16 August 2023

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (80) 16 August 2023

Saint Michael’s Church, Greenhill, Lichfield … stands on an earlier burial site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and the week began with the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (13 August 2023).

Before this day begins (16 August 2023), I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth. For this week and next week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Lichfield;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church … the interior has been altered radically in the last two centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield:

Saint Michael’s Church on Greenhill stands on a sandstone ridge on the east side of Lichfield. Although the church dates from rebuilding projects in the 1840s, there has been a church on this high ground since at least 1190, and Saint Michael’s is surrounded by one of the oldest and one of the largest burial grounds in England.

The nine-acre site surrounding the parish church is the site of one of the earliest settlements in Lichfield, and was a significant burial ground from an early date.

There is a legend that this was the burial place of 999 early Christian martyrs who were the followers of the legendry Saint Amphibalus, who had converted Saint Alban to Christianity in the third or fourth century. There is no evidence to support the legend of those martyrs in the year 300 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. But the legend became so popular that it was often said that the name Lichfield actually means ‘field of the dead.’

This tradition develops a mediaeval story created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and was exaggerated from the 12th century on after Lichfield became an important stopping place on pilgrim routes.

The legend was largely forgotten by the 1500s, but it was revived later in the mid-15th century when Lichfield was incorporated as a borough in 1548. The new civic council needed an image for its seal but wanted to break with the pre-Reformation image of Saint Chad. The corporation decided to use the story of the 999 martyrs on its seal, and so gave new life to a dead and unfounded story.

It may be that this legend led to George Fox, the founding Quaker, to declare: ‘Woe unto the bloody City of Lichfield.’

After his release from prison in Derby, Fox walked to Lichfield. When he was about a mile outside Lichfield, he felt a command from God to take off his shoes and to walk into the city. There in the Market Square, he stood barefoot in the snow as he cried out again and again: ‘Woe unto the bloody City of Lichfield.’

Fox later said he a vision of a channel of blood running through the streets of Lichfield and that the market place was a pool of blood, and explained later that God wanted him to preserve the memory of the thousand Christians martyrs from the reign of Diocletian.

A few decades later, the Staffordshire historian Robert Plot declared that the nearby area now known as Christian Fields was the site of their martyrdom and it has borne the name ever since. Of course, no archaeological evidence was ever found to support these stories from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert Plot. Today Christian Fields is a nature reserve south of Eastern Avenue, between Dimbles Lane and Curborough Road.

Despite the false foundations for this legend and the religious impulses it has inspired, there may have been a church on this site at Greenhill from an early date. Once again, local legend says the first church on the site was consecrated by Saint Augustine. Other accounts say it was because the site was so well known that Saint Chad was attracted to Lichfield, making it the centre of his new diocese in Mercia.

There is evidence on the site of crouched burials from before the Norman Conquest. However, the first church at Saint Michael’s is not recorded until 1190.

The oldest remaining parts of the present church date from the 13th century. In a recess in the north wall of the chancel under the pointed arch is the tomb of William de Walton, who in 1344 was the first recorded benefactor of Saint Michael’s. At his feet is a friendly looking dog, indicating he died in peace in his sleep rather violently or at war.

The church register dates from 1574. The font dates from 1669 and is octagonal with stylised fleur-de-lis and Tudor roses.

From the late 17th century, Saint Michael’s was associated with the family of Lichfield’s most famous writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).

Johnson visited Lichfield for the last time in the autumn of 1784. He returned to London on 16 November, and composed an inscription for a floor slab in the centre of the nave to commemorate his immediate family.

On 2 December, he wrote two letters to Lichfield giving explicit directions for epitaphs to be placed over the middle aisle of Saint Michael’s Church where his father Michael Johnson (died 1731), his mother Sarah Johnson (died 1759), and his brother Nathaniel Johnson (died 1737), were buried.

He wrote to his cousin, the apothecary Richard Greene (1716-1793), who was the Senior Bailiff of Lichfield and lived in Market Street, saying:

‘I have enclosed the epitaph for my Father, Mother, and Brother, to be all engraved on the large size, and laid in the middle aisle in St. Michael’s church, which I request the clergyman and church-wardens to facilitate.

‘The first care must be taken to find the exact place of interment, that the stone might protect the bodies. Then let the stone be deep, massy and hard; and do not let the difference of ten pounds, or more, defeat your purpose.

‘I have enclosed ten pounds, and Mrs Porter will pay you ten more, which I gave her for the same purpose. What more is wanted shall be sent; and I beg that all possible haste be made, for I wish to have it done while I am yet alive. Let me know, dear Sir, that you receive this. I am, Sir, your most humble servant, Sam Johnson.’

On the same day, he wrote to Lucy Porter: ‘I am very ill, and desire your prayers. I have sent Mr Green the epitaph and a power to call on you for ten pounds.’

Within a fortnight, Johnson died on 13 December 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on 20 December.

The original stone Johnson commissioned was removed when Saint Michael’s was repaved in the late 1790s, and much of the mediaeval fabric of the church was lost when the church was restored in the 1840s by a local architect Thomas Johnson and the London-born architect Sydney Smirke.

Johnson’s stone, with the same inscription, was replaced in 1884 to mark the centenary of Samuel Johnson’s death. The church we see today includes further architectural renovations designed in the 1890s by John Oldrid Scott.

A family mausoleum was erected in the church the late 18th century in the angle of the chancel and the south aisle by the Earl of Donegall (later the Marquess of Donegall). He lived at Fisherwick and also owned Comberford Hall, and gave his name to Donegal House on Bore Street, Lichfield. The mausoleum was destroyed during rebuilding and restoration works in 1842-1843.

The graves in the churchyard include an unusual ‘saddle-back’ tomb and the graves of members of the family of the poet Philip Larkin. John Brown, who sounded the trumpet for the 17th Lancers at the Charge of the Light Brigade, is also buried here.

Here too is the gravestone of the last victims of a public hanging in Lichfield. John Neve, William Wightman and James Jackson men were found guilty of forgery and were hanged at the gallows at the junction of Tamworth Road and London Road on 1 June 1810. Their gravestone, which was restored recently, only gives the initials of the three men and the date of their execution.

The mausoleum of Canon James Thomas Law (1790-1876) is a Grade II Listed Building on the northern edge of the churchyard. Law was a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral and chancellor of the Diocese of Lichfield, a key figure in the foundation of Lichfield Theological College, and Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (1821-1836).

Law had the mausoleum designed like a canopied mediaeval tomb as a memorial to his wife who died in 1864. Originally, it was surmounted by a clock with two dials that were illuminated at night by gas. Built on the side of the Trent Valley Road it was a reminder of the time to travellers on their way to the railway station. The clock is now missing, but the overgrowth that had long covered the mausoleum had been cleared away when I visited the churchyard last month.

Two months before he wrote his poem ‘Church Going’ in 1954, Philip Larkin spent a week in the Midlands, mainly with his mother, when he visited ‘family graves’ in Lichfield around February or March 1954, including the grave of his father, Sydney Larkin, who was buried there in 1948.

In a letter written that March, Larkin says this visit to Saint Michael’s churchyard was followed by a ‘queer mixture of hell and rest cure’ – by this he meant a poorly attended service in Lichfield Cathedral.

A statue of Saint Michael on the wall of Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 18: 15-20 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 15 ‘If another member of the church[a] sins against you,[b] go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Saint Michael’s Churchyard is one of the largest and one of the oldest burial grounds in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Reducing Stigma.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (16 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray that across the world, the stigma of HIV continues to be reduced and that medical and practical support is made available to all those who require it.

The Johnson family memorial, with the inscription commissioned by Samuel Johnson commemorating his father, mother and brother (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Let your merciful ears, O Lord,
be open to the prayers of your humble servants;
and that they may obtain their petitions
make them to ask such things as shall please you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

God of our pilgrimage,
you have willed that the gate of mercy
should stand open for those who trust in you:
look upon us with your favour
that we who follow the path of your will
may never wander from the way of life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Resurrection … a stained glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

I ‘run my hand around the font’ (Philip Larkin) … the font in Saint Michael's Church, where generations of the Larkin family were baptised (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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