22 October 2021

Lichfield Cathedral’s reminder
of the need for the Church
to challenge anti-Semitism

The figure of Sinagoga, blindfolded by a snake, at Lichfield Cathedral … a motif surviving from mediaeval art depicting a hidden anti-Semitism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

The Church of England plans to offer an ‘act of repentance’ next year over antisemitic church laws passed 800 years ago. The Church of England has been grappling with its role in the past in fuelling anti-Jewish racism and as part of this process published the report God’s Unfailing Word two years ago, in November 2019.

The Church of England and the Council of Christians and Jews are planning a service next year to mark the passing of 800 years since the Synod of Oxford in 1222. At that synod, church leaders passed a number of antisemitic edicts, including one requiring Jewish people in mediaeval England wear a badge and excluding them from certain jobs.

The Bishop of Lichfield, the Right Rev Michael Ipgrave, has described the decree at the Synod of Oxford in 1222 as ‘the Magna Carta of English canon law, which implemented some of the most egregious anti-Semitic decrees.’

Jews were later expelled from England in 1290, and were not legally readmitted until 1656.

Last week, I paid attention to a figure on the west front of Lichfield Cathedral that appears on cathedrals throughout Europe too and that is often interpreted as a mediaeval anti-Semitic image. My attention was first drawn to these figures last year in a collection of photographs shared by my Facebook friend Clive Read.

Two statues, known as Ecclesia and Sinagoga, are often seen as pair on mediaeval cathedrals. Ecclesia is often dressed in fine clothing and appears to be bathed in light, while Sinagoga is dishevelled, with a large snake draped over her eyes like a blindfold.

Together, this pair forms a common mediaeval motif that represents the theological concept known as supercessionism, in which the Church is triumphant and the Synagogue is defeated. Sinagoga is sometimes seen – for example in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – with head bowed, broken staff, and the tablets of the law or Ten Commandments slipping from her hand and a fallen crown at her feet. Ecclesia stands upright with crowned head and carries a chalice and a staff adorned with the Cross.

Images mocking Jews and Judaism and encouraging anti-Semitic violence have been common throughout Europe since the early Middle Ages. In a time when many were illiterate, these images were the political cartoons and posters of the age, and the ridicule and carnage they promoted was both routine and sanctioned by the secular and religious authorities of the day.

Ecclesia and Sinagoga often appear as large, sculpted figures on either side of a church or cathedral portal. Famous examples include those at Strasbourg Cathedral. They are also found in Romanesque art standing on either side of the Cross at the Crucifixion.

In images of the Crucifixion, Ecclesia may hold a chalice catching the blood flowing from Christ’s side, while Sinagoga may hold a sheep or goat or its head, signifying Temple sacrifice, in contrast to Ecclesia’s chalice representing the Eucharist. If she is not blindfolded, Sinagoga is usually looking down.

They first appear in documents in the early ninth century. They appear in Crucifixion scenes from the 11th century, and reappear in the 12th century in a more strongly contrasted way that emphasises the defeat of Sinagoga. From then on, blindfolded Sinagoga is seen with a broken lance becomes usual. The portal figures at cathedral portals date from the 13th century on.

These figures reflect a Christian view, often known as Supersessionism, that held that Judaism was no longer a valid religion with a covenantal relationship with God, and that all Jews should convert to Christianity.

Mediaeval Sinagoga’s blindfold reflected the charge that Jews had stubbornly failed to ‘see’ that Christianity had replaced Judaism. This view spread throughout the mediaeval church and became an excuse for anti-Semitism, typified in the vile anti-Semitism expressed by Martin Luther and others. Today, this has been replaced generally by dual-covenant theology.

The covering over Sinagoga’s eyes is derived Saint Paul’s words in II Corinthians, which says that Jews ‘to this very day’ have ‘a veil … over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed’ (II Corinthians 3: 15-16, NRSVA).

The paired figures are generally found on the cathedrals of larger cities in northern Europe that had significant Jewish communities, especially in Germany. They were intended to remind Jews of their place in a Christian society. There are remains of pairs in England at Rochester, Lincoln, Salisbury and Winchester. There may have been pairs in London and York too, but until last year I had not realised there is a similar image at Lichfield Cathedral.

In most cases, they date to the arrival of larger Jewish communities in Western Europe from the late 10th to the 12th centuries, and to the 12th-century Renaissance debates between Christian and Jewish scholars on interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. But what is surprising about the Lichfield Sinagoga is that until now mediaeval Lichfield seems to have had no considerable Jewish presence.
Ecclesia (left) and blindfolded Sinagoga (right) among the carvings above the south door on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Bishop Michael Ipgrave has described next year’s anniversary as an ‘opportunity for a local expression of repentance.’

Jewish groups have welcomed the proposed apology. Dave Rich, director of policy at the Community Security Trust, an anti-Semitism watchdog group, said the Church of England’s message of solidarity came amid rising antisemitism.

He said: ‘The phrase “better late than never” is truly appropriate here. The historic trauma of mediaeval English antisemitism can never be erased and its legacy survives today – for example, through the persistence of the “blood libel” allegation that was invented’ in England.

‘It is important that the Church has finally recognised their historic role in this; but perhaps more important is the message of solidarity and support for the Jewish community at a time of rising antisemitism today.’

Speaking in the General Synod in July, Jacob Vince noted that the antisemitic edicts in 1222 had ‘heightened antisemitic feeling and led to the first nationwide expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290.’ He asked: ‘In light of rapidly worsening antisemitism in the UK in recent months, might the 800th anniversary next year be an opportune moment for the Church of England to consider making a formal break with these historic prejudices as a gesture of solidarity with our Jewish neighbours, England’s oldest ethnic minority.’

The report God’s Unfailing Word in 2019 included an historic expression of repentance for the Church’s participation and collusion in over 1,000 years of anti-Jewish thinking and practice in England, according to Bishop Ipgrave of Lichfield, who also chairs the Council of Christians and Jews.

The report was the first authoritative publication on Jewish-Christian relations produced by the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England. The National Inter-Religious Affairs Adviser, the Revd Dr Richard Sudworth, said that it was aimed at bringing ‘up to date some of the theology,’ as well as acknowledging the Church’s own complicity in anti-Jewish sentiment.

The document argues from the premise that the Christian-Jewish relationship is a ‘gift of God to the Church,’ and that it has ‘unique significance.’ It accepts that anti-Judaism in the Church over the centuries fostered ‘the passive acquiescence if not positive support of many Christians in actions that led to the Holocaust.’

It continues: ‘Recognition on the part of the Church that it bears a considerable measure of responsibility for the spread of antisemitism demands a response from the Church … There is a continuing theological task for the Church in its response to the reality of antisemitism and in seeking to build good relationships with Jewish people today.’

Bishop Ipgrave, who chaired the working group that produced the document, said: ‘It does represent the range of views and the consensus on the issue. It is a positive statement, which particularly urges building positive relations with the Jewish people.’ He added: ‘We started this project … aware that anti-Semitism is very much a problem in our society, and churches should be part of the process working against it.’

Lancelot Addison (1632-1703), who became Dean of Lichfield from 1683, was an early scholar of Jewish studied in the Church of England. He had been a chaplain in Tangier, and in 1675 he published his study, Present State of the Jews – more particularly relating to those in Barbary. He studied Jewish customs, secular and religious, and gave an account of the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Gemara.

Nevertheless, Supersessionism and antisemitism continued among prominent figures in the Church of England. The London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews was founded early in the 19th century and still exists today as the Church’s Ministry among Jewish People. Notable features of the society’s annual sermons are the continuation of the ‘blood libel’ myth and the way in which they present the society as the fulfilment of God’s plans.

Henry Ryder, later Bishop of Lichfield (1824-1836), continued the ‘blood libel’ myth when he preached the society’s annual sermon in 1814 as Dean of Wells. In his sermon he took as his text Luke 24: 34, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,’ and applied this to the Jews and to the Roman soldiers, stating: ‘They were the men who forced Pilate … against his will to consent to the execution.’

He said the Jews took upon themselves ‘an exclusive share in the deed’ when they declared ‘His blood be on us, and on our children.’ He went on to say that Christ is still interceding for ‘the modern Jew,’ but he ‘cannot be reached without a distinct establishment expressly appropriated and suited to his case.’ The society was just such an organisation, he said, and he claimed that ‘under [its] auspices’ the Jews will find employment, have access to ‘useful and religious education,’ and – most importantly – ‘be converted and brought to a saving knowledge of the truth.’

The anniversary sermon was preached in 1819 by the Revd Edward Cooper, Rector of Hamstall Ridware near Lichfield, and of Yoxall in the Diocese of Lichfield, when he repeated the claims Supersessionism and said ‘the Conversion of the Jews to Christianity’ was envisioned by Saint Paul in Romans 11 and elsewhere. This was ‘the avowed, and exclusive Object pursued by the Society,’ he said.

Cooper was a cousin of Jane Austen. But, perhaps, his sermon was coloured more by Pride and Prejudice than by Sense and Sensibility.

Shabbat Shalom

Ecclesia among the carvings above the south door on the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
146, Roscrea Abbey, Co Tipperary

The remains of the Franciscan Friary on Abbey Street, Roscrea, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

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 churches in the Franciscan (and Capuchin) tradition. My photographs this morning (22 October 2021) are from the ruins of remains of the Franciscan Friary on Abbey Street, Roscrea, Co Tipperary.

A window in the friary ruins is partly blocked by a modern house (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Roscrea has a rich collection of ecclesiastical sites, including the two parishes churches, both named after Saint Cronan, the Romanesque remains, High Cross and round tower that have survived from the ancient monastic site, the ruins of a Franciscan friary, and Saint Joseph’s, the Cistercian abbey and school across the country boundary in Co Offaly.

Roscrea’s two parish churches – Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic – are both named after Saint Cronan, stand close to the early and mediaeval monastic sites, and were easy to find although they stand some distance from each other.

Saint Cronan was said to have founded his monastery in the year 610, but the Franciscan Friary is a much later, mediaeval arrival in Roscrea.

The ruins of the former Franciscan friary now form a National Monument and stands on Abbey Street at the west end of Roscrea, on the north bank of the River Bunnow.

The friary was founded in the 15th century, sometime before 1477, by the Greyfriars or Franciscans of the Order of Friars Minor Conventual, with the patronage and support of Maolruanaidh Ó Cerbaill (Mulrooney O’Carroll, King of Ely O’Carroll, and his wife Bibiana (Dempsey).

The friars in the Roscrea revolted in 1477, and the friary was destroyed. A second friary was built on the ruins of the earlier foundation, and it was reformed around 1490 for the Order of Friars Minor, and the present buildings date from that period.

Two or three decades after the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation, the friary was dissolved around 1577-1579, the friars fled Roscrea and the buildings were destroyed. The friary lands were granted to Connor O’Brien, 3rd Earl of Thomond, who leased them to William Crow. Father Thady O’Daly, who escaped to Limerick, was captured and hanged there.

Very little remains of the friary buildings except for friary buildings are the north and east walls and the central bell-tower. The bell-tower is two storeys high and is crenellated. It is carried on pointed arches that have a chamfered soffit order, on moulded corbels.

Fragments of carved stones and window tracery are now mounted on the walls, including a once beautiful pointed, mullioned and transomed, traceried window that has been partially blocked by a modern house that has been built onto the east gable.

The windows in the north wall are well made and are both twin-light ogee headed with hollow spandrels. Some remains from the cloister have been cemented in the remains of the bell-tower and north wall.

Some of the friary stone may have been used to build a new, cruciform Roman Catholic parish church, built in 1843-1855.

Saint Cronan’s Roman Catholic parish church was designed by William Deane Butler (ca 1794-1857), who was also the architect of Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, Saint Patrick’s Church, Ballyragget, and the parish churches in Castlecomer and Freshford while he was the resident architect for the Diocese of Ossory.

Work on building the church began around 1843 when the foundation stone was laid. But this work came to a halt during the Famine, and the church was not dedicated until 19 October 1855. Dean died in 1857, and the interior of the church was finished in 1860 by Butler’s son, John Sterling Butler. The total cost was £10,000, and the contractors were Hogan & Son.

The architect John Sterling Butler was born ca 1816 and was apprenticed to his father. He was appointed Dublin City Architect on 1 October 1866, in place of Hugh Byrne, and was also architect to the Mendicity Institution (1867-1873). But he was forced to resign as City Architect in 1878 for a serious misdemeanour, although the details remain unclear. In his letter of resignation, he asked ‘the council to believe that, though sinning, I have been sinned against.’ When and where he died is not recorded.

The architect James Joseph McCarthy, often regarded as Pugin’s successor in Ireland, designed the three altars. These are the work of Earley & Powell of Dublin and were consecrated on 19 September 1869.

The stained-glass windows in the church are mainly the work of Mayer of Munich and Earley of Dublin.

The architects Ashlin and Coleman carried out renovations on the exterior in 1906, work on a new sacristy and decoration in 1915, when the contractor was Joseph Day of Roscrea, and fresh plastering in 1924. John Hardman & Co designed a stone and metal jubé screen.

This cruciform church has a gable-fronted, six-bay nave with side aisles, two-bay transepts, a single-bay chancel with bow-plan apse at the east and an L-plan sacristy at the south-east.

Outside, the architectural details of the church include a shallow, gable-fronted porch with a statue over it, polygonal turrets, crenellations, spirelets, stone cross finials, modillions, elegant buttresses, trefoil-headed and lancet windows, round and pointed-arch windows with hood-mouldings, and timber battened double-leaf doors with stone hood-mouldings.

Inside, the church has an arcade of polygonal columns supporting pointed arches, a roof of braced wooden trusses with decorative cast iron to the spandrels, an ornamental marble screen in the apse, and a carved stone reredos that forms a decorative focus for the church.

The church stands on a landscaped rising site, and the ruins of the mediaeval friary nearby add archaeological interest to this site.

Some remains from the cloister have been cemented in the remains of the bell-tower and north wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 12: 54-59 (NRSVA):

54 [Jesus] He also said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

57 ‘And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.’

Saint Cronan’s Roman Catholic parish church was designed by William Deane Butler (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (22 October 2021) invites us to pray:

We confess our own prejudice concerning those of other races, and we ask the grace of God to challenge racism in ourselves and in others.

Inside Saint Cronan’s Church, Roscrea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Details in a window in Saint Cronan’s Church, Roscrea (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