12 September 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
106, Saint Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside

Inside Saint Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside … restored and rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

Good morning from Crete, where I am staying on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon.

Today is the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XV), and I am hoping to attend the Divine Liturgy this morning in the parish church in Tsesmes. Later this morning, I am planning to continue a family tradition of having Sunday lunch in the harbour village of Panormos.

But, before the day begins, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for these few weeks is Wren churches in London, and my photographs this morning (12 September 2021) are from Saint Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside.

A true Cockney is said to be born within the sound of Bow Bells at Saint Mary-le-Bow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tradition says that a true Cockney is born within the sound of Bow Bells and the sound of the bells of Saint Mary’s is said to have persuaded Dick Whittington to turn back at Highgate with his cat and to return to London, eventually becoming Lord Mayor of Mayor.

Saint Mary-le-Bow is one of the many churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. But archaeological evidence indicates that a church has stood on this site since Saxon times. This was replaced by the Church of Saint Mary-le-Bow, built ca 1080 by Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury who accompanied William the Conqueror from Bec in Normandy.

Archbishop Lanfranc’s church was destroyed by the London Tornado of 1091, and a new church was built, although the newly-built arched crypt survived.

During the later Norman era, the church, known as ‘Saint Mary de Arcubus,’ was rebuilt and was famed for the arches (‘bows’) of stone. At that period, the 12 ft 6 in (3.8 metres) high vaulted crypt – although only accessible from within the church – had windows and buttresses visible from the street. The crypt has been much altered since then, but it gives an idea of how it once looked with its two aisles and a nave.

The name le-Bow or de arcubus may refer to the Norman arches that were something of a novelty. But the crypt really served as an undercroft, or a subsidiary structure on which the upper church was built.

The church was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s principal ‘peculiar,’ although it is in the middle of London, and it remained in the Diocese of Canterbury until 1850. From about 1251, Saint Mary-le-Bow was the home of the Court of Arches, the final appeal court of the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England.

Saint Mary-le-Bow acquired additional prominence because its bell was the principal curfew bell, rung at 9 p.m. each day from at least 1363. The church with its steeple became a landmark in London, and the second most important church in the City of London after Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Every monarch, until James II, processed along Cheapside on the way to the coronation.

After the Great Fire in 1666, this was one of the first churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and his office. The current structure was built to Wren’s designs in 1671-1673.

Wren’s design for the upper church was almost square and was based on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. The entrance is based on the hotel de Conti in Paris and the vestibule at the base of the tower ranks among Wren’s finest designs.

However, Wren took into account the need for a preaching room, rather than designing a place for Catholic liturgy. Similarly, Wren had little interest in the crypt – which he seems to have thought was Roman – and simply encouraged its use as a burial chamber.

An attempt was made to shore up the old tower, but Wren wanted this to be his second tallest structure, after Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and moved the tower to the street. The 68 metre tower was completed in 1680. The mason-contractor was Thomas Cartwright, one of the leading London mason-contractors and carvers of his generation.

Since the early 1940s, a recording of the Bow Bells made in 1926 has been used by the BBC World Service as an interval signal for the English-language broadcasts. It is still used today preceding some English-language broadcasts.

Much of the current church building was destroyed by a German bomb during the Blitz on 10 May 1941. During the fire, the bells crashed to the ground.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building in 1950. The bells resumed ringing in 1961. The church was formally reconsecrated in 1964, and the architect Laurence King (1907-1981) also adapted the south aisle of the crypt as the Chapel of the Holy Spirit.

Saint Mary-le-Bow is still home to the Court of Arches today. The Vicar General’s court also sits at Saint Mary-le-Bow, and each diocesan bishop in the Province of Canterbury receives confirmation of his or her election at Saint Mary-le-Bow and there takes the Oath of Allegiance, in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, before being enthroned.

Inside the crypt of Saint Mary-le-Bow, with its mediaeval arches or bows of stone (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 8: 27-38 (NRSVA)

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ 28 And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29 He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

Saint Mary-le-Bow … Wren’s designs were based on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome, the entrance is based on the hotel de Conti in Paris (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (12 September 2021) invites us to pray:

‘If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and
take up their cross and follow me’.
Lord Almighty, give us the strength
to take up our cross and follow you.

The East Window by John Hayward (1929-2007) shows Christ in Majesty surrounded by the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and fear of the Lord – shown as balls of fire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

John Hayward’s window of the Virgin Mary at the north side of the East Window shows her cradling the church named after her and surrounded by churches of a pre-fire city; beneath her feet are the arches of le Bow, the Court of Arches of the Archbishop of Canterbury (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

‘Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world’ … the Byzantine-style crucifix by Laurence King (1907-1981) in the crypt of Saint Mary le Bow on Cheapside in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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