07 October 2018

Great Saint Mary’s Church
has been at the heart of life
in Cambridge for 800 years

Inside Great Saint Mary’s, the University Church in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

When I stay in Cambridge, I regard Saint Bene’t’s Church on Bene’t Street, opposite the Eagle, as my parish church. It is a short, brisk walk from Sidney Sussex College, and I am welcomed regularly at both the Sunday Parish Eucharist and at the early morning weekday celebrations.

But there are many churches and college chapels in Cambridge where I feel welcome. In the past, I have preached in the chapels of both Sidney Sussex College and Christ’s College, I have been at both the Sunday Eucharist and Choral Evensong in King’s College, and at the mid-week Eucharist in Westcott House. I have visited the chapels of most Cambridge colleges, and have attended the Sunday Eucharist in Little Saint Mary’s, Trumpington Street, the best-known Anglo-Catholic church in Cambridge.

The High Altar and choir stalls in Great Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

However, I had only occasionally visited the University Church or Great Saint Mary’s Church. So, it was interesting to spend some extra time in this church during visits to Cambridge this summer, on the way to and from the USPG conference.

Saint Mary the Great stands on Senate House Hill, opposite the Senate House and close to both King’s College and Gonville Caius College. It is known locally as Great Saint Mary’s or simply GSM to distinguish it from Little Saint Mary’s on Trumpington Street.

Parish church and university church

The entrance to the Tower in Great Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Cambridge is part of the Diocese of Ely and has no cathedral. So, Great Saint Mary’s serves not only as a parish church but also as the university church and has a role in the city similar to that of a cathedral.

Great Saint Mary’s is one of the 55 churches in the Greater Churches Group in the Church of England, which includes churches that have a cathedral-like ministry. They include Bath Abbey, Saint Martin in the Bullring, Birmingham, Saint Martin-in-the Fields, London, Christ Church, Spitalfields, and Saint Mary the Virgin, Saffron Walden, the largest parish church in Essex.

Looking out from Great Saint Mary’s to the Senate House, which was built in 1730 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Great Saint Mary’s, a Grade I listed building, was designed in the Late Perpendicular style and has been at the heart of Cambridge life for over 800 years.

The first mention of the church is in 1205, when King John presented Thomas de Chimeleye to the rectory, and the first church on the site was built that year. Four years later, Great Saint Mary’s was the first home of Cambridge University when scholars fled Oxford in 1209, and here lectures were given, degrees were conferred and celebrations took place.

The church was mostly destroyed by fire on 9 July 1290. At the time, the fire was blamed on the Jewish population in Cambridge. The synagogue was closed, all 5,000 Jews were expelled from England. The old synagogue in the centre was given to the Franciscans, who had their main house of Cambridge on the site of Sidney Sussex College.

Great Saint Mary’s was rebuilt, and in 1303 the University ordered that a special sermon should be preached at Great Saint Mary’s four times a year. The tradition of the University Sermon continues to this day.

During its early years, Great Saint Mary’s was the property of the crown. But in 1342 the land passed to King’s Hall, founded in 1317 and one of the predecessors of Trinity College Cambridge. Ever since, the site has been owned by Trinity College.

The new church was consecrated in 1351, and since 1352 it has been known as Great Saint Mary’s. In the Middle Ages, the church became an official gathering place for meetings and debates for Cambridge University.

The present church was built between 1478 and 1519, and the building costs were met largely by King Richard III and King Henry VII. King Henry VII donated 100 oak beams for the roof. The oaks came from Chesterford Park, near Cambridge, which belonged to the Abbott of Westminster, John Islip, and Henry VII had to apologise to the Abbott for cutting down his oaks.

Reformation role

An Icon of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in Great Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Great Saint Mary’s played a leading part in the English Reformation. Many leading figures of the day preached here, including Erasmus, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Martin Bucer (1491-1551), who was Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge from 1549 and who influenced Cranmer’s writing of the Book of Common Prayer, was buried here when he died in 1551 as a reaction to the damp fen climate.

During the reign of Queen Mary I, Bucer’s corpse was burned publicly in the marketplace. Great Saint Mary’s was condemned for harbouring the body of a heretic, and the churchwardens had to buy frankincense, sweet perfumes and herbs for a ceremony of reconciliation before the church could be used for services again.

However, in Elizabeth I’s reign, the dust from the place where Bucer was burned was replaced in the church in 1560 and now lie under a brass floor plate in the south chancel.

Great Saint Mary’s at the end of King's Parade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After the Reformation, Great Saint Mary’s became an important centre of preaching, and galleries were erected on all four sides to accommodate members of the university who were required to listen to formal sermons. The church tower was completed in 1608, and the font dates from 1632.

A Trinity don flew into a ‘greate rage’ when the Puritan churchwardens removed the altar steps in 1641. Royalist academics complained that Cromwell watched as his soldiers ripped up the Book of Common Prayer in the church, and Cromwell’s ‘multitudes of enraged soldiers’ vandalised the elaborate choir screen.

For the next 200 years, the Puritan faction dominated at Great Saint Mary’s, and galleries turned the church into a hall for preaching, centred on an imposing triple-decker pulpit.

The University Organ, bought from Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, in 1698, was built by the renowned organ builder ‘Father’ Bernard Smith (ca 1630-1708).

The bells were replaced in 1722, and the Society of Cambridge Youths, formed in 1724, claims to be the oldest bell-ringing society in Britain and the second oldest at any church in the world with a continuous ringing history.

The church continued as a venue for meetings and debates in Cambridge until 1730, when the Senate House was built across the street. In 1732, Great Saint Mary’s became the datum point from which the first English milestones were measured.

Transformation and restoration

Great Saint Mary’s became the datum point from which the first English milestones were measured in 1732 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During the 18th century, the whole church interior was transformed, and the church was restored by James Essex in 1766. When Henry VII’s oak roof showed signs of decay in 1783, a supplementary one was built a few feet above the original and the two were tied together.

The architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) carried out restoration work in 1850-1851, and soon after was involved in restoring Little Saint Mary’s on Trumpington Street. He was followed at Great Saint Mary’s in 1857 by Anthony Salvin (1799-1881).

From the 1860s, stained glass and a raised High Altar returned to Great Saint Mary’s, bringing colour and ritual back into the Anglican worship there. The interior was re-arranged with a new carved choir stalls and fixed pews, and the north and south galleries were removed, although the west gallery still stands.

The East Window depicting the Nativity of Christ is the work of the Chance Brothers partnership in Birmingham (1869) (Photograph: courtesy Great Saint Mary’s Church, Cambridge)

The stained glass in the east window depicting the Nativity of Christ was installed in 1869 and is the work of the Chance Brothers in Birmingham, who specialised in adapting the colouring techniques used by mediaeval glaziers. Other stained glass by Hardman was added in 1867-1869. The south porch was rebuilt in 1888, and there was further restoration work in the 20th century.

The clerestory windows, based on the canticle ‘Te Deum’, were inserted in 1902-1904 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Each window in the clerestory is based on a verse in Te Deum and they were inserted in 1902-1904. Sixty figures are portrayed, running east to west along the north side of the Church and then west to east along the south. They depict the ‘glorious company of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of prophets and the noble army of martyrs.’

Christ in Majesty

Alan Durst created the scene of ‘Majesty of Christ’ in gilded wood for Great Saint Mary’s, and it was installed as a reredos in 1960 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The golden sculpture above the High Altar, the Majestas Christi, the Majesty of Christ, was made in gilded wood by Alan Durst in 1959 and was installed in 1960. Its imagery draws on the Book of Revelation. Christ stands in front of the cross as the tree of life, his hands and feet are marked by the wounds of the crucifixion and around him are the lion, ox, man and eagle, symbolising the four evangelists, while Christ treads on a serpent. The Latin inscription on the book in Christ’s left hand means, ‘The leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations’ (Revelation 22: 2).

The sculpture of the ‘Majesty of Christ’ by Alan Durst draws on imagery in the Book of Revelation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Great Saint Mary’s continues to play a role in the life of the University of Cambridge. University officers must live within 20 miles of Great Saint Mary’s, undergraduates within three miles, and the church hosts the University Sermons and is home to the University Organ and the University Clock.

Saint Mary the Great is unusual in housing two self-contained pipe organs, a Parish Organ in the chancel, built in 1991, and the University Organ in the West Gallery. The University Organ was rebuilt by William Hill in 1870. Great Saint Mary’s is one of the few churches were a double organ concerto can be performed.

The University Clock chimes the ‘Cambridge Quarters,’ later used by Big Ben. The old ring of bells was replaced in 2009 with a new ring of 13 bells cast by Taylors Eayre and Smith. Some of the original bells have been retained to continue sounding the Cambridge Chimes.

The funeral of Stephen Hawking (1942-2018), the theoretical physicist, was held in Great Saint Mary’s earlier this year before his ashes were interred in Westminster Abbey.

A living tradition

A Sculpture of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child on the side of Great Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Great Saint Mary’s stands in the Liberal Catholic tradition of the Church of England, and it is a member of Inclusive Church. The mission of Great Saint Mary’s includes the Michaelhouse Centre and Chaplaincy in Trinity Street and the chaplaincy to the non-collegiate members of the University.

Past Vicars of Great Saint Mary’s include Mervyn Stockwood, later Bishop of Southwark, Hugh Montefiore, later Bishop of Kingston and of Birmingham, Stanley Booth-Clibborn, later Bishop of Manchester; Michael Mayne, later Dean of Westminster Abbey. David Conner, later Bishop of Lynn and then Dean of Windsor; and John Binns (1994-2017), now a Research Associate at the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS in London. John Binns was a founding director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, where he remains a Visiting Professor, and has strong links with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Canon Adrian Daffern has moved from Woodstock and Bladon in the Diocese of Oxford as the new been Vicar of the University Church of Saint Mary the Great with Saint Michael, Cambridge. He was instituted and inducted to his new post on 5 September 2018.

Great Saint Mary’s continues to play a role in the life of the University of Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This feature was first published in October 2018 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).

Bicycles chained to the railings of Great Saint Mary’s in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘Strive first for the kingdom of
God and his righteousness’

‘Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home’ … harvest time in the fields beside the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford,

Sunday 6 October 2018,

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIX)

11.30 p.m.: Harvest Thanksgiving Service, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

Readings: Joel 2: 21-27; Psalm 126; Matthew 6: 25-33.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Before I came to this group of parishes at the beginning of last year [January 2017], I had lived for more than 40 years in the suburbs of south Co Dublin.

So, for these past two years, my time here has rekindled the pleasures of being in the countryside, being in touch with the cycle of life and growth, sowing and harvest.

I spent important parts of my childhood on my grandmother’s farm in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and then went to school in the middle of the countryside in Co Meath.

So, these past two years have awoken many childhood and school-day memories and images. For example, the Feast of Saint Michael fell last weekend [29 September 2018], and I realised how late autumn actually has been this year.

Like many people who grew up in the countryside, I was aware of the old belief that we should not pick blackberries after Michaelmas, Saint Michael’s Day, 29 September. But a week later, the blackberries are still ripening on the brambles in the fields behind the rectory in Askeaton and on the laneways around this church.

I know that for many farmers, this has been a mixed summer, but the interesting sunshine we had in recent weeks provided many farmers with some compensation at harvest time.

The weather these past few weeks has compensated for the heavy rains earlier in the year that threatened the summer harvests. The fields are still green and gold after a second cutting and in some places even a third cutting.

Despite living in Dublin all those years, I still yearned for those fields of green and gold that give that sense of belonging that many of us get when we move out of the city and return to provincial and rural life.

It is as though, psychologically and spiritually, we need to take stock of what is in the barn, be aware of the riches and blessings we have from God in the past and in the present, so that in faith we can move forward.

Autumn seems a good time to take stock in all those ways. The summer holidays are over, the children are back at school, colleges and universities have reopened. Before the clocks go back and the winter evenings begin to close in, now is the time to take a few steps back and just see where we are going.

It is time to take stock of the riches we have been blessed with, to realise what we have and what we no longer need, what we have been blessed with and what we can bless others with, what is there and what is missing.

Sometimes it is good to count our blessings. As the Prophet Joel says in our Old Testament reading this morning: ‘Be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things’ (Joel 2: 21).

Earlier this summer, I spent the best part of a week [2 to 4 July 2018] in England at a residential conference at the High Leigh Conference Centre, near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire. There I heard about exciting and fresh new things that are being done by the Anglican mission agency that I am a trustee of, USPG, the United Society Partners in the Gospel.

This is an exciting time for USPG, as we take a fresh look at the meaning of mission not only for USPG, but for Anglicans around the world.

I chaired one of the conference sessions, when the Revd Dr Pervaiz Sultan, the Principal of Saint Thomas’s Theological College in Karachi, spoke of what it is like to live as a Christian and as part of a tiny minority in Pakistan, which is an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country.

The new general secretary of USPG, the Revd Duncan Dormor, presented us with a new vision, a new strategy, for 2018-2021. He spoke of sharing in God’s mission worldwide, and he challenged us not to forget if the Church forgets mission we become a club: a nice club, with nice members, but just another club.

We are a pilgrim church, a pilgrim people, sent out into the world, like the disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading.

Duncan reminded us that the story of Jesus is a story of constantly crossing ethnic and religious divisions. We discover who we are through the other, and we find ourselves transformed and humbled when we listen to the stories of others and their faith.

USPG is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential and champion justice.

The agency has four core values. Duncan’s strategic vision says that in mission USPG is faithful, radical, stands in solidarity and respects context.

He outlined three broad strategic aims: to rethink mission, to energise Church and community, and to champion justice.

One way USPG carries through on these visions and delivers on these aims is through the large number of volunteers who go where they are sent, and then come back and share their experiences and their journey in faith.

Bishop Donald Jute of Kuching, in Malaysia, spoke of the way our concepts of mission, our ways of doing mission as a church, have changed in recent decades. He identified the move from paternal to fraternal relations in mission, and from divisive concepts of donors and receivers to the concept of partnership.

And he used the word partnership in a witty way when he pointed out that the word partnership is made up of the words ‘partners’ and ‘hip.’

When Churches are partners in mission, it is like we are joined at the hip. He could have been drawing on this morning’s Gospel when he told us: ‘Together we are called and together we are sent.’

A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting in London where the trustees heard how USPG has become a partner and a supporting agency in appointing a chaplain to work among refugees stranded in Calais, amid concern about the rising number of migrants settling around ports in northern France.

Canon Kirrilee Reid is moving from her present post as the rector of a rural church in Perth and Kinross in Scotland to become part of the Anglican chaplaincy team in Pas-de-Calais.

Her appointment is going to boost co-ordination between both sides of the Channel, to ensure migrants and their families receive the care and support they need.

Every part of the Church is supposed to be both sending and receiving. We are joined at the hips as partners. We cannot exist as isolated, individual Christians on our own. Parishes and dioceses cannot exist without giving and receiving, without sending and welcoming. All this work goes to show how relevant mission is in the world today.

A mission agency that is over 300 years old is meeting the most contemporary and the most pressing needs in our world today.

These people are like the birds of the air, unable to sow or reap or gather for themselves. But by caring for them, by responding to their needs, the Church is showing that God still cares for them, that we know they are loved by God and so are worth caring for ourselves.

Taking stock of what we have in our barns, and giving thanks for the harvest are important ways of celebrating and of praising God. But in giving thanks mission agencies like USPG are showing on behalf of the Church that the Kingdom of God spreads beyond the boundaries of borders of our own parish and our own diocese.

May we continue to rejoice in the harvest so that others may know of the love of God, and so that we may express this in our love for others.

As Christ tells us in our Gospel reading this morning: ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6: 33).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘The tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and the vine their full yield’ (Joel 2: 22) … grapes ripening on the vines in Platanes, near Rethymon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Matthew 6: 25-33:

[Jesus said:] 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Harvest Collect:

Eternal God,
you crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
Grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Collect of the Day:

O God,
without you we are not able to please you;
Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


37, Come, ye thankful people, come (CD 3),

47. We plough the fields and scatter (CD 3),

365, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (CD 22).

A harvest of lemons this summer in Platanes near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

‘Hardness of heart’ and using
marriage and divorce to trap
people and to trap Jesus

A summer wedding in a monastery in Crete … but the Gospel reading may bring us to ask whether a marriage should last longer than love (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 7 October,

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIX):

9.30 a.m.: the Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

Readings: Job 1: 1, 2: 1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12; Mark 10: 2-16.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s readings challenge us to think about the differences between how we see God’s ways and the actual working out of God’s ways. They challenge us to think about the foundations of faith, which are weak if they depend on God meeting our expectations, and are weakened when God does not meet our expectations.

Job challenges us to think about how much we tend to fashion God in our image and likeness, but throughout the Old Testament reading, Psalm and Epistle reading, we are challenged to be fashioned in God’s image and likeness.

The Gospel reading also challenges old ideas and customs – in the Pharisees’ tradition about divorce. But, instead of accepting yet another tradition, how might we accept what Christ says as a way of challenging custom and tradition, and as a way of being brave enough to come to new conclusions that reflect the priorities of God and the compassion of Christ?

The Temptation of Job … a panel in ‘The Purgatory Window’ by the Harry Clarke Studios, designed by Richard King, in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Athlone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Book of Job, the first poetic book in the Bible, addresses the problem of continuing to hope in the justice of God in the face of human suffering. In his suffering and distress, Job laments the day of his birth, and would like to die. But even that is denied to him.

In the past, people thought their relationship with God depended on laws and rules. But in the story of Job, we are challenged to find ways of knowing God that are based on faith and love.

In the missing verses, although Job has not sinned himself, he loses his children and all his wealth. In the past, people saw this as God’s punishment, but Job wants to see faith and love standing on their own, not depending on the changes and chances of life.

When Job is tested again, he excludes himself from society, and goes to live on the town dump. His wife nags him and advises him to end his misery and pain. But Job is reasonable, kindly and wise in his answer and keeps his faith in God.

If our health is ruined, our family life and domestic situation become desperate, our income dries up, our family breaks up, we find ourselves down in the dumps and marginalised, do we blame God? How is God with us in our woes?

Do we see material success, prosperity, family life and children as rewards from God?

Is faith, like love, not without seeking reward?

Or do we only love – and believe – because there are rewards?

Many priests and preachers, on first reading this morning’s Gospel passage (Mark 10: 2-16), may decide to preach on one of the other readings. But if they do this, they will leave us in danger of thinking that Christ is too harsh on those who go through a divorce.

People who go through a marriage breakdown and divorce, and still cling on to going to church, perhaps just by their fingernails, may well ask, ‘Where is the Good News this morning?’

So, what’s happening? Herod Antipas was the Governor of Galilee. He had divorced his wife Aretus to marry Herodias, the wife of his brother, Herod Philip. This caused such a scandal that when Saint John the Baptist confronted Herod about it – he was beheaded (see Mark 6: 18-19).

If Christ says it is unlawful for a man to divorce his wife, does he end up like John the Baptist?

If he says it is acceptable, does he contradict the teaching of the Torah and leave himself open to the charge of blasphemy?

The Pharisees were divided on the legality of divorce and the grounds for divorce. So, the question is a trap in another way. They say: ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her’ (Mark 10: 4). The Law of Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife, if he finds ‘something objectionable about her’ (Deuteronomy 24: 1).

Mind you, it never said a woman could divorce her husband.

A man could simply ‘write a certificate of dismissal’ (verse 4), without going through any formal legal proceedings. ‘Something objectionable’ could cover a multitude, from adultery to an eccentric hair-do on a bad hair day. Indeed, by the time of Christ, divorce was allowed for the most trivial of reasons, and was so common that many women suffered.

However, instead of falling into the trap being set for him, Christ asks the Pharisees: ‘What did Moses command you?’ (Mark 10: 3). In other words, what does the law say? He tells them Moses allowed this ‘because of your hardness of heart’ (Mark 10: 5), perhaps hinting at how hard-hearted men were now making women suffer even more.

There are other places in the New Testament where Christ, and Saint Paul and Saint Peter, accept that a man may divorce an unfaithful wife.

Saint Mark alone mentions the possibility of women also divorcing. This may have been normal in non-Jewish contexts, but cases of Jewish women initiating divorce are rare.

This morning, Christ reminds those around him of God’s original intention. Marriage is a covenant relationship in which the two people become one and live in mutual love and affection.

Christ devotes much of his teaching time interpreting scripture in a way that gives priority to human wellbeing. For example, the Sabbath is made for us rather than we being made for the Sabbath. Similarly, we could say he is saying here that the order of marriage is made for us, not that we are made for the ordering of marriage, or worrying about the minutiae in the details religious people construct around marriage.

The way Christ interprets scriptural law ought to provide a clue to how we interpret his teaching.

Today, many of us may appear to be on the side of the Pharisees on the question of divorce. Divorce is common today and most of us accept it as a reality. Our laws and our customs, like those of the Pharisees in this Gospel story, assume divorce happens.

Christ appears to be harsh and uncompromising on a first reading this morning. But many marriages get stale or toxic, relationships can dry up or lose focus, self-destruct, or break down. Things go wrong for far too many reasons.

A divorce may be a burial for a dead marriage. Divorces do not kill marriages any more than funerals kill people … although one of the great tragedies today is that far too many couples are burying their relationship when it is only sick or injured.

Is it not possible that the promise to be together until death can refer to the death of the relationship as well as the death of the person?

Is it not possible to recall that the original intent of our loving and caring God who gave us the gift of marriage was to make our lives better?

Does that desire of God evaporate when we are no longer in a marriage?

From the opening of this story, it is clear the Pharisees are not seeking Christ’s wisdom or compassion. Instead, they are trying to trap him. But marriage is not a trap and not a matter of expediency in which the wife is the property of the husband.

Of course, the covenant of marriage is still just as valid today. Ideally, when two people marry, they commit themselves to an exclusive relationship of love and devotion in a new entity.

But that is easier to say than it is to face up to reality, which includes the complexities of child-rearing, careers and competing religious, social and economic claims and responsibilities.

Ideally, we are not to live alone, but in loving and committed relationships. In an ideal world, there would be no such thing as divorce. But we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a fallen and broken world in which human nature always falls short of the glory of God. Whether we like it or not, divorce is a reality and we have to live with that.

Sadly, when people go through a divorce, the church is often the last place they can turn to for help and understanding.

But divorce is like a death. It is the death of a relationship, and so people grieve, and they need sympathy and to be consoled. Would you dare chastise someone who was grieving after the death of family member?

I was reminded once by a divorced priest in the Church of Ireland that when God says: ‘I hate divorce ... I hate divorce’ (Malachi 2: 16), that of course God hates divorce because he has gone through the sufferings and grieving of divorce through our faithlessness and wandering.

God hates divorces because God has suffered divorce.

What a profound insight.

Too often, in debates, passages of Scripture taken out of context, or one-sided interpretations of the tradition of the Church can be used to set a trap so that people are forced to accept only one standard or practice for marriage in the world today. But in this Gospel reading, Christ responds to those who seek to trap him by refusing to accept to be trapped into accepting their interpretation of Scripture or Tradition.

Instead, he challenges those around them to think for themselves and to think with compassion.

Let us not use this reading to trap Jesus through hardness of heart. And let us not use this reading to trap vulnerable, suffering and grieving people who remain open to loving and being loved.

We must face questions about marriage and divorce, about who can be married and who can be divorced, as challenges that ask us to think outside the box, without trying to trap Jesus or to trap those who are faced with honest questions about marriage and about divorce.

May all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Enjoying a summer wedding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Mark 10: 2-16:

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ 3 He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ 4 They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’ 5 But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.11 He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’

13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Wedding flowers strewn on the lawn at Lisnavagh House in the late evening … what happens when love fades in a marriage? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

O God,
without you we are not able to please you;
Mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit
may in all things direct and rule our hearts;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Holy and blessed God,
you feed us with the body and blood of your Son
and fill us with your Holy Spirit.
May we honour you,
not only with our lips but in lives dedicated
to the service of Jesus Christ our Lord.


638, On for a heart to praise my God (CD 49)

259, Christ triumphant, ever reigning (CD 16)

634, Love divine, all loves excelling (CD 36)

‘Holy and blessed God, you feed us with the body and blood of your Son’ … the Post-Communion Prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org