29 August 2023

Saint Barnabas Jericho,
a Pre-Raphaelite church
in Oxford with literary and
Anglo-Catholic traditions

Saint Barnabas Church in Jericho, Oxford, has inspired writers from Thomas Hardy to John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Barnabas Church is the Church of England parish church in Jericho, Oxford, close to the Oxford Canal and the old Jericho boatyard, and a 15-minute walk from the centre of Oxford. The church features in a wide range of literature, from Thomas Hardy and Gerald Manley Hopkins to PD James and AN Wilson. The poet John Betjeman wrote a poem about the church.

Saint Barnabas Jericho, which I visited last week, is affectionately known as ‘Jericho Basilica.’ I was struck by how vast, broad, tall and spacious the church is, with large arches, a majestic sanctuary and altar and a striking Venetian bell tower or campanile.

Saint Barnabas was built in the Victorian era to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of the workforce of the nearby Clarendon Press, later the Oxford University Press, on Great Clarendon Street, as well as the poor and working class people living in the growing west Oxford suburb of Jericho.

The new parish was carved out of Saint Paul’s parish in Oxford in 1869; Saint Paul’s, in turn, had been formed 30 years earlier from parts of the parishes of Saint Thomas and Saint Giles.

Saint Paul’s Church was renowned for its elaborate ritual and processions, and it was drawing so many worshippers in the 1850s that another church was needed for Jericho.

The campanile or bell tower of Saint Barnabas Church was completed in 1872 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Barnabas Church was founded by Thomas Combe (1796-1872), Superintendent of the Clarendon Press, and his wife Martha (1806-1893), who are now commemorated by a blue plaque installed by the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board. They were supporters of the Oxford Movement and good friends of John Henry Newman, and he was a churchwarden at Saint Paul’s.

Combe was also a patron of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. William Holman Hunt came to live at his home, the Printer’s House in Jericho, where he painted ‘The Light of the World’ for the chapel in Keble College.

The church was built on land donated by George Ward, a local landowner and member of the Ward family of coal merchants and boatbuilders. George Ward’s brother William Ward was Mayor of Oxford on two occasions, 1851-1852 and 1861-1862.

Inside Saint Barnabas Church, Jericho, designed by Sir Arthur William Blomfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The new church reflected Tractarian values both in liturgy, by promoting ritual and the high doctrine of the Sacraments, and in mission, by promoting education, health reform and social justice.

The architect was Sir Arthur William Blomfield (1829-1899), a son of Charles James Blomfield, Bishop of London. He had previously designed Saint Luke’s Chapel for the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Blomfield decided on an Italian Romanesque basilica-style design but, in accordance with Thomas Combe’s wishes, built the walls out of cement-rendered builders’ rubble.

Blomfield possibly modelled Saint Barnabas on either the San Clemente in Rome or the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello in the Venetian lagoon. Saint Barnabas has a distinctive square tower, in the form of an Italianate campanile, that is visible from the surrounding area.

The church was consecrated by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and opened for worship on 19 October 1869.

The majestic mosaic of Christ the King rests above a dramatic gilded canopy or baldacchino over the High Altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The campanile or bell tower was completed in 1872, and has a ring of ten, distinctive, tubular bells, and the hours and quarters are sounded on them. The bells and clock were installed in 1890 and are a remarkable example of Victorian engineering. However, the current appearance of the campanile, with a slightly flatter roof, is the result of a structural alteration in 1965.

On entering Saint Barnabas Church, one is struck at the breadth, and height of the interior space, by the majestic mosaic of Christ the King resting above a dramatic gilded canopy or baldacchino over the High Altar and by the great openwork iron cross suspended above the nave, based on Fr Montague Noel’s SSC cross and memorably borrowed by Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure.

The church has an ornate and gilded sanctuary, a High Altar, flanked with symbols of the four Gospel writers, and above the High Altar a canopy or gilt baldachino.

The choir is several feet above the main floor of the church, and the high altar is reached by five or more steps. The seven sanctuary lamps hanging before the altar lamps were donated in 1874-1875 by the then Duke of Newcastle and some of his undergraduate contemporaries from Christ Church Oxford. The Duke of Newcastle inherited by marriage Hope Castle, formerly Blayney Castle, a late 18th century house in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan.

The pulpit by Heaton, Butler and Bayne has panels depicting patristic figures painted by Charles Stephen Floyce (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The pulpit was added in 1887 by Heaton, Butler and Bayne with the panels depicting patristic figures painted by Charles Stephen Floyce (1857-1895).

This pulpit replaced an earlier, cylindrical timber pulpit with columns and a moulded cornice that is now at Saint Peter’s, London Docks, the parish church of Wapping established in 1856 as an Anglo-Catholic mission.

The mural by James Powell and Sons on the north wall illustrates the canticle Te Deum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The beautiful cut-glass or opus secule mural by James Powell and Sons on the north side of the nave was installed in stages between 1905 and 1911. It depicts apostles, saints, martyrs and angels, with the words of the canticle Te Deum Laudamus below.

However, when funds ran dry, it was impossible to complete the project, and this fine work only exists on one side of the church.

The reredos and altar in the Lady Chapel were commissioned by Martha Combe in memory of Thomas Combe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Lady Chapel on the north-east side of the church was completed in 1888. The reredos and altar are earlier, dating from 1873. They were commissioned by Martha Combe in memory of her husband Thomas Combe, who died in 1872, were designed by Blomfield, and are the work of Heaton, Butler and Bayne. The reredos was extended in 1906 with 11 additional panels by Heaton, Butler and Bayne in memory of Martha Combe. The figures painted by may have been the artist Henry George Alexander Holiday (1839-1927).

The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in Saint George’s Chapel, designed by the architects Bodley and Hare in 1919-1920.

The church’s first permanent organ was installed in 1872 and the present organ was installed in 1975.

The memorial in the choir to Father Montague Henry Noel, the first parish priest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The first Parish Priest, Father Montague Henry Noel, SSC (1840-1929), was the Vicar of Jericho in 1869-1899. He was a first cousin of Charles Noel (1818-1881), second Earl of Gainsborough, whose family weddings are discussed in my chapterer ‘Four Victorian weddings and a funeral’ in Marriage and the Irish: A miscellany, edited by Salvador Ryan (Wordwell: Dublin, 2019, 283 pp), pp 163-165.

When the church opened in 1869, Lord Gainsborough donated a rare silver Russian chalice and paten dating from 1639, from Pryluky, now in north-central Ukraine.

Subsequent vicars were CH Bickerton-Hudson (1899-1901), C Hallett (1902-1911), HC Frith (1911-1916), AG Bisdee (1917-1947), D Nicholson (1947-1955), LG Janes (1956-1960), HN Nash (1960-1967), JE Overton (1967-1980), EM Wright (1980-2007), JW Beswick (2008-2018) and CM Woods (since 2019).

Saint Barnabas maintains the Anglo-Catholic liturgical traditions dating from its foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church maintains the Anglo-Catholic liturgical traditions dating from its foundation. The parish says the mission at Saint Barnabas is to be place of timeless beauty, encouragement and compassion.

The parish was united with the neighbouring parish of Saint Thomas the Martyr in 2015 to form the new parish of Saint Barnabas and Saint Paul, with Saint Thomas the Martyr, Oxford. The first vicar of the new parish was Father Jonathan Beswick SSC.

The present Vicar of Saint Barnabas is the Revd Christopher Woods, one of my former students and a former Chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge, a former chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and a former Vicar of Saint Anne’s, Hoxton, in the Diocese of London.

The Revd Canon Prof Sue Gillingham is the Permanent Deacon of Saint Barnabas. She recently retired as Professor of the Hebrew Bible in the University of Oxford. She is Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College and Canon Theologian of Exeter Cathedral.

Father Matthew Salisbury, a self-supporting curate, lectures in music in the University of Oxford and is Assistant Chaplain at Worcester College. He is also National Liturgical Adviser of the Church of England.

The honorary assistant priests include Father Robin Ward, Principal of Saint Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Father Zachary Guiliano, chaplain of Saint Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, a Research Fellow in Early Mediaeval History, and recently Acting Precentor of Christ Church Cathedral.

The Revd Professor Sarah Coakley, who now lives in retirement in Washington DC, is an Honorary Assistant Priest during the summer months. She lived in Jericho when she was a Lecturer and Fellow in Oriel College in the 1990s. She has been a professor in both Cambridge, where she was the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity (2007-2018), and Harvard, where she was the Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity (1995-2007). She presided at the Sunday High Mass this week (27 August 2023).

Earlier this year (January 2023), the parish voted to welcome the ministry of women priests and bishops. The Revd Dr Melanie Marshall, acting chaplain in Balliol College, was the first woman to preside at the Parish Mass (14 May 2023).

The liturgy at the Sunday High Mass in Saint Barnabas is formal but the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The main act of worship is on Sundays at 10:30 am, when the Sunday High Mass is marked by traditional ceremonial, beautiful ritual, uplifting music and preaching and teaching that is engaged and powerful. The liturgy is formal but the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.

The Daily Office and Mass are throughout the week, although the Daily Mass times vary from day to day. The church is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm.

The church and parish celebrated the 150th anniversary in 2019-2020 with a series of services, concerts and events. The church hosts many events throughout the year, including concerts, lectures and exhibitions.

Saint Barnabas Church features in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church was chosen by Thomas Hardy, who had worked as an assistant to Blomfield, for a scene in Jude the Obscure (1895), where he describes the church’s levitating cross – seemingly suspended in mid-air by barely visible wires and swaying gently – beneath which lay the crumpled, prostrate figure of Sue Bridehead, forlornly covered in a pile of black clothes.

Robert Martin, the biographer of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, records a university friend of Hopkins as saying ‘When I want a spiritual fling I go to St Barnabas.’ It was here too that PD James imagined the bodies in A Taste for Death, although she transposes the church to London in the book.

Saint Barnabas’s lofty Byzantine tower was described by AN Wilson in his novel The Healing Art as ‘the most impressive architectural monument in sight.’ The first Morse novel, The Dead of Jericho, is set by the canal and boatyard and the railway shunting yards close to the church.

The church was acclaimed by John Betjeman in his poem ‘St Barnabas, Oxford.’

Mary Trevelyan was the organist and choir trainer at Saint Barnabas Church for many years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mary Trevelyan (1897-1983), who was born in Stony Stratford, was the organist and choir trainer at Saint Barnabas Church for many years. She was the eldest child of the Revd George Philip Trevelyan (1858-1937), Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Wolverton (1885-1897).

Mary Trevelyan is remembered for her work as the warden of Student Movement House in London. But two recent books also discuss how for many years she was the close companion and long-time friend of the poet TS Eliot. She believed they were romantically committed to one another and she had expected to marry him after the death of his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

The icons and Baptistry in the west apse of Saint Barnabas, Jericho (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

‘St Barnabas, Oxford’ by John Betjeman

How long was the peril, how breathless the day,
In topaz and beryl, the sun dies away,
His rays lying static at quarter to six
On polychromatical lacing of bricks.
Good Lord, as the angelus floats down the road
Byzantine St Barnabas, be Thine Abode.

Where once the fritillaries hung in the grass
A baldachin pillar is guarding the Mass.
Farewell to blue meadows we loved not enough,
And elms in whose shadows were Glanville and Clough
Not poets but clergymen hastened to meet
Thy redden’d remorselessness, Cardigan Street.

The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in Saint George’s Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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