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I first carried out this exercise with my sons when they were small children.

One answered: “The backs of people.”

As a small boy walking into that church, the first thing he could see was people already seated in the pews with their backs turned to him.

Is this the sort of welcome your parish church offers to first-time visitors or to children?

Christ Pantokrator in the dome of Agia Barbara Church in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph, Patrick Comerford, 2013)

My other son immediately answered: “Jesus!”

I was taken aback. I even thought for one moment he was joking.

But he recalled being taken by the hand into a small village church on a Greek island. And he explained that as he entered a church that seemed to be in darkness, in contrast to the bright sunshine outside, his eyes were immediately drawn up to the light in the dome surrounding the image of Christ Pantokrator found in the dome of so many Greek churches.

How many of us can see that the first thing a stranger sees when they come into our church is Jesus?

Can they say that about your church?

Or is the first thing they see a monument to a dead general or member of the landed aristocracy?

Or the screen for the power point presentation of hymns?

The use of liturgical space

How space allows or facilitates, directs or restricts, movement during liturgy; how furniture is placed in relation to liturgical action and in relation to other pieces of liturgical furniture; how we use these freely or feel restricted; all these are key considerations.

Consider how there has been a crisis of liturgical space in the adaptation of some Roman Catholic cathedrals and churches built in the Gothic Revival style. When the tabernacle was moved to a side chapel, the eyes focussed on the bishop’s throne, and many people felt they were entering a church that had been emptied, left vacant, left without a focus for worship.

But this also raises questions about the chair for the minister who presides at the liturgy.


The mediaeval sedilia in Saint Laserian’s Cathedral, Old Leighlin, Co Carlow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The sedilia in the Pugin chapel in Edermine House, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

How do we reflect our theological priorities in the use of space in our churches?

The architecture of a church building says different things to different people:

● Byzantine
● Gothic
● Classical
● Modern
● Simple meeting house.
● A college chapel.

There is no neutral space. All church buildings tell a story, but they tell them in different ways, with different emphases

They convey, communicate different visual theologies. For example, a long church building, such as a cathedral, with long naves, rows and rows of seats, and everyone facing the same way can symbolise that we are all heading in the same direction. With a focus that is before and ahead of us, this layout can give us a sense of the glory and transcendence of God. They also make processions and movement to the front straightforward.

Can you think of some problems created by this layout?


If you want to proclaim the Gospel from among the people, and arrange a Gospel procession to the centre of the church, can the reader be heard? If there is no microphone, having a Gospel procession undermines the Gospel reading rather than enhancing it.

Sharing the peace can be clumsy and difficult with this arrangement.

The font at the back corner, near the south porch or the west door is in danger of being out of sight and out of mind. And if it is being used during the main Sunday service, can people turn with ease to see and affirm and own what is happening?

On the other hand, a worship space arranged in a circle, in an ellipse, or in the way we have the chapel at present, makes it easy for the worship leaders, readers and preachers to engage with everyone who is present. Sharing the peace becomes easier, and it is easier to create a feeling of being gathered together around one table for sharing on Communion.

Can you think of some problems created by this layout?


Some people feel that there has been a loss of reverence, a loss of the sense of awe and mystery.

Is it more difficult to adopt appropriate body postures for prayer?

Can a bride walk down the aisle, or a coffin be carried in and out at a funeral?

Where do you place the font?

There is an inner circle, but how do create a sense of looking out into the world?

So, what the eye sees may be as important as what the hear ears, the tongue says, the heart feels.

Space and symbol together contribute to the meaning of liturgy, convey theology, convey suppositions about belief and even express belief too.

And this is important to grasp in order to see liturgy as not just about texts and reading texts.

The architecture and the internal use of and priorities in space strongly influence and shape the way liturgy is played out in these settings:

● What kind of ceremonial is possible?
● What kind of ceremonial is appropriate?
● How may people take part?

Church buildings can be meaningful for us, in both negative and positive sense of meaning.

They are signs to us, and not always signs of the Church: they tell us whether the interiors reflected the social as well as the liturgical values of the people who built them, or the people they were built for.

Are church buildings so rigid, such a strait-jacket, that they cannot serve our liturgical needs without distorting what we want to say and do, think and pray?

What are the problems of having the font where we traditionally place it?

How flexible can we be with traditional church layouts?

Do pews make it difficult to move around and to shape the liturgy?

Do we clutter our churches so much that it is difficult for people to realise the significance of space and place in our public worship?

In other words, is the liturgy at the service of church architecture and furnishings or are church furnishings and architecture at the service of our liturgical needs?

The nave altar in Lichfield Cathedral can be raised and lowered according to the liturgical needs of the cathedral

[Discussion; examples: moving in front of the choir screen in Christ Church Cathedral to create a nave altar; changing seating in the cathedral; altar than be raised and lowered to be flush with the floor in Lichfield Cathedral.]

Non-liturgical use of churches

We need to remember too what goes on inside churches:

Churches may have a variety of uses, not all of which can be seen as liturgy.

People come in to look at churches because they love looking at cathedrals and churches.

The Butler Bread Shelves in Saint Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, Dublin ... a city charity that has continued for almost three centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Others come in for particular hobbies: they collect brass rubbings, they are tracing their family trees, they are interested in stained glass windows. You may have an unusual painting, tomb, monuments, charity plaques, organ … There is one church in Dublin that holds on to a curious 18th century fire engine, another with a bread shelf for distributing daily breads to the hungry poor in the inner city.

One of the main ways people use our churches and the space in them, at some stage, is for musical recitals.

These have their own rituals around them.

What time do they take place at?

Where they are staged – on the chancel steps?

If you have choral recitals, are the choirs placed in the same place as the choir or music group on Sundays?

If not, what is being said?

The use of space, place and time signify the meaning that each event has on its own.

You then don’t have to say at the beginning: “Welcome everyone to Saint Gilbert’s, this evening we are having an organ recital by an organist …” or “Good evening, welcome to Saint Philbert’s, this evening we have a visiting choir who are going to give us a choral recital.”

It is obvious, is it not, from the notices that have gone out before, from the way the church has been lit, the way people have got tickets beforehand or been handed programmes as they came in.

They are not arriving:

• expecting Evening Prayer I,
• or to be handed The Book of Common Prayer at the door,
• or during the choral finale to Beethoven’s 9th to find a collection plate going round for the offertory as if this were the last hymn.

We use space and sign and timing to give different meanings to different events in our life, and when we become confused, when the lines and signs become blurred, then we cannot enter into events in all our fullness, and get the best:

• out of me,
• and out of the event.

The timing and the use of space, and the signs we use are important:

• for building up our expectations;
• for delivery when it comes to the realisation of those expectations;
• and for those experiences to carry on having significance in the future for us.

And we all have experience of this in everyday life, whether or not we are particularly involved in church life.

Exercise 2:

Centuries of tradition have created the layout of our cathedrals and churches today

In groups, sit and list essential elements of a church, and then try to sketch out that ideal church.

Space as icon:

It is possible, and all too often frequent, for worshippers to come away with little sense of having encountered anything like:

• the human/divine frontier,
• the edge of chaos,
• the sources from which something fills my being with its possibilities.

In these cases:

• an iconic dimension in the liturgy’s signification was either deficient or absent;
• or the transaction of worship seemed mostly continuous with everyday events:

1, the sermon was scarcely distinguishable from other exhortations to altruism;
2, the ‘fellowship’ could have been replicated in any social gathering.

When worship is successful, it is capable of great illumination:

• Of that of which it is the sign
• Of the other at which we might guess.
• Of our lives on ‘this side’ of the frontier
• Of the reality before this great horizon against which our lives must be measured:
• their limitations and
• their transcendental possibilities.

The notion of ‘frontier’:

The notion of ‘frontier’ carries within it a number of connotations:

• Space,
• Time,
• Embodiment,
• Movement

So you can:

• Come to a frontier
• Pass beyond it
• And return

In other words:

• One comes to a frontier at specific times
• There is a duration of time between coming to and moving back from.

Time and space are key to understanding this:

• The body moves,
• There is the time of movement

It is important in liturgy to provide iconic signs of:

• Boundary
• Frontier
• The other

There is a frontier between ‘God’ and ‘humanity’

Imagery in worship needs to be heavily impregnated with imagery that takes account of:

• Spatial;
• Temporal
• Movement;

And it also has actual, physical movement and direction.

Good planning of liturgy knows how best to use the physical and to rely properly on image.

Good planning of liturgy knows the differing between reality and imagination.

Good planning of liturgy knows the differing between making and finding

How do we mark the differences between these three scenarios in liturgy or worship:

• Entrance into the presence of God?
• Being in the presence of God?
• Departure from God’s presence?

We use icons, space, timing, special language and signs to do this. Take for example the problems with entrance:

People come into the church, chatter, shake hands, take off their jackets, &c.

Then they come into the presence of God?

How do we move from one stage to the next?

How do you create that sense of movement if:

• you are one of the first individuals arriving?
• and you then find yourself as part of those who are being gathered as God’s people?

How do we indicate that our direction is now focused not just on one another, but on God?

If we use secular signs to open worship, we can destroy that movement:

• There is a purpose and meaning to opening with ‘The Lord be with you,’ rather than ‘Good morning.’
• That is the purpose of liturgical entrance too.
• The arrival of the last of the people ought to be the arrival of those who are going to gather those who have arrived into the worshipping community, the congregation, the Body of Christ.
• This can be signified in the movement from the back of the church to the front, which also signifies our preparedness to move even beyond that, into the gap between us and God that is bridged in our worship, in our liturgy.

The exact counter to that is the preparing of people to cross the boundary again, to cross from the sacred back into the secular with the Gospel, the commission:

• The blessing
• The dismissal – especially at the door.

Between those two spaces, liturgy is truly a dialogue between God and his people:

• God speaks to us through word and sacrament
• And we speak to God through prayer and praise, and in reception.

So there are two directions in liturgy.

Yet, there are built-in ambiguities in liturgical direction:

• Is Christ supposed to speak for us, from the people’s side?
• Or is Christ as mediator speaking God’s grace and favour to the people?
• Is the leader in place of Christ, and acting on which side of the frontier?
• Examples are found in confession and absolution.
• We are both the People of God and the Body of Christ.
• Prayer is addressed to God is also addressed to us.
• Prayer is addressed to God, but even though it is not really for our consumption, we must also listen to the prayer, and then we assent with Amen.
• And whether the leader of liturgical worship is speaking on our behalf to God, or on God’s behalf to us, we must be able to both hear and respond.

There is a near-universal shape to liturgical worship.

The four components of liturgical worship – watch for them especially at the Wednesday Eucharist in the chapel:

• The Gathering (opening or introductory rite)
• The Word
• The Eucharist
• The Dismissal or Sending

Or Roman Catholic liturgists might say there are six component movements:

• Introductory rites
• The liturgy of the word
• The preparation of the gifts and the altar
• The Eucharistic prayer
• The Communion rite
• The conclusion

Each needs its space, and without respecting that space, people may not engage and participate it in an appropriate way. If this happens, then we fail in our liturgical task.

Appendix 1, Case Study:

Posted last year [4 October 2012] on the Facebook Page, “The Church of England’s Diocese of Lichfield” by the Revd George Fisher, Director of Mission in the Diocese of Lichfield:

This is what happened to two people I know visiting a church in another Diocese. Of course it would never happen in Lichfield Diocese, would it??????

Well me and Ange decided to use a voucher we’d been given, and go away for her birthday. After booking into the hotel we went to have a mooch round the nearby village.

There we found St Mary’s, a beautiful old church. We went to have a look inside and Angie picked up one of their notice sheets and saw that there was a prayer service that evening (Sunday) at 6 p.m. so we thought it would be nice to go along - when we saw that the choir attended on the first Sunday of the month (which it was) that sealed the deal.

We turned up just before 6pm and were met by a gentleman (presume he was a Warden) we told him we had come along for the service and he gave us prayer books – quite thick ones which we’d never seen before.

There were rows and rows of fully enclosed pews, but the Warden told us the service was held at the front where chairs had been set out. At the front we found three rows of chairs - so being good Anglicans we sat on the back row, with the warden sitting in the front. We were joined by a lady who opted for the middle row.

Smack on 6pm the vicar arrived through a side door which led him straight on to where he sat to the right of the altar. If you include the Warden, me and Ange made up 50% of the congregation

After welcoming everyone he launched into the service which consisted of ‘Question and answer’ type prayers read directly from the book. The problem was he didn’t give us a clue what page we were starting on. The other half of the congregation seemed to know but we were lost.

Eventually we stumbled on the right page and managed to join in with the last section. Then the vicar announced that we were going to read a psalm – and in this church it was customary that he read the odd verses and the congregation responded with the even. No, nothing in the book was in order, and again no clue was given as to where to find said psalm. About half way through Angie found it and again we joined in.

By now it must have been apparent

1. We wanted to be involved as we were joining in when we could.

2. We didn’t know our way round the book/their service and needed some guidance.

Then he announced that we were going to say together the Magnificat – without any further clues he plunged into it.

I have to admit by now I was feeling rather angry at the situation and considered asking him in the middle of the service to help us – but decided that instead, at the end I would give him some gentle, light hearted, feedback. No, this man was far too clever and slick for me.

At the end of the service we all said together The Peace (but not shared it).

Then came a brilliantly executed manoeuver which left us two amateurs gasping in admiration and amazement. The vicar looked across to me and Angie and said ‘Thank You.’ The lady from the middle row scuttled off and out.

The vicar strode across to the Warden, and the two walked off talking, straight out through a side door into another part of the church leaving me and Angie sitting together feeling like we'd just intruded on a private meeting.

We literally walked out in silence and were leaving the church grounds before either of us could speak – but then we made up for it.

Incidentally, the choir never did turn up.

Next: Liturgy 2.2:

The use of church buildings in relation to the mission of God expressed through the Church (Seminar, based on readings from Richard Giles, Re-pitching the tent, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 3rd ed, 2004).

Next week:

Liturgy 3.1: Creation, Trinity and theologies of worship and prayer.

Liturgy 3.2: Traditions of prayer (1): seminar with readings on Benedictine and Franciscan prayer.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes for a lecture on the MTh module, EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality, on 30 September 2013.

29 September 2013

Michaelmas blessings in Skerries
with sunshine, sea and sand

Afternoon sunshine casts a silver glow across the harbour waters in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

It feels like ages since I was last in Skerries for a walk on the beach and lunch in the Olive. In fact it is over three months since I was there – on the afternoon of Bloomsday [16 July 2013], a rare rainy day in what has been long and a beautiful, sunny summer.

After celebrating the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and coffee in the crypt, two of us headed through a packed and jammed city centre, and out past the airport through Lusk to Skerries.

I had forgotten that the Skerries Soundwaves Festival was coming to an end today, and that Strand Street would be closed off. However, the Skerries Soundwaves Music and Arts Festival is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and the street party, with street stalls, music and the presence of characters from what was billed as the ‘Goldilocks Show’ added the joys of a warm, sun-filled afternoon, with temperatures still in the high teens.

Afternoon Fare in the Olive in Skerries thisafternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Through the afternoon crush, we found a table in the Olive in Strand Street and there we shared a plate of bread and dips, including black olive tapenade, red pepper Harissa dip and humus, and a goat’s cheese salad. After an absence of more than three months, I can still claim that in the Olive they make the best double espresso in Fingal.

As we strolled up through the town, we stopped briefly in the charity shop run by Skerries Trust, and in a tiny hidden corner I found shelf-after-shelf stacked high with second-hand books. I left pleased with my find and weighed down with an interesting collection, including a book by the American radical evangelical theologian Jim Wallis and another on Jewish liberation theologian.

Rowers in the afternoon silver sunshine in the harbour in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In the bright autumn sunshine, the restaurants, caf├ęs and bars lining the harbour were buzzing with life. Out in the harbour, in between the sails and trawlers, a lone crew was practising rowing skills on the silvery, shining water.

At the pier, we queued at ‘Storm in a Teacup’ and sat for a while, enjoying two ‘Espresso Swirls’ (ice cream in a cup, with a double espresso poured over it, and dressed with a crumbled chocolate flake and cinnamon) as we watched the ebb and flow of the tide and of harbour life, and noted sadly the loss of Shenanigans.

Remembering the victims of the sea at Red island in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

At Red Island, children were climbing the new Skerries Seapole Memorial, which had been unveiled earlier in the morning by President Michael D Higgins. This new memorial is fashioned from the old ‘Pole’ used by lifeboat crews and the Coast Guard as a viewing platform to watch for sailors in difficulty. This has been incorporated into a newly designed plinth with over 270 individual plates with the names of ships and people who have drowned at sea in this area.

The original pole was a local landmark, climbed by generations of Skerries residents and visitors. However, it fell into disrepair and was removed by Fingal County Council for health and safety reasons about a decade ago. But a community-driven campaign to “Bring Back the Pole” was initiated last year by award-winning designer Shane Holland.

Local companies, community leaders and politicians backed the campaign to reinstate the pole. Now the redesigned pole has been installed at the bandstand on Red Island Skerries with individual plates of stainless steel set out around the plinth, marking each loss.

The memorial now forms one of Ireland’s largest registers of marine victims, naming ships, fishermen, U-boats, sailors, swimmers, rescuers and war-time maritime casualties from 12 nations or more over 250 years.

Sea, sand and lingering sunshine on the South Beach in Skerries this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

From Red Island, we went back to Skerries Sailing Club, and out onto the South Beach, where the waves were rolling in onto the sand. There were few people walking the beach. But one lone surfer had braved the waves, and as we watched he was joined by two kitesurfers.

It was a good afternoon to be back in Skerries after an absence of so many months. We drove back through Rush to join the M50. Later, as we approached Tallaght, the setting sun was shining on the windows as they glittered in silver and gold. Yes, it is true that all that glitters is not gold – or, as Shakespeare tells us in The Merchant of Venice, “All that glisters is not gold.” But this was a beautiful Michaelmas afternoon, blessed by the angels with silver and golden sea, sand and autumn sunshine.

A sandy pathway down to the South Beach (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Welcoming strangers and entertaining
angels without knowing it

The Congregation of All Angels, an icon by a nun from the Monastery of Saint Irene, in an exhibition in Rethymnon earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity [29 September 2013]. I am presiding at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 11 a.m., and the preacher is the Archdeacon of Glendalough, the Ven Ricky Rountree, Rector of Powerscourt and Kilbride, Co Wicklow.

The setting is Judith Bingham’s Missa Brevis ‘Awake My Soul’, and some of the hymns music this morning also recall that today is also the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, including the Processional Hymn, ‘Christ, the fair glory of the holy angels’ (tr Athelstan Riley), the Offertory Hymn, ‘Angel-voices ever singing’ (Francis Pott), and the Post-Communion Hymn, ‘Ye watchers and ye holy ones’ (Athelstan Riley).

The Gospel reading (Luke 16: 19-31) tells the story of Dives and Lazarus, and both the Epistle reading (I Timothy 6: 6-19) and this morning’s Gospel reading contain severe warnings about the dangers of enjoying wealth and riches without considering the needs of others.

The Apostle Paul is often misquoted as saying money is the root of all evil. But as our Epistle reading this morning reminds us, what he actually tells Timothy is that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and that, “in their eagerness to be rich, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

Surprisingly, God is not named nor does God feature in this morning’s Gospel story. But then, there is one complete book in the Bible, Esther, in which there is no reference to God at all.

Most people will be surprised to learn too that Dives is not named in this Gospel story either, nor do we have names for any of his five brothers who are also mentioned.

Abraham is named; Moses is named; but the name Dives is one given to the rich man in popular Christian tradition – it is not there in Saint Luke’s telling of the story.

The loss of Dives’ humanity is symbolised by his loss of a personal name. I am baptised with a personal name, and so incorporated into the Body of Christ; that name is how I am known to God and to others – God calls me and you recognise me by my name. Without a name, can Dives remain in the image of God? Can he be called on by others as a fellow human being?

On the other hand, we seldom think of the significance of the name of name Lazarus. The original Hebrew name, Eleazar, means “the Lord is my help,” which is an interesting name when I consider that the rich man in his castle was certainly of no help to the poor man at his gate.

But wealth and poverty are not the only indicators of how we marginalise people, and leave them outside the gate, leave them outside our boundaries, leave them beyond the scope of our welcome.

Who is Lazarus to me today? Who do I exclude, who do I make a stranger at the gate?

We are told that when the poor man in the Gospel reading died, he “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.”

The angels who come to welcome Lazarus into the heavenly home call to mind the advice: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13: 2).

An icon of Saint Michael in the Icon Exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon which continued until the beginning of this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

And, of course, those angels in both this morning’s Gospel reading and that passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews remind me that today [29 September] is also Michaelmas, the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels, although its celebration is probably being transferred in many places to tomorrow [Monday, 30 September 2013].

The Communion motet at the Cathedral Eucharist this morning is Richard Deering’s ‘Antiphon to Benedictus at Lauds on Michaelmas Day’:

Factum est silentium in coelo dum committeret bellum draco, cum Michaele Archangelo audita est vox milia milium dicentium. Salus, honor et virtus, omnipotenti; Deo. Alleluia (“There was silence in heaven whilst the dragon joined battle with the Archangel Michael. A cry was heard – thousands of thousands saying: ‘Salvation and honour and power be to Almighty God’ Alleluia”).

Angels were the subject of this year’s summer school organized by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and icons of angels featured throughout the Icon Exhibition in the Fortezza in Rethymnon which continued until the beginning of this month.

John Hutton’s ‘Screen of Saints and Angels’ at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral, reflecting the ruins of the old, bombed cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I am reminded too that Coventry Cathedral is entered through John Hutton’s “Screen of Saints and Angels,” with tall glass panels inspired by Basil Spence’s plans for the new cathedral, rising up from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, and by his vision of a new church rising through a screen of angels and saints, linking the old and the new.

Gazing at this screen, especially on a sunny summer’s day, picking out the angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, you see a vivid reflection in the glass of the ruins of the old bombed cathedral behind you.

This morning we can pray that we remain open to welcoming strangers and that we may be pleasantly surprised to find we are entertaining angels. For a Church that marginalises certain identifiable groups of people will be surprised that when we are “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” to find that the marginalised and the excluded are there already.

A Musical Endnote

Last night on Facebook, Professor Brendan McConvery of Maynooth drew my attention to this YouTube clip of Maddy Prior singing Dives and Lazarus during a live performance from Nettlebed Folk Club in Oxford on the ‘Seven For Old England’ tour. The song is on the album of the same name, Seven For Old England.

The tune, which sounds like the air for the Star of the County Down, comes from Vaughan Williams’s Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus for Strings and Harp, which had their first performance in New York in 1939, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult during the World’s Fair.

This performance also comes from New York, given by the CBS Radio Orchestra on 7 February 1954 under the direction of Leopold Stokowski, who was a student with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in the 1890s and a long-time champion of the composer’s music.


Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

All praise and thanks, O Christ,
for this sacred banquet,
in which by faith we receive you,
the memory of your passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory given,
to feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

Saint Michael above the main door in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect of Saint Michael’s Day:

Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

28 September 2013

Who wants to be a millionaire … on the internet?

Who wants to be a millionaire … high-denomination banknotes from pre-war Greece and the 1940s

Patrick Comerford

During this semester, some of my teaching load includes a small module on academic writing and writing skills.

Depending on your disposition or your sense of humour, there are many phrases that you may find are tautological or redundant.

Some of the redundant phrases that amuse me – and many of them speak for themselves – include:

An unintended mistake: as if some mistakes are intended;

The usual custom: as if some events are customary but unusual;

Past history: only Dr Who and other time travellers seem to have the ability to write about or experience any other form of history;

Plan ahead: sometimes I wish my planning had the benefit of hindsight;

Free gift: in my childhood, it seems, free gifts came with every weekly edition of the Beano and the Dandy – years later, as a journalist, I realised there is no such thing as “free lunch” either;

Forever and ever: if forever is forever, who can possibly extend it even further?

A new beginning: as opposed to …an old beginning?

An added bonus … if it’s a bonus, it’s already added, if it’s added, it’s already a bonus, in both cases it’s in addition to something else.

Sudden and Unexpected surprise: had I expected it, there would have been no surprise;

Head Chef: the word chef comes from the French word for head, also used to mean head cook.

Sahara Desert: the Sahara Desert is a repetition because Sahara is derived from an Arabic word for sand or desert, which means Sahara Desert means desert desert.

But there are some other phrases that were once common and that have now become redundant, not for grammatical reasons, but because our lifestyles have changed:

Leafy suburbs: the phrase may have described an unusual but burgeoning phenomenon when planned suburbs were being built, like Bourneville in Birmingham, or with the development of garden cities like Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, inspired by the thinking of Sir Ebenezer Howard. But today it seems all suburbs have tree-lined streets and avenues and open green spaces. Without their leafy lanes, could they be classified as suburbs? But then “greenbelt” may be redundant soon as planners care less and less about preserving and conserving our suburban lungs.

High flyers: In my late teens and my early 20s, I could only afford to travel by ferry between Ireland and England. High flyers paid for expensive flights on Aer Lingus while I travelled on the now-redundant but delightfully-named “mail boat.”

Jet Set: In those days, the jet set probably included film stars, rich shipping magnates like Aristotle Onassis, opera singers like Maria Callas and public figures like Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Ryanair has made het travel accessible to each and every one of – oops, I should have simply said everyone.

A one million drachmai note from mid-20th century Greece

Millionaire: that franchised television show Who wants to be a millionaire? has become irritating. Now it’s like a karaoke machine in many resort hotels. But the question surely depends on the local currency and the era. Who wants to be millionaire in Weimar Germany, pre-war Greece, Romania in the immediate aftermath of Ceausescu or present-day Iran, for example?

One of the least valued currencies in the world today is the Iranian rial. The highest value banknote in Iran is the 100,000 rial note, which is worth €2.99 – in other words, today’s Iranian millionaires only need to have €29.88 in their pockets.

Hopefully, this week’s developments at the United Nations and the initiatives taken by the Iranian President raise the value of Iranian banknotes.

Then again, One day soon, given the way the bankers have treated us throughout Europe, debased our currency and made a mockery of hard-working people, we may all be millionaires.

But today, in the most pleasant of ways, I have become a millionaire – although not in currency. Today, my blog passed the one million reader mark. Each day, this blog has been 800 and 1,200 hits, and one summer day the number of visitors in one day passed 1,500.

The ten most popular postings on this blog are:

1, The Transfiguration: finding meaning in icons and Orthodox spirituality (7 April 2010), 16,789 pageviews.

2, Saturday in Holy Week, Easter Eve (3 April 2010), 6,875 pageviews.

3, All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well (5 September 2008), 4,155 pageviews.

4, The grave of Lazarus (3 April 2010), 4,039 pageviews.

5, Anglican Studies (8.1): The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and the emergence of an Anglican Covenant (15 March 2012), 3,648 pageviews.

6, Success or failure? Church of Ireland Overseas Missions (3 March 2008), 2,742 pageviews.

7, Looking at the Transfiguration through icons (23 February 2011), 2,597 pageviews.

8, Nine Lessons and Carols ... a Christmas tradition (30 November 2010), 1,872 pageviews.

9, Christmas poems (11): Christmas by John Betjeman (25 December 2011), 1,748 pageviews.

10, Spirituality for Advent: waiting for Christ in all his majesty (29 November 2010), 1,643 pageviews.

Thank you to all of you as readers. Thank you to all who offer responses and criticisms.

Sometimes, when you press like on the Facebook links to this page, it is more than an added bonus. Sometimes, when you share my postings, you have added to a wider community it is a pleasure to be part of. Sometimes, when you tell me what you think, it comes as an unexpected surprise. Sometimes, when I realise the impact of my posts, I am flying high in the leafy suburb I live in.

Thank you. A million thanks. To you, and you, and you, and you, and you ...

27 September 2013

Autumn arrives with morning dews
and mists and a low-setting sun

Cobwebs in the dew-covered branches this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

The temperature each day this week has been hovering in the high teens, sometimes even reaching 20, and it seems the bright sunshine is telling me that the late summer is lingering even though September is coming to a close.

But the crisp leaves on the ground, the morning mists, the shining pearls and droplets of dew on the grass and on the spreading cobwebs in the branches of the trees and the bushes, and the low setting sun in the evenings tell me autumn has arrived.

A happy approach to food in the Happy Pear this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

This was the last day of the first week of the new semester. Throughout the morning, the sun struggled to break through the clouds, and in the late afternoon two of us called it a day and headed down to Greystones for a late lunch on the street in front of the Happy Pear and a stroll on the beach.

Autumn toadstools near the railway line and the beach in Greystones this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The east coast probably has more than its share of mist and coastal fog on days like this. But there was a small number of people on the beach, strolling in pairs with their dogs, one sitting alone on the edge of the water looking out at the greying sky and listening to waves roll in on the pebbly shore.

Hundreds of silver-white fish washed up along the shoreline in Greystones this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Out in the water, a lone angler in his small boat was slowly working his way back and forth along the coast. The waves had washed up hundreds of tiny silver-white fish on the margins of the shoreline, and the lone angler and a cormorant bobbing up and down in the water beside his boat were taking advantage of a larger shoal of fish that had chased the stranded, struggling creatures in from the sea.

As we headed back on the M50 through South Dublin between 6.30 and 7, the low setting sun lingered in the west like an orange balloon, a true reminder that autumn has arrived.

The autumn sun setting above the M50 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

26 September 2013

‘Sadness as Comberford
church is to close’

The Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford is due to be closed next month (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

Patrick Comerford

Under a headline that says, ‘Sadness as Comberford church is to close,’ Helen Machin reports in the Tamworth Herald today [Thursday 26 September 26, 2013] that the village church in Comberford is to hold its last service next month before closing its doors for the final time.

The report points out that the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George in Comberford was built in 1919 on land donated by the Paget family to the Lichfield Diocesan Trust for the erection of a mission church.

Just last year, the residents of Wigginton Parish, including the villagers in Comberford, were celebrating having raised £6,000 to repair the roof of the church. Their fund-raising efforts came an application for a National Lottery community grant was unsuccessful.

However, the report points out, the church in Comberford needs further work. Services are held there only once a month, and now a decision has been taken to close the church.

Wigginton Parish also includes Saint Leonard’s Church in Wigginton and the historic Spital Chapel between Ashby Road and Wigginton Road on the north side of Tamworth. Two services are held at Saint Leonard’s each Sunday and one at Spital Chapel – but the total congregation numbers only between 70 and 80 adults and around 15 children. In the mediaeval period, Wigginton (or Wigginton and Comberford) was a prebendal parish, with the tithes and church rentals supporting the Prebendary of Wigginton and Comberford in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth.

The Revd Debra Dyson in Comberford Church (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

The the Vicar of Wigginton, the Revd Debra Dyson, told the Tamworth Herald this week: “It is sad, but a congregation of our size just cannot maintain three churches.”

According to the Tamworth Herald, she said: “It costs thousands of pounds to run Saint Mary and Saint George’s with the heating and lighting and insurance – and there is a lot more repair work needed on the building.”

She added: “The church community has to be about helping people, not just pouring money into empty churches. We are able to show God’s love in more practical ways.”

She said letters about the planned closure of the church were sent to all 22 houses in Comberford but that feedback was received from only one resident.

She added: “There is one long-term resident who is upset that the church is closing and that’s understandable in a way, but it is inevitable, it’s the only thing that makes sense. “I hope people will see it not as an ending, but as a changing.”

However, one “devastated” resident in Comberford told me today: “The whole church closure business has been quite stressful.”

The last service at Saint Mary and Saint George will take place at 6 p.m. on Sunday, 13 October. The service, led by the Bishop of Wolverhampton, the Right Rev Clive Gregory, will be a Harvest Festival but will include be a celebration of the life of the church for almost 100 years. All are welcome to attend and refreshments will be served after the service.

For many generations, my family continued to regard Comberford as our ancestral home, despite some of the complicated details in the family tree. My great-grandfather, James Comerford, had a very interesting visit to Comberford and Tamworth at the end of the 19th or in the early 20th century, visiting the Peel family who lived there … he probably had his heart set on consolidating those family links.

I first visited Comberford and Comberford Hall in 1970 and have been back many times since then. I have written before how – when my mind and imagination go wild – I think of how nice it would be to buy back Comberford Hall, and even dream of using that grand old house as a retreat centre or as a centre for spirituality and the arts, with the village church close at hand, across the fields at the end of a public right-of-way footpath.

Comberford Hall … on the market for £850,000 (Photograph Paul Carr Estate Agents, Sutton Coldfield)

But the closure of the church can be the harbinger of the death of a village … and the church should be the last place to condemn a village to death. Comberford village, in Lichfield Rural District, is two or three miles north of Tamworth and about four or five miles east of Lichfield … as the crow flies. The village is without either a post office or a pub; now the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George, which has been at the heart of the village for over a century, is closing.

Until recently, the parish described itself on its website as being “on the traditional side of the Church. That said, we have embraced the new services of Common Worship very happily and also enjoy a mixture of traditional hymns and modern music. But we are Catholic in the best sense of that word, seeing ourselves as rooted in the Holy Eucharist, and the traditional vestments and the reserved sacrament.”

It is a description of a church that would have appealed to many members of the Comberford family in previous centuries. However, they would have worshipped in Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth, where generations of the family are buried in the Comberford Chapel ... although the original Comberford Hall may also have been used for Roman Catholic Masses in the late 16th century and for Quaker meetings for a short time in the mid-17th century.

The church in Comberford was built on a site donated in May 1914 by Howard Francis Paget (1858-1935) of Elford Hall to the Lichfield Diocesan Trust for the erection of a mission church. Howard Paget’s father, the Revd Francis Edward Paget (1806-1882), was Rector of Elford, an early follower of the Oxford Movement, and the author of Tractarian fiction, including The Curate of Cumberworth (sic) (1859).

The Paget family’s interest in the area continued for generations. Howard Paget’s daughter, Charlotte Gabrielle Howard Paget, married Joseph Harold Hodgetts, and died in Lichfield in 1979. Their son, the late Harold Patrick Hodgetts, lived nearby at Model Farm in Elford, and Pat Hodgetts was proud that his grandparents had given the church to the village.

The church is of architectural interest as one of the churches designed by Andrew Capper. A well-known Gothic revival architect, he worked closely with George Edmund Street. He designed, refurbished or contributed to rebuilding other churches in the Diocese of Lichfield, including Saint Leonard’s Church, Dunston, South Staffordshire; Saint Cuthbert’s, Donington, a Grade II Listed Building; and, I think, Saint Mary’s, Dunstall. His work alone makes the village church in Comberford of interest to architectural and heritage groups.

The emblems of Saint Mary (white rose) and Saint George (red cross) recall the church in Comberford on a hassock in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The closure of the post office or the local pub is a bitter blow to a village. But if the village church stays open against all the odds, then it is ac living testimony to our faith in the villagers and to our faith in the Resurrection, affirming the people who live there and asserting that their value is not to be assessed in merely fiscal terms or by counting the financial contributions they make to the life of the wider Church.

I have visited Comberford many times since 1970 … following in the footsteps of many generations of my family

Some estimates say about 20 Church of England church buildings are closed for worship each year, and the church in Comberford becomes the latest church about to join this list.

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church is on Manor Lane, but the parish does not own the surrounding land, and access to the church is along a public right of way. But still this church has been the focus and point of contact in Comberford village for years. The attractive interior decoration and the rounded ceiling – both in wood – have created a sense of peace and tranquility.

Although the attendance at the 9 a.m. Holy Communion on the fourth Sunday of the month has varied between four and ten in recent months and years, the villagers and the wider community have values its presence and outreach, and the church was full for last year’s carols by candlelight, with extra seating needed because the church was so full.

The church was full last year too for an event marking the Jubilee celebrations, including an exhibition on the village history, a cheese and wine reception and the launch of 43-page booklet on village memories and history over the past two generations, which was presented to every householder in the village.

Other successful recent ventures have included flower festivals, arts and crafts weekends, wine and cheese evenings, school painting competitions and sponsored walks, and there was a special pealing of the church bells last year to mark the 2012 Olympics.

The church has also been a venue for meetings of Wigginton and Hopwas Parish Council, which serves the villages of Wigginton, Hopwas and Comberford and is part of Lichfield District Council.

Saint Mary’s and Saint George’s Church … local fundraising helped repair the bell tower and spire

When the fabric of the bell tower and spire of the church needed repair, and a failed lottery bid meant the cost fell to the parish, the Comberford Committee organised events that raised £2,000, and a further £5,000 came from the parish restoration fund.

Some time ago, a sponsored walk and other events raised £2,000 so that new heating could be installed in the church, making it a comfortable place with no cost to the PCC.

“People power has prevailed in Wigginton after money was raised to carry out much needed repairs to a village church,” the Tamworth Herald reported last year. “Work began on the roof of St Mary and St George’s Church, in Comberford, this week after years of fund-raising from churchgoers and residents.”

The proprietors of ‘The Wigginton’ pub, Sarah and Steve Gibson, present a cheque for £950 to the Revd Rowan Davies, after an auction to raise funds for the church in Comberford (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)

The local pub, ‘The Wigginton,’ organised several auctions on behalf of the church. One event raised over £950 in just two hours towards repairing the spire, and in the process raised awareness of the church and the importance of its place in the community and the outreach of this small church beyond the village.

Sarah Gibson, the landlady of the Wigginton pub which hosted regular quiz nights, told the Tamworth Herald at the time: “We get a lot of customers who use the church so to know that the money we have raised is helping is a fantastic feeling.”

After one successful fundraising effort, the Revd Debra Dyson told the Tamworth Herald: “It’s fantastic as the church is a great link for the local people. This is truly down to the hard work of the community.”

There is a truism that we do not inherit what we have from the past but hold it in trust for the future. The future for the church in Comberford may be something very different than we can imagine. It would be sad to see it become another private house in the village It seems to me that its location offer sthe potential for a retreat centre or a centre for the arts and spirituality. The expansion of Tamworth may open potential for future generations. Who knows?

According to today’s report in the Tamworth Herald, the church is likely to be de-consecrated and sold, possibly for conversion to a house.

But, despite next month’s closure, I hope that with a little imagination this church can remain a great link for local people and a centre for the community for generations to come.

The church spire had fallen into disrepair but was restored after a £6,000 fundraising project (Photograph: Tamworth Herald)