03 August 2022

A unique cathedral built
not of bricks and mortar
but of trees and leaves

The Tree Cathedral in Milton Keynes is based on the outline of Norwich Cathedral and was designed in 1986 by landscape architect Neil Higson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

The Tree Cathedral is a unique cathedral in Milton Keynes, made not of bricks and mortar but of trees and leaves. The Tree Cathedral is one of the jewels of the Parks Trust, and two of us visited it this week after recording my Hiroshima Day address for the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

The Tree Cathedral at Newlands is based on the outline of Norwich Cathedral and was designed in 1986 by landscape architect Neil Higson.

Different species of trees were chosen to represent the different sections of the Cathedral: hornbeam and tall-growing lime for the nave, evergreens to represent the central tower and spires and flowering cherry and apple as a focus in the chapels.

The transept is marked out with a cross at the heart of the Tree Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Tree Cathedral has a mix of evergreen and deciduous trees, meaning its visually stunning throughout the year. In springtime, colourful bulbs represent the sun shining through stained glass windows onto the ground.

The Tree Cathedral, with its outline based on Norwich Cathedral, was designed in 1986 by the landscape architect Neil Higson, who chose different species of trees to represent the character of each section of the cathedral.

The arching branches of woodland trees evoke the image and character of a mediaeval gothic cathedral.

Different tree species are used to recreate the outline of Norwich Cathedral, with Californian redwoods making the main tower, cedars at the western entrance, limes forming the columns of the nave and an avenue of fastigiate hornbeam defining the aisles.

Cedar trees mark the west gate of the cathedral and two Cypresses form spires at the west end of the nave. Four Californian redwoods form the tower and the gateway to the cloisters are liquidambar trees.

Four Glastonbury thorn bushes have been planted in the centre of the cloister lawn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In the centre of the cloister lawn, four Glastonbury thorn bushes have been planted. The cloisters are lined with a tall hornbeam hedge which shelters the space and makes it a pleasant place for contemplation and relaxation.

The first plantings, using semi-mature trees for its key elements, took place in 1986. As the trees mature, some of the species will be thinned and a range of colourful spring bulbs planted to echo the image of sunlight shining through stained-glass windows.

The car park just off Livingstone Drive marks the start of a route that takes visitors up the winding path to the front entrance of the cathedral. From there, a higher path takes you around the outside of the cathedral and through into the nave which is surrounded by tall growing lime trees.

From there, you can head around to the top of the cathedral, with cherry and apple trees used to represent the chapel.

The outer path offers a view of the evergreen trees used to represent the tower and west door.

The Tree Cathedral is open all year round but is sometimes used for private wedding ceremonies and celebrations. The car park is off Livingstone Drive and the Peace Pagoda and Willen Lake are a short walk away.

Thirty seconds inside the Tree Cathedral in Milton Keynes (Patrick Comerford)

Praying with USPG and the hymns of
Vaughan Williams: Wednesday 3 August 2022

‘The Slaughter of the Innocents’ by Domenico Ghirlandaio: the fresco is part of a series of panels in the Cappella Tornabuoni in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, dating from 1486-1490

Patrick Comerford

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season.

In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The Gospel reading at Morning Prayer in Common Worship this morning is:

Luke 22: 39-46 (NRSVA):

39 He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ 41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42 ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] 45 When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, 46 and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’


Today’s reflection: ‘The Holy Innocents’

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, a collector of English folk music and song. With Percy Dearmer, he co-edited the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.

This morning I have chosen Vaughan Williams’s setting of ‘The Holy Innocents’ by Laurence Housman. Houseman was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, a younger brother of the poet AE Housman (1859-1936), who is best known for A Shropshire Lad, including the ‘Six Songs’ and the poem ‘Wenlock Edge,’ set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Laurence Housman first worked as a book illustrator in London, and the first authors he illustrated included the poet Christina Rossetti. At the same time, he also wrote and published several volumes of poetry and a number of hymns and carols.

His first literary successes came with the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-Letters (1900), and the drama Bethlehem (1902). Some of his plays caused scandals because of his depiction of biblical characters and living members of the royal family. As a consequence, the Lord Chamberlain ruled in 1937 that no British sovereign could be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after the beginning of his or her reign.

Housman also wrote socialist and pacifist pamphlets and edited his brother’s poems which were published posthumously. For the last three or four decades of his life he lived in Street, Somerset.

In 1945, he opened Housman’s Bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, founded in his honour by the Peace Pledge Union, of which he was a sponsor. The Peace Pledge Union, one of the earliest pacifist organisations in England, was founded in 1934 by Housman’s close friend, Canon Dick Sheppard (1880-1937) of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a former Vicar of Saint Martin-in–the-Fields (1914-1926) and former Dean of Canterbury (1929-1931) who had been radicalised by his experiences as a slum priest in the East End of London.

In 1959, shortly after his death, the shop moved to 5 Caledonian Road, London, a two-minute walk from all the King’s Cross and Saint Pancras stations. In 1974, an IRA bomb blew up the pillar box directly outside the shop – the building once housed the local King’s Cross Post Office, from the late 19th century until the 1930s. The explosion destroyed the first issue of the newsletter of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which had just been posted.

I was first introduced to Housman’s Bookshop two years later in 1976 by its co-founder and its manager until that year, Harry Mister, after meeting him with Bruce Kent at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, that year. Harry died on my birthday in 1996, less than a fortnight after his own 92nd birthday.

Housman’s Bookshop remains a prime source of literature on pacifism and other radical values. Many memories rushed to the fore as I walked past the shop last month on my way to Bruce Kent’s funeral.

The Peace Pledge Union has ‘consistently condemned the violence, oppression and weapons of all belligerents.’ It opposed the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has promoted the ideals of pacifists such as Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, it played an active role in the first Aldermaston marches, its members were active in the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and in recent years it has protested against the war in Iraq.

Today, the Peace Pledge Union stands in solidarity with peace campaigners in Ukraine, Russia and throughout the world who are resisting the war in Ukraine. Condemning the invasion of Ukraine and renouncing all war, it stands against both Russian militarism and NATO militarism.

The PPU is supporting the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, the Russian Movement for Conscientious Objectors and other groups who resist militarism in their own countries and seek to tackle the causes of war.

And so, given Housman’s association, even long after his death, with campaigns against war, as the USPG prayer diary this week reminds us of the plight of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, and in the week we remember of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, it is appropriate on this day to select his poem, ‘The Holy Innocents.’

The Holy Innocents by Laurence Housman

When Christ was born in Bethlehem,
Fair peace on earth to bring,
In lowly state of love He came
To be the children’s King.

And round Him, then, a holy band
Of children blest was born,
Fair guardians of His throne to stand
Attendant night and morn.

And unto them this grace was giv’n
A Saviour’s name to own,
And die for Him Who out of Heav’n
Had found on earth a throne.

O bless├Ęd babes of Bethlehem,
Who died to save our King,
Ye share the martyrs’ diadem,
And in their anthem sing!

Your lips, on earth that never spake,
Now sound th’eternal word;
And in the courts of love ye make
Your children’s voices heard.

Lord Jesus Christ, eternal Child,
Make Thou our childhood Thine;
That we with Thee the meek and mild
May share the love divine.

Harry Mister in Housman’s Bookshop before his death

Today’s Prayer:

At the annual conference of the USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) in High Leigh last week, we were updated on the work of USPG’s partners in Ukraine, Russia and with USPG’s partners with Ukrainian refugees. The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Refugee Support in Poland,’ and was introduced by the Revd David Brown, Chaplain of the Anglican Church in Poland.

Wednesday 3 August 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for the people of Ukraine as they rebuild their lives in the wake of the war with Russia.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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