05 December 2021

How Coventry Cathedral
rose from the ashes to
shape its peace ministry

Coventry Cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence, opened 60 years ago in 1962 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

When I was growing up, and in my early adult years, Coventry Cathedral had a very interesting influence on my ideas both about architecture and about practical expressions of my faith. The architect who designed the chapel at my boarding school based his plans and designs on the designs and plans by Sir Basil Spence for the new cathedral at Coventry.

Although there is a significant difference in size, both were built at the same time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, both have tall, frosted glass forming the west front or entrance, and both have side coloured windows that pour in light from behind the congregation.

Both the chapel and the cathedral have a large wall behind the altar rather than the traditional east window – although the statue in Gormanston bears no comparison with Graham Sutherland’s powerful tapestry in Coventry.


The opening of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 was an impressive live televised moment. I was a ten-year-old at the time. When I visited the cathedral a few years later, all my expectations and anticipations were more than met.

In my late teens, I was impressed too by the ministry and outreach of Coventry Cathedral, with the emphasis on reconciliation and peacebuilding. Later in life, for many years my friend, Canon Paul Oestreicher, was the Director of the International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, working with the Community of the Cross of Nails (1985-1997). A later successor was Justin Welby (2002-2005), now Archbishop of Canterbury.

As an adult of ‘mature years,’ Coventry Cathedral continues to be impressive and attractive. So, after a few days retreat and time off at Lichfield Cathedral recently, two of us returned to Coventry Cathedral one afternoon, and stayed on for Choral Evensong.

‘Christ in Glory’ … Graham Sutherland’s powerful, 72 ft tapestry in Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

60 years of Basil Spence’s
New Coventry Cathedral

The new Coventry Cathedral celebrates its sixtieth anniversary next year (2022). But this is not the first – or the second – but the third cathedral in Coventry. In the closing days of World War I, when a new Diocese of Coventry was formed in 1918 to cater for that part of the expanding, heavily industrialised West Midlands, an earlier mediaeval cathedral had long been destroyed.

Instead, the city’s large mediaeval parish church, Saint Michael’s, became the cathedral of the new diocese. Saint Michael’s was one of the largest parish churches in England when it became a cathedral in 1918.

But it did not remain a cathedral for long: 23 years later, on the night of 14 November 1941, the German Luftwaffe blanket bombed Coventry.

The city was targeted because it was known for its industries, including factories making aeroplanes and munitions factories, and it was at the heart of the motor industry.


The Provost of Coventry Cathedral, Richard Howard (1884-1981), was one of four firefighters who went on the roof to try save the cathedral from incendiary bombs designed to cause firestorms.

A fire broke out in the cathedral at around 8 p.m. and, despite extinguishing the initial fire, other direct hits caused fires that ultimately led to the destruction of the city.

The Coventry Blitz continued into the morning of 15 November, and Saint Michael’s Cathedral was among the many buildings in the city centre razed to the ground.

In just one night, more than 43,000 homes, the entire city centre, two hospitals, two churches and the police station were destroyed by around 500 tons of explosives. About 568 people died in the raid, with over 1,000 people had serious injuries.

The 81 feet high Baptistry Window was designed by John Piper and contains 195 lights of stained glass in bright primary colours (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Cross of Nails and
the Ministry of Reconciliation

The heart was ripped out of the city of Coventry that night. All that remained of the cathedral was its tall, 300-ft Gothic tower and the shell of its red sandstone walls.

In the morning, Jock Forbes, the cathedral stonemason, found two wooden beams lying in the rubble in the shape of a cross and tied them together. This became the Charred Cross and was first placed in the ruins of the old cathedral on an altar of rubble.

That morning, Richard Howard chalked the words ‘Father Forgive’ on the sanctuary wall of the ruined cathedral. He was recalling Christ’s words on the Cross, ‘Father Forgive them’ – but there was a subtle omission. In dropping the word ‘them,’ and instead saying simply ‘Father Forgive,’ he was reminding everyone that we all need forgiveness, not just those who have harmed us.


‘Father Forgive’ … reconciliation is at the heart of the ministry and outreach of Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Later, after the Blitz, Richard Howard formed the Cross of Nails, made of three nails from the roof truss of the old cathedral. It is now placed in the centre of the cross on the High Altar in the cathedral.

The Cross of Nails has become a symbol of peace and reconciliation around the world. There are over 330 Cross of Nails Centres all over the world, all of them bearing a cross made of three nails from the ruins, similar to the original one. When there were no more nails, a continuing supply has come from a prison in Germany.

All around the cathedral today are signs of reconciliation and forgiveness. The statue ‘Reconciliation’ is linked to the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University and was presented to the cathedral in 1987. The ‘Choir of Survivors’ is a sculpture presented to the cathedral as a gift from a church in Dresden, the German city that was also blanket-bombed during World War II.

But, perhaps, the most moving part of the cathedral ruin is the area around the former east end and high altar. Here Richard Howard’s words, ‘Father Forgive,’ were carved on the wall behind the rebuilt altar in the spring of 1948. On the altar stands a version of the Charred Cross, in a shape similar to the Cross of Nails.

The ‘Choir of Survivors’ by Helmut Heinze at the west end of the ruins of the old cathedral … a gift from the Frauenkirche Foundation in Dresden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

City of Culture with
some surviving memories

Coventry survived its war-time devastation and is now much more that a pulsing heart of the industrial midlands. It is a university city, a city with a football team with waning and waxing measures of success, and this year (2021) Coventry was the UK City of Culture.

But standing inside the shell of the bombed cathedral, it would be wrong to presume that nothing of the old Coventry has survived. Priory Row leads from the linked cathedrals to Holy Trinity Church, one of the few major buildings in Coventry that escaped destruction during the bombing raids in World War II. The Vicar of Holy Trinity, Canon Graham Clitheroe, and a team of firefighters bravely averted the danger from the falling incendiaries during the heaviest raid on 14 November 1940.

Holy Trinity Church was built of red sandstone between the 1200s and 1400s, replacing a much older chapel built on the site by the Benedictine monks of Saint Mary’s Priory. The church first looked like nearby Saint Michael’s. However, with several major restorations, much of the original brickwork was replaced with a paler coloured sandstone.

The spire is 237 ft high and was erected in 1667 to replace an older one that collapsed during a storm in 1665, killing a young boy. Inside, the stained-glass windows are full of colour, especially the great west window above the main entrance, glazed by Hugh Easton in 1955. The east window behind the High Altar was added in 1956 to replace the original window, blown out in World War II.


Lychgate Cottages on Priory Row seen from Holy Trinity churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Beside Holy Trinity Church are three 15th century cottages, Lychgate Cottages. Originally one house known as Lychgate House, they have long since been split into three separate, jettied houses on Priory Row.

They take their name from the lychgate through which funerals made their way to Holy Trinity churchyard. Using tree ring dating, the timber in these houses has been dated to ca 1414-1415. This timber may have come from houses taken down before the English Civil War in the mid-17th century. The cottages were restored and extended in 1856, survived the Coventry Blitz in World War II, and were repaired again in 1997-1998.

Coventry is also known for the statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate by Sir William Reid Dick, unveiled in 1949. She was known as a generous benefactor of abbeys and churches. With her husband Leofric, Earl of Mercia, she endowed churches and religious houses throughout the English Midlands, and they founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043 on the site of a nunnery destroyed by the Danes in 1016.

Although Leofric was regarded as a wise and religious figure, he was involved in the brutal pillage and destruction of Worcester in 1041 after the town defied a royal tax collector.

It is said Lady Godiva made her famous naked horse ride as a bargain with her husband to free the people of Coventry from heavy taxes. But that story of her naked ride was first told in the 12th century, 150 years after her death, while Peeping Tom is a later addition to the story, making his first appearance in the 17th century.

The statue of Lady Godiva in Broadgate is one of the few statues of horses outside London to be listed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

This two-page feature was first published in the December 2021 edition of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), pp 10-11

Sunday intercessions, 5 December 2021,
the Second Sunday of Advent

‘The dawn from on high shall break upon us. To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and to guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Benedictus) … a winter sunrise at the Rectory in Askeaton, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Let us pray:

‘In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 3: 14):

Heavenly Father,
As we wait in Advent for the coming of the Kingdom,
guide the feet of the leaders of the nations into the way of peace,
may those in power and in government
hear the cry of all in who ‘sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,’
especially refugees, asylum seekers, migrants,
prisoners of conscience, the victims of people trafficking,
that they may be met with mercy and justice,
and know love and peace.

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Luke 3: 4):

Lord Jesus Christ,
as we wait in Advent for your coming,
we pray for the Church,
that we may eagerly prepare the way for your coming among us …

In the Church of Ireland this month,
we pray for the Diocese of Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe,
the Archbishop’s Commissaries,
Archdeacon Stephen McWhirter and Dean Niall Sloane,
and for the Episcopal Electoral College called to fill the vacant see.

In the Anglican Cycle of Prayer,
we pray for the Anglican Church of Burundi,
and Archbishop Sixbert Macumi.

In the Diocesan Cycle of Prayer,
we pray for the victims of abuse and all engaged in Safeguarding.

The Mothers Union continues to mark 16 Days of Activism
against gender-based violence:
forgive us our ignorance, forgive us our blindness,
forgive us our lack of awareness.

In our community,
we pray for our schools,
we pray for our parishes and people …
we pray for our neighbouring churches and parishes,
and people of faith everywhere,
that we may be blessed in our variety and diversity.

And we pray for ourselves …

Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.

‘Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God’ (Baruch 5: 1):

Holy Spirit, we pray for one another …

We remember those who are remembered and mourned by parishioners,

May their memories be a blessing to us.

We pray for all who are sick or isolated,
at home, in hospital …
Ruby … Daphne … Sylvia … Ajay …
Cecil … Pat … Mary … Ann … Vanessa …

We pray for those who feel pain and loss …
for those who are bewildered and without answers …
for those we love and those who love us …
for our families, friends and neighbours …

We pray for all who feel rejected and discouraged …
we pray for all in need and who seek healing …
and we pray for those we promised to pray for …
and we pray for one another and for ourselves …

May your generosity and love to us be reflected in our love and generosity to others.

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

A prayer today in the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel):

Righteous God,
may we overflow with love,
and know what is good.
Lead us down the straight path,
that we may find salvation.

Merciful Father …

‘Make way, make way for Christ the King’ (Hymn 134) … a straight pathway lined with trees in Kilmore, near Nenagh, Co Tipperary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Singing songs of joy as we wait
in hope in the days of Advent

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Luke 3: 4) … a tree-lined pathway in Rathkeale, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 5 December 2021 (The Second Sunday of Advent, Advent II)

9.30: The Parish Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

11.30: Morning Prayer, Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert

Readings: Baruch 5: 1-9; the Canticle Benedictus (Luke 1: 68-79); Philippians 1: 3-11; Luke 3: 1-6.

The readings can be found HERE
On the First Day of Christmas … a partridge in a pear tree (The PNC Christmas Price Index 2021)

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

The Book of Baruch is set during the Babylonian exile. In this book, which provides our first reading, Jerusalem speaks as a prophet of events to come. In her poem or song, she sings to God and the people, declaring the time of the city’s mourning for the loss of her children is near its end.

Baruch responds with a song that promises ‘Righteous Peace’ and ‘Godly Glory’ (verse 4), a time when justice and peace prevail and God’s glory is seen (verse 9).

For a people in exile, who find themselves in a culture that is not their own, how do they leave what they have in the present, how do they maintain their hopes from the past, and how do they look forward to the future?

Baruch says it is time to end the mourning and to look forward in hope to the future.

Could this be true for us this Advent?

How do we turn from the gloom and fears of a war-torn world to hope for reconciliation and peace?

What would we see in this vision for a post-pandemic future?

This morning, we heard the Canticle Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1: 68-79), instead of a Psalm.

Zechariah the priest is struck dumb when he hears that in her old age his wife Elizabeth is pregnant with the child who is becomes Saint John the Baptist, the focus of our Gospel reading.

After the child’s birth, Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit, and sings or speaks this song of prophecy, telling us of God’s blessing for his people.

God is fulfilling his promises. John the Baptist is to prepare the way for the Lord. Christ is ‘the dawn from on high’ that ‘breaks upon us,’ the one through whom God fulfils his purpose for humanity.

Saint John makes his proclamation to the whole world. The whole of creation will be remade, the world of authority will be turned upside down, the word of salvation will raise up new children of God, and even the stones will shout as the kingdom message becomes a message of embrace and love, with a new order of family and kinship that embraces all people.

In this season of Advent, how do we connect with the real world which is wilderness for so many people?

Already people are singing Christmas hymns, songs and carols. You cannot escape them in shops and shopping centres. But often they were written to convey the truth of the Christmas story in a way that was culturally relevant and even in a light-hearted way.

There is a twelve-verse song that helped people in the past to count out these days, called The Twelve Days of Christmas. When I was a child, it was a favourite song for boring adults. Later, the writer and actor Frank Kelly made a funny version about the gifts from a fictitious Nuala, whose gifts become increasingly irritating as each of the 12 days of Christmas dawns.

I’m not going to sing either version. But the way the original song counts out the numbers is very interesting. It counts out a series of increasingly generous gifts given by the singer’s ‘true love’ on each of the 12 Days of Christmas.

One explanation says the lyrics were written as a catechism song to help young people learn their faith when celebrations of Christmas were prohibited by the Puritans during the Cromwellian era (1649-1660).

The 12 drummers drumming are said to represent of the 12 points of the Apostles’ Creed.

The 11 pipers piping are seen as representatives of the 11 faithful disciples, counting out Judas: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot and Jude.

The 10 lords-a-leaping may represent the 10 Commandments.

The nine ladies dancing are the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (see Galatians 5: 19-23): Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control.

The eight maids-a-milking represent the eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5: 2-10): Blessed are the poor in spirit … those who mourn … the meek … those who hunger and thirst for righteousness … the merciful … the pure in heart … the peacemakers … those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake …

The seven swans-a-swimming make us think of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

The six geese a-laying represent the six days of Creation (see Genesis 1).

The five golden rings, or pheasants, represent the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Colly birds or ‘calling birds’ represent the Four Evangelists or the Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The three French hens represent the three theological virtues – faith, hope and love (see I Corinthians 13: 13). Others say they represent the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; or the three gifts of the Wise Men: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The two turtle doves represent the two parts of the Bible, or the truth Jesus Christ is both God and human.

And, a partridge in a pear tree represents Christ on the Cross. God, in his infinite love, sent on Christmas Day the gift of Christ the Saviour. A mother partridge feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings, recalling Christ’s saying: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …’ (Luke 13: 34).

Adding it all up, if my true love gives me all these gifts in the 12 Days of Christmas, I end up with 224 birds in all: 12 partridges, 22 turtle doves, 30 French hens, 36 colly (or calling) birds, 40 gold rings or pheasants, 42 geese and 42 swans.

If we add all these gifts together, they add up to 364 gifts, which, along with the true love, comes to 365, the number of days in the year.

Since 1984, the costs of the gifts have been estimated by PNC Bank, in the Christmas Price Index. Of course, the people in the song are not bought, their services are hired.

This year (2021), the total cost of all goods and services according to the Christmas Price Index is $41,205.58, up 5.7% this season relative to pre-pandemic levels and the largest increase since 2013.

The ‘True Cost of Christmas in Song’ in 2021 is $179,454.19, the cumulative cost of all the gifts when you count each repetition in the song, the 364 gifts.

But who can put a price on True Love? The real cost of Christmas is that God gave us his only Son, Jesus Christ, and the true love of Christmas is God’s love for us in Christ.

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

An icon of the Birth of Saint the Baptist from the Monastery of Anopolis in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 3: 1-6 (NRSVA):

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.’

‘… the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth’ (Luke 3: 5) … a rough way made smooth in Comberford, Staffordshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: Purple (Violet), Advent, Year C

Gloria is omitted in Advent and at the end of canticles and psalms.

The Advent Candle, the Second Sunday of Advent (Second Purple Candle):

The Prophets:

Loving God, your prophets spoke out
in the darkness of suffering and loss,
of a light coming into the world.
May we proclaim the light of Christ
as we stand alongside the marginalised
of your world,
that they may find new strength
and hope in you.
(A prayer from USPG)

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect:

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.

The Advent Collect is said after the Collect of the Day until Christmas Eve:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)


Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:

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.


Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

‘Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command’ (Baruch 5: 7-8) … the yew tree walk at Gormanston, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


119, Come, thou long-expected Jesus (CD 8)
Canticle: Benedictus as Hymn 685 (CD 39)
134, Make way, make way, for Christ the King (CD 8)
204, When Jesus came to Jordan (CD 13)

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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Praying in Advent 2021:
8, Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria … a saint for Advent or a theologian on the margins of heresy?

Patrick Comerford

This is the Second Sunday of Advent (5 December), and later this morning I am presiding and preaching at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and preaching at Morning Prayer in Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry. Later this evening, I am taking part in the blessing of the crib in Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Before a busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (5 December 2021) for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in the Advent, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Clement of Alexandria is commemorated on 5 December in the Calendar of the Episcopal Church and on 4 December in many other Anglican churches.

The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt also venerates him as a saint, and he is usually regarded as a Church Father.

But Clement does not appear in the calendars of Greek, Slavonic or western Orthodox churches, and he was removed from the Roman Martyrology by Pope Clement VIII.

Saint Clement’s Church, on the corner of Bridge Street and Portugal Place, Cambridge, is shared by the Church of England with the Greek Orthodox Parish of Saint Athanasios and Saint Clement in Cambridge.

Saint Clement’s Church, Cambridge, and Saint Clement Danes on the Strand in London are examples of the popularity of dedicating churches to Saint Clement in Danish settlements in England. But the saint who gives his name to these churches is Saint Clement of Rome, the first Apostolic Father of the Church.

So, is Clement of Alexandria a saint?

And, is he worth considering as an example in Advent as we prepare for the coming of Christ?

Clement of Alexandria, who was born Titus Flavius Clemens, probably in Athens into a Greek family, lived from ca 150 to ca 215. He was a convert to Christianity, and is remembered as a leading teacher in the Catechetical School of Alexandria, where his pupils included Origen and Alexander of Jerusalem.

Clement’s writings show how familiar he is with classical Greek philosophy, literature, mythology and mystery religions. He was influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, especially Plato and the Stoics, to a greater extent than any other Christian thinker of his time.

As a young man, he rejected his family’s religious practices, and in a religious quest travelled through Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine and Egypt. During his wanderings, his teachers included Athenagoras of Athens, Tatian, and Theophilus of Caesarea.

In the year 180, Clement arrived in Alexandria, and he was ordained priest within ten years. He left Alexandria during persecutions at the beginning of the third century, and may have lived in Antioch or Cappadocia from 202. The date of his death is unknown, although he probably died ca 215.

Clement’s three principal theological works are: the Protrepticus or Exhortation (ca 195); the Paedagogus or Tutor (ca 198); and the Stromata or Miscellanies (ca 198-203).

Eusebius in his Church History is the first writer to provide an account of Clement’s life and works. He also provides a list of Clement’s works, biographical information, and an extended quotation from the Stromata.

Clement is also important because he shows how faith is related to knowledge and he emphasises the superiority of revelation over philosophy. But Clement had no notable influence on the course of theology beyond his influence on the young Origen, who succeeded him at the school in Alexandria.

His writings were copied by Hippolytus and Theoderet of Cyprus, and were admired by Saint Jerome.

Clement has grown in favour for his charming literary temper, his attractive candour, his brave spirit that makes him a pioneer in theology, and his leaning to the claims of philosophy. To readers today, he is modern in spirit.

He was exceptionally well-read, with a thorough knowledge of Biblical and Christian literature and of Greek poets and philosophers, of orthodox and heretical writings, and he has preserved the fragments of many lost works.

But, in his teaching, Clement lacks technical precision and makes no pretence to orderly exposition. He uses philosophy as an instrument to transform faith into science and revelation into theology. Clement refuses to have anything but faith for the basis of his speculations. He had read all the Books of the New Testament, except II Peter and III John. Yet he often fails in his endeavours and misuses texts in his faulty exegesis, interpreting the Scripture after the manner of Philo and finding allegories everywhere, so that Biblical facts become mere symbols to him.

Clement argues for the difference between the faith of the ordinary Christians, who are without insight, and the science of the perfect Christians who have insights into ‘the great mysteries’ of humanity, of nature, and of virtue, and live lives of unalterable calm, in closest union with God through prayer.

Clement’s writings come before the days of the great Trinitarian controversies. Some critics doubt whether he distinguishes the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as Persons, but a careful reading of him proves that he did. While Photius believed Clement taught a plurality of Words, in reality Clement drew a distinction between the Father’s Divine immanent attribute of intelligence and the Personal Word who is the eternally-begotten Son.

He acknowledges two natures in Christ; Christ is the Man-God, who profits us both as God and as man. He regards Christ as one Person – the Word. There are frequent instances in his writings of the interchange of idioms, so that Patriarch Photios of Constantinople later s accuses him of Docetism. However, Clement clearly admits in Christ a real body, although he thought this body exempt from the common needs of life, such as eating and drinking, and that the soul of Christ is exempt from the movement of the passions, including joy and sorrow.

In places, Clement appears to be close to Modalism, in other places close to Subordinationism. He says little of the Holy Spirit, but when he refers to the Third Person of the Trinity he adheres closely to the language of Scripture.

In the ninth century, Patriarch Photios wrote an extensive critique of Clement’s theology, in which he is appreciative of Clement’s learning and literary merits of his work, but he condemns many of his ideas as heretical.

Until the 17th century, Clement was venerated as a saint and martyr in the Roman Catholic tradition, and his feast fell on 4 December.

So, can we consider Clement of Alexandria a saint worth pondering as we begin the second week of Advent?

Certainly, as an experimental and pioneering theologian who raises important questions about the incarnation and personhood of Christ in the decades immediately before the great Christological and Trinitarian debates, he is worth re-reading in these weeks before Christmas.

Bicycles chained to the railings at the side of Saint Clement’s Church on Portugal Place, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 3: 1-6 (NRSVA):

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (5 December 2021) invites us to pray:

Righteous God,
may we overflow with love,
and know what is good.
Lead us down the straight path,
that we may find salvation.

Yesterday: Nicholas Ferrar

Tomorrow: Saint Nicholas of Myra

Saint Clement’s Church, Cambridge … named after which Clement among the Early Fathers?

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