Sunday, 31 March 2013

An Irish saint who made his demands on Lichfield Cathedral

The Cathedral Close, Lichfield ... the second-hand section in the Cathedral Bookshop at No 9 is often a treasure trove of delights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Cathedral Bookshop at No 9, The Cathedral Close, is a delightful place to spend both time and money in Lichfield. The shelves are well stocked with books on theology, liturgy and local and church history. But they also have a good collection of music, with works by the Cathedral Choir and by local composer Paul Spicer, including his Easter Oratorio, written with Bishop Tom Wright when he was Dean of Lichfield Cathedral.

Easter fare in the Cathedral Bookshop in Lichfield

I often stayed next door in No 8, when Gill Jones lived there. Both houses look out on one side to the majestic West End of the cathedral, and on the other onto Vicar’s Close and the herb gardens planted at Darwin House by Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

During Lent this year, along with a wide range of Easter cards, the shop also stocked The Real Easter Egg, selling at £3.99 each. It is said that 80 million chocolate Easter Eggs are sold in Britain each year, but not one of them mentions Jesus. Now The Real Easter Egg has become the first and only Fair Trade Easter Egg to explain the Christian meaning of Easter on the box, and it also supports charity and development projects.

Ever since the Staffs Bookshop closed a few years ago, this has become my favourite place in Lichfield to rummage for second-hand books, in the corner of a back room that looks out onto the garden.

Lichfield Cathedral reflected in the windows of the Cathedral Bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

One unusual publication I picked up on a recent visit – I fail to remember when – is a pamphlet edition of a lecture given in March 1928 by the Dean of Lichfield, Henry Savage, on one of his predecessors, Richard FitzRalph (ca 1300-1360), who later became Archbishop of Armagh.

Richard FitzRalph was one of the great mediaeval scholastic theologians and is the only Anglo-Norman church leader to figure in the Calendar of Saints in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland.

FitzRalph was born into a well-off Anglo-Norman burgess family in Dundalk, Co Louth, around 1300. By 1325, he was in Oxford, where he had been a fellow and teacher in Balliol College.

In 1326, King Edward II had appointed him Rector of Athboy in the Diocese of Meath, but he appears to have remained at Oxford. By 1331, he was a Doctor of Theology, and soon after, while he was still in his early 30s, he became Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University.

In 1334, Richard paid his first visit to the Papal Court at Avignon. By then he was a canon of Armagh and Exeter and Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral. But in Avignon, according to Dean Savage, Richard made such an impression on Benedict XII as “a man of light and learning” that in 1335 the Pope appointed him Dean of Lichfield in succession to John Garssia, later Bishop of Marseilles.

For many years, the position of dean had been held by foreigners as a sinecure. But Richard returned to England in 1336 as a working dean. His first step was report to the Bishop of Lichfield at Brewood on 12 April 1336, and he was instituted to the deanery the following day. He was installed in Lichfield Cathedral on 20 April, and also became Prebendary of Adbaston and of Brewood.

Dean Savage, who had thoroughly examined the chapter records and collections of Richard’s sermons in Bodleian Library, Oxford, the British Museum, and elsewhere, says “that with the advent of Dean Fitzralph a new mood appears in the business of the Chapter.” He was an exceptionally active dean, demanding reports and allowing no detail to escape his observation.

But he was also subject to outbursts of temper, the chapter members felt he had an all-too autocratic attitude, and a rift soon opened between the canons and the dean.

He returned to Avignon in 1337, ostensibly on chapter business and travelling on cathedral expenses. Little could the canons of Lichfield have realised that their dean was to dally at the Papal Court in France for seven years – he remained in Avignon until 1344, and his absence seriously hampered the conduct of cathedral business. Documents had to be sent to him for his approval and signature, bringing additional delays and expenses.

The initial purpose of his visit was to secure a resolution to long-standing dispute between the Dean and Chapter of Lichfield and the Prior and Monks of Coventry, two cathedrals in the one diocese. But the case took a long time to resolve, and it was only when the papal court found in favour of Lichfield that Richard finally returned to Lichfield in 1345.

Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield ... Richard FitzRalph preached three sermons here in 1345/1346 – one in the chapel and two in the graveyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

He preached a series of 17 sermons in Lichfield and the surrounding neighbourhood in 1345 and 1346: nine in the cathedral, one in Cannock, one in an unidentified chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and three at Saint John’s Hospital – one in the chapel and two in the graveyard.

Dean Savage wonders whether his predecessor’s new-found interest in Lichfield Cathedral demonstrated “a recovered sense of responsibility.”

But Richard’s return to Lichfield was brief. In 1346, the Chapter of Armagh forestalled any papal intervention and forced Pope Clement VI to accept their election of Richard FitzRalph as Archbishop of Armagh. Despite initial papal demurring, his election was ratified by the pope on 31 July, yet Richard gave the appearance of being in no hurry to return from Lichfield to the diocese in which he was born.

Eventually, on 8 July 1347, he was consecrated Archbishop of Armagh – not in Armagh or Dundalk, not in Lichfield, but in Exeter Cathedral.

Back in Ireland, Richard was deeply concerned with social problems and for the people of Dundalk and Drogheda who suffered during the Black Death. In his sermons, he criticised the clergy for laxity in their vocation and the merchants for wasteful extravagances and under-handed practices, and he denounced discrimination against the Gaelic Irish.

The late Archbishop George Simms of Armagh saw him as an exemplar for “all who are concerned with social justice and the relief of the needy,” and an example of how to “seek holiness in life and integrity of intellect with a like concern for the helpless.”

Richard became entangled in a dispute with the Archbishop of Dublin over their competing claims to primacy. A century earlier, Archbishop Henry de Loundres of Dublin obtained a papal bull prohibiting any other archbishop from having his cross carried before him in Dublin without the consent of the Archbishop of Dublin. But, to the chagrin of Archbishop Alexander de Bicknor of Dublin, FitzRalph claimed royal authority from Edward III and entered Dublin in 1349 “with the cross erect before him.”

Richard was forced to withdraw to Drogheda, the most southerly town in his diocese. When Bicknor died later that year, the king changed his mind, but the dispute continued. Pope Innocent VI, on the advice of his cardinals, eventually ruled that “each of these prelates should be Primate; while, for the distinction of style, the Primate of Armagh should entitle himself Primate of All Ireland, but the Metropolitan of Dublin should subscribe himself Primate of Ireland.”

Soon again, though, Richard headed off for Avignon on a third visit in 1349, as Edward III’s ambassador to the Pope. There he complained about the mendicant friars – Dominicans and Franciscans – and their freelance activities in his diocese. He also took part in the negotiations between Pope Clement VI and a visiting delegation from the Armenian Church, and in an elaborate work, Summa in Quaestionibus Armenorum, showed profound knowledge of Scripture and Greek. Around the same time, he became the first western theologian to try to understand what was written in the Koran.

He was back in England in 1356, when he preached a famous sermon at Saint Paul’s Cross, beside Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London. In his sermon he attacked the Mendicant Friars once again. But this time he angered them so much that he was called back to Avignon for a fourth time in 1357 to defend himself before Pope Innocent VI. He argued their lifestyle was contrary to the teachings of Christ, and he demanded the withdrawal of their privileges when it came to confessions, preaching and burying, claiming they undermined his parish clergy.

He was still in France when appointed Chancellor of Oxford University in 1360. But he never made it back to Oxford, Lichfield, or the Diocese of Armagh, for he died in Avignon on 16 November 1360 before his trial ever came to an end.

Saint Nicholas’s Church, Dundalk ... Richard FitzRalph was buried there in 1370, ten years after he died in Avignon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

In 1370, his body was brought back to Ireland by Stephen de Valle, Bishop of Meath, and Richard was reburied at Saint Nicholas’s Church, Dundalk, where he was venerated for several centuries and where miracles were attributed to him. Obviously he made a better impact on the people of Dundalk, who regarded him as a saint, than he died on the poor canons of Lichfield Cathedral.

Resurrection and Easter hope in Lichfield

Resurrection in Lichfield … John Piper’s window ‘The Christ in Glory’ in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my Lenten exercises this year, I followed the saints’ days in the calendars of the Church, seeking inspiration for my Lent observances in the in their lives and their writings.

In the calendar of the Church of England, today [31 March] recalls the life and work of John Donne, one of England’s most celebrated poets. However, as today is Easter Day, few people are likely to give much thought to John Donne this morning.

I am spending this Easter weekend in Lichfield Cathedral on a retreat. The Easter Liturgy at 5 a.m. before the break of dawn this morning was a Service of Light, with the Easter Proclamation, Vigil Readings, Liturgy of Initiation, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, sung by Sarum Voices. This was followed by a celebration breakfast in the College Hall in the Cathedral Close.

The Easter celebrations continue this morning with Holy Communion (BCP) at 8 a.m., Morning Prayer (8.45 a.m.), and at 10.30 a.m. the Sung Eucharist with Renewal of Baptismal Vows, with the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra accompanying the Cathedral Choir in a programme of Mozart. Later this Easter Day, there is Solemn Evensong in the cathedral at 3.30 p.m.

I am reminded, though, that this year [2013] also marks the 400th anniversary of John Donne (1573-1631) writing his poem Good Friday 1613: Travelling Westwards.

John Donne wrote that poem in a letter to his friend, Sir Henry Goodere of Polesworth Hall, a patron of the arts and leader of the Polesworth Group of poets. Polesworth Hall, a short distance east of Tamworth, was originally Polesworth Abbey, founded by Saint Editha, who gave her name to the parish church in Tamworth. Polesworth Hall, which has been Polesworth Vicarage since the 1930s, is just 18 km (12 miles) from Lichfield, although today the parish is in the Diocese of Birmingham.

In 1613, Good Friday fell on 2 April, and on Tuesday 2 April this year a workshop exploring Polesworth’s rich cultural heritage of modern-day poets and writers is being held at Polesworth Abbey 400 years after John Donne wrote Good Friday 1613: Travelling Westwards.

The Vicar of Polesworth, Father Philip Wells, says: “We are very excited to be celebrating this 400th anniversary with a series of talks and giving people a chance to reflect on Donne’s poem in the wider context of the Abbey site and the Christian faith which inspired it.”

TS Eliot was deeply disparaging when it came to John Donne: “About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive; and impure motives lend their aid to a facile success. He is a little of the religious spellbinder, the Reverend Billy Sunday of his time, the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy. We emphasize this aspect to the point of the grotesque. Donne had a trained mind; but without belittling the intensity or the profundity of his experience, we can suggest that this experience was not perfectly controlled, and that he lacked spiritual discipline.”

But John Donne’s poem Good Friday 1613 is about a profound experience and has no shadow of “impure motive” hanging over it, for it was not written for publication, and so it offers a very personal look at the meaning of Christ’s death for him and for the restoration of the whole universe.

On his journey westward over that weekend 400 years ago, John Donne realised the general aberration of nature that prompts us to put pleasure before our devotion to Christ. We ought to be heading east at Easter so as to contemplate and share Christ’s suffering; and recalling up that event in his mind’s eye, he recognises the paradox of the ignominious death of God upon a Cross:

Could I behold those hands, which span the poles,
And turn all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?

However, as I celebrate the Resurrection on this Easter morning in Lichfield Cathedral, I want to share two other poems by John Donne that bring together the themes of Good Friday and Easter Day.

Resurrection, by John Donne

Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall – though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly – be
Freed by that drop, from being starved, hard or foul,
And life by this death abled shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death bring misery,
If in thy life-book my name thou enroll.
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrified,
But made that there, of which, and for which it was;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin's sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day.

Easter Day, by John Donne

Sleep sleep old Sun! thou canst not have repast
As yet, the wound thou took’st on Friday last;
Sleep then, and rest; the world may bearer thy stay,
A better Sun rose before thee to-day,
Who, not content t’enlighten all that dwell
On the earth’s face, as thou, enlighten’d hell;
And made the darker fires languish in that vale,
As, at thy presence here, our fires grow pale.
Whose body having walk’d on earth, and now
Hasting to Heaven, would – that he might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all,
For these three days become a mineral;
He was all gold when he lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make even sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought, that a Soul one might discern and see
Go from a body, ’at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soul,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.
Desunt caetera

The closing Latin inscription, Desunt Caetera “the rest is wanting.” This a phrase was added at the end of manuscripts whose last pages or sentences had been lost. But here John Donne may be referring to the mystery of the Resurrection, telling us that while the Resurrection of Christ is perfect, our own resurrection is an unfinished task that remains to be fulfilled.

For information on next Tuesday’s events at Polesworth Abbey, contact: Father Philip on 01827 892340 or email . Read more at: