06 December 2015

‘Advent winds’ and old friends in Wexford
at the launch of Historical Society’s journal

Advent reflections in the waters of the Crescent in Wexford this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

These islands have been struck by Advent storms that have wreaked havoc throughout the weekend.

The experience has been a little milder on the east coast, with the bright blue skies of Friday afternoon returning this morning [6 December 2015] as I headed to Wexford late in the morning after a long working week and a long working weekend.

In our tutorial group on Saturday morning [5 December 2015], we were discussing the poetry of John Betjeman, and the opening lines of his poem ‘Advent 1955,’ written 60 years ago, came to mind:

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It’s dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver pale
The world seems travelling into space,
And travelling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound –
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out ‘Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’

I was on “some momentous journey bound” this morning, for I was going to Wexford for the annual dinner of the Wexford Historical Society, followed by the launch of the latest and 25th edition of the Journal of the Wexford Historical Society.

The skies were blue, the grey clouds were turning white, there was a sparkle on the sea off the Wicklow coast, and the fields were a bright green.

A brighter day near Ferns, Co Wexford, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

On the edges of Ferns, roadworks before reaching the cathedral caused the only delay on the journey. But even this forced wait offered an opportunity to appreciate the bright scenery, and it was possible for a moment to imagine that this was early spring instead of a bright break in a stormy, wet winter.

Before lunch in the Slaney Suite in the Talbot Hotel, there was short opportunity to walk around the narrow streets of the town that I lived in up to the mid-1970s and that still feels like home.

The narrow streets of Wexford seen from the Crescent early this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The reflection in the waters of the Crescent were a reminder too that Advent is a time for reflection and preparation in advance of Christmas.

At lunch, I found myself sitting at a table with Councillor Joe Ryan of Labour, who is also a Maynooth graduate, and Brendan Culliton, secretary of Wexford Historical Society and who reminded me that he had been a close friend of my brother.

The room was full of friends and former colleagues, including Nicky Furlong, Hilary Murphy, Celestine Murphy, Michael Freeman, Helen Skrine and Jarlath Glynn.

The latest Journal is the 25th edition and so it is milestone both for the Wexford Historical Society, and for the editor, Celestine Murphy. In her Editorial, Celestine recalls that the first edition was published at the prompting of the late Dr George Hadden, founder of the Old Wexford Society, almost half a century ago in 1968. The first editor was Dr Ned Culleton, and later editors included William Igoe, Brendan Culleton, Billy Colfer, Hilary Murphy, Nicky Furlong and Celestine Murphy.

The latest edition was launched by Peter Prendergast, a former government press secretary, who is now living in Wexford.

With Peter Prendergast, Hilary Murphy and Celestine Murphy at the launch of the ‘Journal of the Wexford Historical Society 2014-2015’

My paper in this 2014-2015 edition of the Journal is a study of a former Rector of Kilscoran and prebendary of Ferns Cathedral: “Henry Bate Dudley (1745-1824): the ‘fighting parson’ who retained an affection for his County Wexford parish” (pp 44-63).

The other contributors include: Nicky Furlong, John Patterson, David Ian Hamilton, Hilary Murphy, Bernard Browne, Kieran Costello, Tom McDonald, Alice McDermott, Mark Power, Greg Devlin and Dr Tom Ryan. Tom Ryan’s paper on the early occupations of the proposed nuclear power station at Carnsore brought and our conversations after lunch back many memories of anti-nuclear and political activism in Co Wexford in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It was dark when I left Wexford and headed back once again for Dublin.

At the launch of the ‘Journal of the Wexford Historical Society’ in Wexford this afternoon

CITI students conferred with MTh
degrees at TCD commencements

Graduating students and staff members of CITI on chapel steps of Trinity College Dublin after the Autumn Commencements and the conferring of 14 MTh degrees (Photograph: Martin O’Kelly)

Fourteen students from the Church of Ireland Theological Institute have been conferred with MTh (Master in Theology) degrees at the Autumn Commencements in Trinity College Dublin.

At the formal ceremony in Examination Hall (Public Theatre), the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin, Professor Edward McParland, conferred the degrees on the 14 graduate students.

The 14 students to receive their degrees are: the Revd Julie Bell, the Revd Philip Benson, the Revd David Bowles, the Revd Alan Breen, the Revd Olivia Downey, the Revd Catherine Hallissey, the Revd Trevor Holmes, the Revd Samuel Johnston, the Revd Cameron Jones, the Revd David Martin, the Revd Ruth O’Kelly, the Revd Robert Robinson, the Revd Catherine Simpson and the Revd Abigail Sines.

The students were accompanied by the four academic staff members of CITI, who took part in the academic procession from the theatre to Front Square: the Revd Canon Dr Maurice Elliott, the Revd Canon Patrick Comerford, Dr Katie Heffelfinger, and the Revd Dr Patrick McGlinchey.

The conferring ceremony was followed by a reception in the Dining Hall attended by the graduates, CITI staff, family members and friends.

The Director of CITI, the Revd Canon Professor Maurice Elliott (centre) with the Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin, Professor Edward McParland, and the Registrar, Professor Shane Allwright (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This half-page news report and these photographs were published in the December 2015 edition of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough), p. 15.

‘O come, all ye faithful’:
the story of the most
popular Christmas carol

Canon Frederick Oakeley, author of ‘O come, all ye faithful’

Patrick Comerford

One of the best-loved Christmas carols, ‘O come, all ye faithful’, is sometimes known by its Latin name (Adeste Fideles), and this probably explains why it is often described as a mediaeval hymn. But while, the original author is unknown, the carol has some links with Ireland, and the writer who made it popular in English was a priest in the Church of England, a canon of Lichfield Cathedral and an Oxford don for many years before following John Henry Newman into the Roman Catholic Church and becoming a canon of Westminster Cathedral.

This popular carol may have French or German origins, but the earliest version dates only from around 1743. But Bishop Edward Darling and Donald Davison suggest the hymn – or at least the first four stanzas – and the tune may have been written by John Francis Wade (1711-1786), an English Roman Catholic exile living in Douay. Six manuscript copies of this version of the hymn survive – a seventh was stolen from Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare, in the last century.

As early as 1797, the Latin hymn was sung in London at the Chapel of the Portuguese Embassy, where Vincent Novello was the organist. Novello claimed it was written a century earlier by John Reading, the organist of Winchester Cathedral (1675-1681).

The carol was soon translated into English and then into many other languages. But the most popular version begins with the opening words by Canon Frederick Oakeley: ‘O come, all ye faithful, joyfully triumphant,’ or, ‘O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.’

Lichfield Cathedral … Frederick Oakeley wrote ‘O come, all ye faithful’ while he was a canon of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880) is best known for this carol. But, while he ended his days as a Roman Catholic priest, he spent his childhood in Lichfield, was a canon of Lichfield Cathedral in the 1830s and 1840s, and when he became a Roman Catholic priest he returned to Lichfield to say his first Mass.

A vicar’s grandson

The Bishop’s Palace, Lichfield … now a school and once the childhood home of Frederick Oakeley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Frederick Oakeley was born at his grandfather’s vicarage the Abbey House in Shrewsbury, on 5 September 1802, a son of Sir Charles Oakeley (1751-1826). Sir Charles was born in Forton, Staffordshire, where his father, the Revd William Oakeley (1717-1803), was the Rector of Forton before becoming the Vicar of Holy Cross, the Abbey Church in Shrewsbury.

Sir Charles Oakeley was a colonial administrator in India. He returned to England in 1789, was made a baronet the following year, and then returned to India as the Governor of Madras (1790-1794). When he returned to England once again, he moved into at the Abbey House, his father’s vicarage, and it was there the hymn-writer Frederick was born in 1802.

A childhood accident in the Abbey House when he was three left Frederick disabled for many months, and for the rest of his life he was sickly and walked with a limp.

When Frederick was eight, the Oakeley family moved from Shrewsbury to Lichfield and into the Bishop’s Palace in the Cathedral Close, in 1810. Sir Charles was offered the Palace at a nominal rent on condition that he would restore the building, then in a sorry state. At the time, the Bishop of Lichfield was living at Eccleshall near Stafford. The Oakeley family moved into the Palace following the death in 1809 of the Lichfield poet, Anna Seward, who had continued to live there after the death of her father, Canon Thomas Seward, in 1790.

Each day, Sir Charles attended Morning Prayer in Lichfield Cathedral. His son later remembered him as pious, devout and humble, and the standard of music in the cathedral added to his pleasure in attending daily services. Frederick also recalled how as boy of eight the cathedral organist allowed him to play the organ to accompany the psalms at the daily services.

Lichfield Grammar School … now the offices of Lichfield District Council (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Poor health often prevented Frederick from leaving home for school until the age of 14, when he had a late start at Lichfield Grammar School. A year after entering Lichfield Grammar School, Oakeley was sent from Lichfield in 1817 to Canon Charles Sumner for private tuition. Sumner was then the curate at Highclere, near Newbury, Hampshire. Highclere Castle was the home of the Earl of Carnarvon, and has become known in recent years as the location for Downton Abbey.

Frederick spent three years at Highclere, but returned for holidays with his parents in Lichfield, and was often homesick for Lichfield when he returned to Highclere.

Early career in Oxford

Frederick Oakeley by an unknown artist, ca 1817 (Collection of Balliol College, Oxford)

He entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1820, graduated BA in 1824, and won prizes in Latin, English and theology. But while he was still at Oxford, his father, Sir Charles Oakeley, died at the Palace in Lichfield in 1826. He was buried in Forton, and a monument by Sir Francis Chantrey was erected to him in the North Transept of Lichfield Cathedral.

The monument to Sir Charles Oakeley in the North Transept of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Paul’s Cathedral seen from Fleet Street … Frederick Oakeley was ordained priest in 1828 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Frederick Oakeley was elected to a chaplain fellowship at Balliol College. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of London in the Chapel Royal in Whitehall in 1828 and ordained priest a week later in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, by his former tutor, Charles Sumner, then Bishop of Llandaff and Dean of Saint Paul’s. Oakeley remained a fellow of Balliol College until 1845, and was also tutor, Senior Dean, a lecturer, and one of the public examiners to Oxford University.

Canon Frederick Oakeley’s stall in Lichfield Cathedral as Prebendary of Dassett Parva (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On 11 February 1832, Oakeley was installed as the Prebendary of Dassett Parva in Lichfield Cathedral on the nomination of Bishop Henry Ryder, whose kneeling statue by Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey is in the north transept in Lichfield Cathedral.

As a canon, Oakeley dutifully returned to Lichfield Cathedral each year to preach on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany and he remained a canon of Lichfield Cathedral until 1845.

While Oakeley was a fellow of Balliol College, he helped secure the election to a fellowship of his lifelong friend and former pupil Archibald Campbell Tait, later Archbishop of Canterbury. At Balliol, he also became a close friend of William George Ward, and they both joined the Tractarian party.

The Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, appointed Oakeley Whitehall Preacher in 1837, but he remained a fellow of Balliol. In the preface to his first volume of Whitehall Sermons (1837) he declared himself a member of the Oxford Movement. In 1839, he became the incumbent of the Margaret Chapel, the predecessor of All Saints’ Church, Margaret Street, London. In his six years there, Oakeley introduced High Church liturgical practices, and his friends there included the future Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and Sir Alexander Beresford-Hope, who supervised William Butterfield’s building of All Saints’ Church (1850-1859).

Tractarian and hymn writer

Inside Holy Cross Church, Lichfield … Frederick Oakeley celebrated his first Roman Catholic Mass here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Oakeley translated ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ for his congregation in London in 1840, while he was still a canon of Lichfield Cathedral. His original translation began: “Ye faithful, approach ye.” But in 1845 he rewrote the opening words: “O come, all ye faithful, Joyfully triumphant.” Its inclusion in Francis H Murray’s Hymnal in 1852 gave Oakley a permanent place in the history of hymnology.

Oakeley stood by his Tractarian friend, Charles Lloyd, Regius Professor of Divinity in Oxford, when he was condemned in 1845. In two pamphlets published in London and Oxford, Oakeley defended Tract XC and asserted that he held, “as distinct from teaching, all Roman doctrine.” He was brought before the Court of Arches by Bishop Blomfield, and in July 1845 he was suspended until he “retracted his errors.”

He resigned as a canon of Lichfield Cathedral and from all his other appointments in the Church of England on 28 October 1845, and moved into Cardinal Newman’s community at Littlemore in Oxford. The following day, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and on 31 October he was confirmed in Birmingham by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman.

He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest by Cardinal Wiseman in 1847 and he returned to Lichfield to celebrate his first Mass in Holy Cross Church, Upper John Street, with the 86-year-old scholarly Dr John Kirk, who had been Parish Priest of Lichfield when Oakeley was still a child in the Cathedral Close.

Westminster Cathedral … Oakeley became a canon after he became a Roman Catholic (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Oakeley joined the staff of Saint George’s, Southwark, took charge of Saint John’s, Islington, and was made a canon of Westminster Cathedral. For many years, he worked among the poor in his diocese, and from the 1860s on he was a regular contributor to the Dublin Review, and eventually became its joint editor. He died in Islington on 29 January 1880, and was buried in Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green.

Family and legacy

Henrietta Mott, wife of John Mott (1787–1869), Mayor of Lichfield in 1850, and sister of Frederick Oakeley

Frederick Oakeley was short-sighted, small of stature and lame, and it is said he exercised a wide influence through his personality, his writings, and the charm of his conversation.

Richard Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (1870-1891), and an early historian of the Oxford Movement, said Oakeley “was, perhaps, the first to realise the capacities of the Anglican ritual for impressive devotional use.”

Oakeley’s widowed mother, Helena, continued living in the Bishop’s Palace in Lichfield until her death in 1838. His brother, Sir Herbert Oakeley (1791-1845), who succeeded to the family title, was Archdeacon of Colchester. When the Bishopric of Gibraltar was founded in 1842, it was offered to Archdeacon Oakeley, but he declined it.

Their sister, Henrietta, married John Mott (1787–1869) of No 20, The Close, Lichfield, who was Deputy Diocesan Registrar of Lichfield and Mayor of Lichfield in 1850. Another sister, Amelia, married Chappel Wodehouse, only son of Chappel Wodehouse (1749-1833), who was Dean of Lichfield Cathedral when Frederick was installed a canon.

John Mott (1787–1869) … Mayor of Lichfield in 1850 and brother-in-law of Frederick Oakeley

His nephew, Sir Herbert Stanley Oakeley (1830-1903), was Music Critic of the Manchester Guardian (1858-1868), Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University (1865-1891), Organist at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Edinburgh, and Composer of Music to Queen Victoria in Scotland. He is included among the top 15 Victorian composers of hymn tunes by Ian Bradley (Abide with Me, London: SCM Press, 1997). Two of his settings for hymns are included in the Irish Church Hymnal: Abends for John Keble’s ‘Sun of my soul, thou Saviour dear’ (No 72) and Dominica for William Watkins Reid’s ‘Help us, O Lord, to learn’ (No 382).

A sign on Elgar Close, leading to Oakley Close in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sadly, Frederick Oakeley has no monument in Lichfield apart from a misspelled street name at Oakley Close. Oakley Close was named after Frederick Oakeley but was misspelled in the original order by Lichfield District Council in 1977. Other street names in the area commemorate celebrated composers and musicians, including Purcell, Elgar, Handel, Verdi, Gilbert and Sullivan.

It is regrettable that in the cathedral city Oakeley knew as home, there is no public monument to one of the great and most popular English hymn-writers. Perhaps correcting the spelling of Oakley Close might begin to rectify this.

Oakely Close … Lichfield’s only tribute to Frederick Oakeley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was published in December 2015 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Spirituality: Introducing
Anglican Spirituality (2015)

The Canticles, sung by great cathedral choirs, often provide the first introduction for many to the riches of Anglican spirituality

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

9 a.m., 6 December 2015.

For many people outside the Anglican tradition, Anglican spirituality is experienced in its full splendour as they hear Choral Evensong, and the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis sung by great cathedral choirs. And so, we open with the canticle Magnificat sung by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral.


There are many varieties of Anglican spirituality. They cannot be confined to the labels of evangelical, catholic, liberal, conservative, charismatic … and even when they are reduced to these categories, they often overlap and can never be mutually exclusive.

The Anglican gift is to hold these not in tension, but in creative tension, so that we are enriched, so that Anglicanism is enriched, and so that the Church Catholic is enriched.

So what holds these different Anglican traditions of spirituality together in one community of faith, in one pilgrim people?

When we look outside the Anglican tradition, there are some traditions in the Church that are named after their claims to universality or to holding the whole faith, as with Catholics or Orthodox. Others are named after a founder, for example, the Benedictines, Franciscans, Lutherans, Wesleyans or Calvinists. Others have been named because of a particular emphasis in prayer and spirituality, such as the Methodists, Salvationists, Jesuits, Redemptorists or Quakers. Still others have names that reveal a particular sacramental or organisational emphasis, including the Baptists and Presbyterians.

But as Anglicans we are not Henricians or Elizabethans, nor are we Cranmerists, not Laudians. Episcopalian might describe us in organisational terms, but we are not the only ones with bishops. And there are times when I am slightly uneasy with a term like Anglican – for we are not the English overseas at prayer. But “Anglican” is a convenient shorthand for a family of churches that have a shared spiritual heritage.

So, what is Anglican spirituality? And is there something unique about it?

There are a number of classical reference points for Anglican theology.

One is the emphasis, classically articulated by Richard Hooker (1554-1600), on the three-fold relationship between:

1, Scripture;
2, Reason;
3, Tradition.

Secondly, the classical articulations of Anglican theology are said to be found in The Book of Common Prayer and the Formularies:

1, The Book of Common Prayer;
2, The 39 Articles;
3, The Ordinal;
4, The Homilies.

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) defined the boundaries of Anglican faith and practice as:

1, One canon reduced to writing by God himself;
2, Two testaments;
3, Three creeds (Nicene, Apostles’ and Athanasian);
4, Four general councils (Nicaea 325, Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431 and Chalcedon 451);
5, Five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period – the centuries that is, before Constantine, and two after (from the Apostles to Gregory the Great).

The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral seeks to summarise the Anglican approach to theology, worship and ecclesiology and is often cited as a basic summary of the essentials of Anglican identity:

1, The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
2, The Creeds (specifically, the Apostles' and Nicene) as the sufficient statement of Christian faith;
3, The dominical sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion;
4, The historic episcopate locally adapted.

So much for Anglican theology. But what about Anglican spirituality? And is there something unique about it?

There is a theological maxim, Lex orandi, lex credendi. In other words, we can tell what a people believe when we see how they pray.

This is particularly so when we look at Anglicanism, for there is no distinctive Anglican theology as propounded in other traditions which take their name from their founding theologian, there is no central, established authority, such as the Roman Catholic magisterium, nor do we have an extra-creedal summary of doctrine, such as the Presbyterians’ Westminster Confession of Faith. Even the 39 Articles do not hold the same authority.

Instead, Anglicans have typically appealed to The Book of Common Prayer as a guide to Anglican theology, spirituality and practice, with its selection, arrangement, and composition of prayers and exhortations, the selection and arrangement of daily scripture readings in the Lectionary, and in the rubrics describing permissible liturgical actions and variations.

Anglican theology places a high value on the traditions of the faith, acknowledges the primacy of the worshipping community in articulating, amending, and passing down the Church’s theology; and thus, by necessity, is inclined toward a comprehensive consensus concerning the principles of the tradition and the relationship between the Church and society. In this sense, Anglican theology is strongly incarnational.

But Anglican spirituality cannot be reduced to descriptions of prayer life or to The Book of Common Prayer. Nor can it be contained in the 39 Articles, or limited and constrained by the Formularies.

Indeed, the 39 Articles – while they have an important historical place in the Church of Ireland the Church of England – are not part of the shared history of all Anglican churches. The Book of Common Prayer means different things in different countries. And as for the formularies – the Ordinal in particular – they too have been challenged by different understandings of ordination, first exposed in the debates over the ordination of women.

Three insights and influences

So what has shaped Anglican spirituality?

Three profound influences on Anglican spirituality can be found in Patristics, the Benedictine tradition, and the Sarum Rite.

Only a few generations ago, no-one would have entered on a course leading to ordination in an Anglican theological college without receiving a solid grounding in their first year in Patristics, the writings of the Early Church Fathers.

The Anglican reformation was not just about Church structures but also an effort to return to the early worship of the Church and to return to Patristic ideas of liturgy and worship.

The rediscovery of the Early Fathers of the Church, and the quest to return to Patristic forms of worship, was an important factor in the Anglican reformation.

The legacy and bequests of this search are scattered throughout The Book of Common Prayer. But a noticeable example – and one that has become part and parcel of the Anglican spiritual heritage – is the Prayer of Saint [John] Chrysostom:

Almighty God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise, that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests; Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.

But even before the Reformation, the Rule of Benedict had a profound influence on English and Irish expressions of Christianity. The Benedictine daily offices later shaped the offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. The Benedictines had developed the Liturgical use of Scripture. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, which are based on the Benedictine offices, are almost entirely Scriptural in their words and phrases.

The Psalms provide the basis for the versicles and responses, for example. The Psalter is the only book of the Bible to be fully contained within The Book of Common Prayer, originally with the expectation that the Psalms would be read in church daily, and that the full Psalter would be read through each month.

The Book of Common Prayer brings the offices of the Benedictine monastery into the daily life of the parish church, morning and evening. For, as The Book of Common Prayer succinctly tells us, our duty as Christians is to live “a godly, righteous and sober life.”

Two related and connected strengths of The Book of Common Prayer, and two that have shaped and marked Anglicans spiritually over the generations, are the canticles and the collects.

One of the great spiritual experiences for many and sometimes their first and lasting introduction to Anglican spirituality is experiencing the way we use the Canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at Evening Prayer, particularly at Choral Evensong.

Famously, when John Keble was asked about what was at the heart of Anglicanism, he replied: “Study the Collects in The Book of Common Prayer.”

And thirdly, Anglican spirituality is, of course, liturgical. This Anglican liturgical tradition has been shaped by the western rite, strongly influenced by the Sarum tradition, and was first modernised and reformed at the Reformations by Thomas Cranmer and other.

If Morning and Evening Prayer were to shape Anglican spiritual practice on a day-by-day basis, then Anglicanism was also a return to the Eucharist, the Holy Communion or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, as the central act of worship of the Church.

As Anglicans, no-one was to be a spectator, as in the mediaeval church, but all were to be participants.

And if the people felt too unworthy, then the Prayer of Humble Access reminded them that they were not present as spectators but as participants:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Devotional legacy

There is such a rich inheritance of devotional literature that it could be said that Anglican spirituality has been shaped by Anglican devotional writers, and the Anglican spiritual heritage is also a literary heritage.

But we should not forget there is a pre-Reformation corpus that is an integral part of Anglican spirituality. This includes the anonymous work we know as the Cloud of Unknowing, as well as the writings of mystics such as Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, the most popular of English mystics.

Julian of Norwich ... All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well

Julian was a joyous mystic who stressed the homely love of God which has been poured upon this planet and humanity for ever. She concludes in these beautiful and well-loved words: “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

When we come to great post-Reformation writers in Anglican spirituality, we should remember too that, like Julian of Norwich, these writers have not always been ordained and have not been exclusively male. Indeed who could have been a more unexpected but-oft quoted author of a pithy but mystical and spiritual understanding of the Eucharist or the Holy Communion, than Elizabeth I?

Elizabeth can be credited with holding together in one Anglican tradition the competing claims within the Church of England and Anglicanism after the death of her half-sister Mary. And it is she who is said to have written of the Eucharist:

His was the Word that spake it:
He tooke the bread and brake it:
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it

In the immediate post-Elizabethan age, Anglican spiritual writers included country parsons such as George Herbert (1593-1633), who is remembered for his careful pastoral nurturing of his parish and his parishioners, and for his poetry, much of which has been adapted as hymns.

Herbert’s spirituality is the Anglican Via Media or Middle Way par excellence. His poetry is constantly evident of the intimacy of his dealings with God and his assurance that, alone in a vast universe, he is held safe by the Crucified Christ.

Richard Baxter later said of him that Herbert speaks to God like one that really believes a God and as one who whose business in this world is most with God.

In his poem Obedience, George Herbert wrote:

O let thy sacred will
All thy delight in me fulfil!
Let me not think an action mine own way.
But as thy love shall sway,
Refining up the rudder to thy skill

George Herbert ... Prayer, the Church’s banquet

For George Herbert, prayer is concerned not only with things heavenly, but also with the earthly. In his poem Prayer he writes:

Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood

In this poem, Herbert is saying that in prayer it is possible to be transported, even if momentarily, to another realm. “Angel’s age,” “the milky way,” and a “tune beyond the stars” suggest that prayer touches the infinite. The poem concludes with “something understood” – a profound but elusive encounter with the mysterious otherness of God.

Herbert was close to Nicholas Ferrar and the Community of Little Gidding, which showed that prayer, community life, and a life of discipleship and service ought to be inter-woven.

Herbert, John Jewel and Richard Hooker and were profoundly influential on the Caroline Divines, including John Cosin, Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor.

John Cosin was as a bishop who sought to improve the worship and liturgy of the Church, and who drew on patristic sources for his Collection of Private Devotions, as did Lancelot Andrewes in writing his Latin Devotions. There he wrote that “he who prays for others, labours for himself.”

John Donne ... Each man’s death diminishes me

He was a contemporary of the poet John Donne (1571-1631), who was Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, for his last ten years. He is best remembered today for his lines:

No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thine own
or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
for I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee

The devotional writings of the Carolines emphasised the centrality of the incarnation in Christian spirituality: the incarnation revealed to humanity in Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, in the revelation of Christ’s continuing presence in the holy example of the saints. In their devotion, the Carolines shied away from abstraction in favour of the fruits of love and charity, and their devotional life was worked out in their pastoral service.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), who ended his days as a bishop in the Church of Ireland, in the dioceses of Connor, Down and Dromore, is best known for his Holy Living (1640) and Holy Dying (1641), which had a profound influence spiritually on later generations, including figures as diverse as John Wesley and John Keble.

No book other than the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer has had a more profound and lasting influence on the distinctive inwardness of Anglican devotion. No other book so clearly expresses the essence of the classical Anglican understanding of the spiritual life, with its insistence that there is no division between what is religious and what is secular.

Nor should we neglect the Puritan divines, who were contemporaries of the Caroline Divines but are often written out when it comes to telling the story of Anglican spirituality.

Among them was Richard Baxter (1615-1691). He too was influenced by the poetry of George Herbert, and although he ended his days as a Presbyterian he spent most of his life as an Anglican. He described his faith as ‘catholic’ or ‘mere’ Christianity – a term that we can see was later to be adopted as his own by CS Lewis. One of his most joyful yet mystical contributions to our hymnody is Ye holy angels bright, with its mystical understanding of the Communion of Saints and our place in it.

Thomas Traherne was a hidden mystic of the same period, whose writings only became known long after his death in 1674. In his Centuries of Meditation, Traherne sees God in everything and everything praising God.

Curiously, the most influential book from this time, though, may have been one whose author remains unknown. The Whole Duty of Man, first published in 1657, reached its 28th edition in 1790, so that for more than a century, this anonymous book shaped an Anglican spirituality that was defined by the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer in terms of doctrine and worship, and in practice by an understanding “that religion without morals is but superstition, that Christianity is not a set of beliefs but a way of life.”

Jeremy Taylor’s spirituality, as expressed in his Holy Living and Holy Dying has many echoes in William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), which brought deeply sacramental piety and emphasis on community of the Nonjurors back in the mainstream of spirituality, especially through his influence on John Wesley.

The great Anglican movements of the late 18th and the 19th centuries were the Evangelical Revival and the Oxford Movement, which had a second generation expression in the Anglo-Catholic Movement.

Those two strands were not so much about style and churchmanship as about mission work: the evangelical movement gave us the Church Mission Society (CMS) and its related family of mission societies, while the Oxford Movement and the later Anglo-Catholics gave us USPG and its family of mission agencies, now known simply as Us.

In both cases, they show us once again that to be truly Anglican is to be incarnational. And in living this through, their faith was expressed in social action. For men like William Wilberforce, it was translated into action through their opposition to slavery and the slave trade. He was convinced that Christianity required the response of the heart as well as the head. For a later generation of Anglo-Catholics it was lived out in commitment to the poor and the oppressed in the slums and the inner cities, exemplified in the life and work of the slum priests.

The great hymn writer of the Oxford Movement and of the later Anglo-Catholics was John Keble, whose hymns and poems are collected in The Christian Year. If what we sing rather than how we pray shows what we believe – a new way of looking at the maxim Lex Orandi Lex Credendi – then through the English Hymnal Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams have had a profound influence on modern expressions of Anglican spirituality.

But two of the most influential writers in terms of Anglican spirituality must have been CS Lewis and TS Eliot. CS Lewis, who was born in Belfast, is known to all of us as a spiritual writer ever since we first read the Chronicles of Narnia. However, if you have not already read it, could I recommend to you The Four Loves, which is known and loved well beyond the Anglican tradition of spirituality.

TS Eliot, on the other hand, is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century. Ash Wednesday (1930) is the first long poem written by him after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. In this poem, Eliot deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith strives to move towards God. Sometimes referred to as Eliot’s “conversion poem,” Ash Wednesday is richly but ambiguously allusive and deals with the aspiration to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation, inspired by Dante’s Purgatorio. Its groundwork of orthodox Christianity discomfited many of the more secular members of his literary circle.

The Four Quartets ... considered by many to be TS Eliot’s masterpiece, it led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature

However, Eliot and many other critics considered The Four Quartets his masterpiece, and it was this work that led to him receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. In The Four Quartets, Eliot draws upon his knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. It consists of four long poems, each first published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942). Each has five sections. Although they resist easy characterisation, each approaches the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, and are strongly theological and spiritual.

Burnt Norton asks what it means to consider things that might have been. East Coker continues the examination of time and meaning, focusing in a famous passage on the nature of language and poetry. Out of darkness, Eliot continues to reassert a solution: “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.” The Dry Salvages strives to contain opposites:

… the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled

Little Gidding is the most anthologised of the Quartets. Here for the first time he talks of Love as the driving force behind all experience. From this background, the Quartets end with an affirmation of Julian of Norwich:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

In The Four Quartets, Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The “deeper communion” sought in East Coker, the “hints” and whispers of children, the sickness that “must grow worse in order to find healing,” and the exploration that inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road of sanctification.

‘And the fire and the rose are one’ ... a candle and a rose on a table in a restaurant in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I conclude with the last canto of Little Gidding:


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Poets, Artists and Writers

‘The Light of the World’ by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) …one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

There are others. We could have looked at poets like Christina Rosetti, artists like William Holman Hunt and the Pre-Raphaelites, writers such as at Dorothy Sayers, for example, or modern novelists like Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox today.

For many Anglican spirituality has been conveyed down the generations by great composers, from William Byrd, John Taverner, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbins and Thomas Tomkins, to Hubert Parry, Charles Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells and John Rutter.

Who can say whether the lyrics of U2, most of them Dublin-born Anglicans, will shape future spiritual thinking? – already we have had celebrations that have used the designation U2charist.

But spirituality is always elusive and mercurial when it comes to defining or analysing it. It is not always true that its influences and growth can be found in writers and poets.

Who can claim credit for the interesting movements in the past century, such as the Parish Communion Movement of the 1930s, the Charismatic Movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the search for Fresh Expressions of Church in our own time? Yet each has had a profound impact on our understanding of Anglican spirituality.

Many of these new insights have been and hopefully will continue to be channelled into the life of the church, and become part of the spiritual life of all Anglicans, though liturgical revival, through theological education, through the ways we live out our lives.

Our closing music is the Canticle Nunc Dimittis sung by the choristers of Lichfield Cathedral. Then, after our silence, we come back here at 9.50 to gather together and close with the Collect of the Day and the Lord’s Prayer.


Ash Wednesday marked TS Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism

I concluded with the final canto from Little Gidding in TS Eliot’s The Four Quartets. His conversion which led him to Anglicanism, like so many of our conversions I am sure, was deeply spiritual and he knew there was no going back to the old ways. He marked this with his poem, Ash Wednesday, which opens:


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Let us pray:

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our Father …

Christ the Son of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness before you:
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be with you and remain with you always. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This Introduction to Anglican Spirituality was prepared for the Spirituality Hour in the institute chapel with part-time MTh students during a residential weekend on Sunday 6 December 2015.

Waiting in Advent 2015
with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (8)

‘God travels wonderful ways with human beings’ … walking through trees dripping with rain in the countryside near Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Second Sunday of Advent this morning [6 December 2015]. Some of us today may recall Saint Nicholas of Myra, whose feastday falls on 6 December, and who provides the inspiration for the Santa Claus story.

However, the Gospel reading this morning (Luke 3: 1-6) looks at the story of Saint John the Baptist and compares him with the Prophet Isaiah calling out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Throughout Advent, as we wait and prepare for Christmas, I invite you to join me each morning for a few, brief moments in reflecting on the meaning of Advent through the words of the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). This is my own Advent Calendar for this year.

Bonhoeffer once wrote:

“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety — that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it.

“Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvellous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvellous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly ...

“God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

Readings (Revised Common Lectionary): Baruch 5: 1-9 or Malachi 3: 1-4; Canticle Benedictus; Philippians 1: 3-11; Luke 3: 1-6.

Inside the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Dublin ... the interior is neoclassical in style and is strikingly beautiful, brightly painted and decorated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect of the Second Sunday of Advent:

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

here you have nourished us with the food of life.
Through our sharing in this holy sacrament
teach us to judge wisely earthly things
and to yearn for things heavenly.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow