01 October 2023

The Emperor Constantine
in York was the victim
of culture wars waged
in the right-wing press

Philip Jackson’s statue of the Emperor Constantine at York Minster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Two of us are spending the weekend in York, and this morning I was in York Minister for the Choral Eucharist in the cathedral.

Outside York Minister, the Statue of Constantine the Great in Minster Yard is a bronze statue depicting the Roman Emperor Constantine I seated on a throne. It was commissioned by York Civic Trust and designed by the Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson, who also created ‘Dangerous Liaisons,’ a bronze sculpture in the Theatre District in Milton Keynes that I was discussing on Thursday.

Philip Jackson’s Constantine was unveiled in 1998 and it commemorates the accession of Constantine as Roman Emperor in AD 306 on the site.

The statue depicts a seated Constantine wearing military dress. His right arm is outstretched behind him and his left holds the pommel of a sword, the tip of which is shown to be broken. A legend inscribed on the base reads ‘Constantine by this sign conquer’. The words are a translation of the Latin in hoc signo vinces. The phrase is quoted by the historian Eusebius of Caesaria, who recalls how Constantine was marching with his army when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above with it the Greek words ‘(ἐν) τούτῳ νίκα’ (‘In this, conquer’).

The Roman column in Minster Yard was originally erected around the first century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Nearby, a Roman column in Minster Yard was originally erected around the first century by the soldiers of Legio IX Hispana, it was reused by Legion VI in the 4th century. It is believed to have been part of a group of 16 freestanding columns – eight on each side of the nave – supporting the walls of an earlier church on the site.

The column was discovered beneath York Minster during an excavation in 1969, and was given to the City of York three years later to mark the 1900th anniversary of the city’s founding.

The column is 7.6 metres (25 ft) tall and built of magnesian limestone and millstone grit. It was donated to the city to mark the 1,900th anniversary of the foundation of York by the Romans in the year 71AD and now stands in front of the Minster School, in Minster Yard, on the south side of York Minster.

Philip Jackson’s statue of Constantine at York Minster has been the target of a number of japes and pranks in recent years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Philip Jackson’s statue of Constantine has been the target of a number of japes and pranks in recent years. It was one of several statues in York gagged by the Yorkshire Party on Yorkshire Day (1 August) 2016 as part of a campaign to highlight the lack of devolved government in the region. Two years later, on Yorkshire Day 2018, the statue was dressed in a flat cap and given two chocolate themed props: a giant Kit Kat and Terry’s Chocolate Orange.

The statue’s sword was stolen in 2016 and dumped in a drain. The restoration work by York Civic Trust cost £783. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the statue was found to be wearing a protective face mask.

However, the most ridiculous news about the statue was surely a report in the Daily Telegraph in June 2020 that the statue was ‘under review’ following complaints to York Minster about Constantine’s support of slavery in light of Black Lives Matter protests.

Investigative reporting by the Guardian and the York Press revealed, of course, that York Minster had never received any complaints about the life-size statue and that it was never under review. The Guardian described the story as an ‘imaginary statue scandal’ as part of a culture war.

The Daily Telegraph claimed York Minster had received complaints that the emperor supported slavery and that Black Lives Matter protests had led to the statue being put under review. The Daily Mail, as you might expect, swallowed the story whole and regurgitated it, stirring up ridicule and fury among the usual moralising ‘loony right’ figures who love to indulge in conspiracy theories.

‘Pathetic’, the Welsh assembly member Neil Hamilton proclaimed as he asked what would happen next if a classical Roman statue could become a target for destruction – of course, the statue is not classical and was erected in 1998.

As the Guardian pointed out, the story simply is not true. There had been no complaints to York Minster, the statue is not under review, and Black Lives Matter played no active role in a debate that was either a fantasy or an invention to fuel an already heated culture war.

Sunder Katwala, the director of the thinktank British Future, spoke to the Observer and said that the right-wing press often complained, ‘but if [they] don’t want these culture wars, why are [they] inventing them?’

Of course, ever since the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, cathedrals, churches, universities and colleges are reviewing monuments and statues connected with the transatlantic slave trade.

The Church of Saint Botolph without Aldgate in London removed the bust of the 17th-18th century slave trader Sir John Cass in response to a growing awareness of his involvement in the slave trade. Sir John Cass secondary school has changed its name to Stepney All Saints School, and the Cass Foundation in the City of London has removed a similar bust.

All Souls College Oxford has changed the name of the Codrington Library after three centuries. Christopher Codrington’s wealth came principally from sugar plantations — worked by slaves — in Antigua and Barbados. He left the Codrington Plantations in Barbados and Barbuda to the Anglican mission agency the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now USPG) to establish a college in Barbados. Now USPG is confronting that slave-holding part of its history in Barbados, and has committed £7 million to tangible repentance.

For some years now, the of Cecil Rhodes statue overlooking the High Street in Oxford has been the subject of a number of protests, with calls for its removal. It has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. Oriel College has placed a notice below his statue on the Rhodes Building, explaining that his statue is controversial and that the college is addressing this.

Legend says the Emperor Constantine was baptised in the Baptistry at Saint John Lateran (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But Constantine and the Romans hardly fall into the categories of transatlantic slave traders or racist British colonial exploiters in Africa. A plaque beside Philip Jackson’s sculpture at York Minister reads: ‘Near this place, Constantine was proclaimed Roman Emperor in 306. His recognition of the civil liberties of his Christian subjects, and his own conversion to the Faith, established the religious foundations of Western Christendom.’

So, understandably, he is not an unusual figure to find in other cathedrals. I am familiar with the fourth-century statue of the Emperor Constantine In the narthex of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. This is the church that is the Pope’s cathedral as Bishop of Rome, and legend says the Emperor Constantine was baptised in the Baptistry. The state was moved to the basilica in the early 18th century by Pope Clement XII.

Culture wars are the invention of the right, distracting attention from the real problems in Britain today, including a faltering economy, the perilous state of the NHS due to lack of adequate funding, the collapse of local government and essential services due to cuts in government funding, inflation in food prices and utility bills, the contamination of our clean water, rivers, and seas, police violence towards women and ethnic minorities, the demonising and ill-treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, Suella Braverman’s imperious attempts to abolish our global understanding of human rights, and cronyism within the Tory party.

As for Constantine, he continues to sit triumphantly on his throne beside York Minister.

The fourth-century statue of the Emperor Constantine In the narthex of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (126) 1 October 2023

Saint Michael’s Church, Chester Square, London, was built in 1844 while the rest of Chester Square was being built (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and today is the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVII, 1 October 2023).

Two of us are in York for a few days, and I hope to be present at the Choral Eucharist in York Minister later this morning. But, before today gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

The Church celebrated Saint Michael and All Angels on Friday (29 September). So my reflections each morning during Michaelmas last week and this week are taking this format:

1, A reflection on a church named after Saint Michael or his depiction in Church Art;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Saint Michael’s Church, Chester Square … the stained glass window in the chancel is blocked from view by the projector screen (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Michael’s Church, Chester Square, London:

Last weekend, after taking part in the USPG annual reunion in Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square, I also visited Saint Michael’s Church, a prominent evangelical church on Chester Square in the Belgravia district of West London.

Chester Square is an elongated residential garden square. It was developed by the Grosvenor family, as were the nearby Belgrave and Eaton Square. The square is named after Chester, the city nearest the Grosvenor ancestral home of Eaton Hall.

Notable residents of Chester Square have included: Roman Abramovich, Russian oligarch and former owner of Chelsea FC; Matthew Arnold, poet and critic; Tony Curtis, actor; Julie Andrews, actor; King George II of Greece; Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull; Nigella Lawson, celebrity chef; Yehudi Menuhin, violinist and conductor; and Margaret Thatcher.

Saint Michael’s Church was built in 1844 while the rest of Chester Square was being built, and it was consecrated two years later. The church is in the late Decorated Gothic style, with an exterior of Kentish Ragstone. The architect was Thomas Cundy the younger (1790-1867), son of another architect of the same name.

Cundy succeeded his father as surveyor of the Grosvenor Estate in London, and held that position during the main phase of the development of Belgravia and Pimlico by Thomas Cubitt.

In later years, Cundy worked mostly on building churches on the west side of London, including Holy Trinity Paddington, Saint Paul’s, Knightsbridge, and Saint Barnabas’s, Saint Michael’s, Saint Saviour’s and Saint Gabriel’s in Pimlico.

Curdy’s plans for Saint Michael’s, Chester Square, were constricted by the site, and the short nave and shallow chancel are the result. The tower had to be placed to the north of the north aisle, an unusual place that made it look out of proportion to the rest of the building until the east transepts were added to the north and south of the chancel in 1874.

The Ecclesiologist magazine criticised the church at its opening, saying it was ‘an attempt – but happily a most unsuccessful one – to find a Protestant development of the Christian styles.’

Two Pre-Raphaelite windows on the south side are by Morris & Co and date from 1882 (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Two Pre-Raphaelite windows on the south side are by Morris & Co and date from 1882; the West Window is by Hugh Easton (1906-1965), who also created the ‘Te Deum’ West Window in Holy Trinity Church, Coventry. The stained glass window in the chancel is blocked from view by the projector screen.

Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900), the composer of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, was the organist at the church in the early 1860s.

The War Memorial Chapel at the north-east end of the church was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott and was completed in 1920. Wooden panels on the wall of the chapel list the names of 86 parishioners killed in World War I.

Canon Wallace Harold Elliott (1884-1957), known for his radio broadcasts as ‘the Radio Chaplain,’ was the Vicar of Saint Michael’s from 1930 to 1941. He began a series of broadcast sermons from the church in 1931, and they lasted for the next eight years. Congregations of up to 500 would attend the broadcast Thursday evening services, with another 2,000 attending on the following Sunday.

An appeal for a fictitious poverty stricken child nicknamed ‘Sally in our Alley’ attracted 212,000 gifts from listeners and a prayer appeal in 1936 resulted in 5.5 million signed prayer cards.

Margaret and Denis Thatcher attended Saint Michael’s briefly while they were living in Chester Square but they were said to have found it too ‘happy clappy’ and went instead to the chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

The Revd Rupert Charkham has been the Vicar of Saint Michael’s since 2020. Sunday services are at 9 am, 11 am and 6 pm.

The hidden East Window shows Saint Michael in triumph beneath Christ the King (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 21: 23-32 (NRSVA):

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24 Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26 But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27 So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29 He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’

The West Window is by Hugh Easton (1906-1965), who also created the Te Deum West Window in Holy Trinity Church, Coventry (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 ‘Supporting Justice for Women in Zambia.’ This theme was introduced today:

USPG has been supporting the Church in Zambia in combating gender-based violence since 2012. A recent gender justice programme had objectives to help reduce gender-based violence, to get more people to report it when it happens and to mobilise men and young people to be advocates for gender justice.

The church runs a range of educational and awareness-raising activities it also provided counselling services for both female and male survivors of gender-based violence with more than 3,000 people benefiting from this service. The church also provided 600 adolescent girls with basic financial and health education. Priests encouraged the lay leaders in their churches to keep talking to their congregations about the evils of gender injustice.

The role of men within the Church in promoting gender justice is important and they have organised structures that can be channels for transformation. These include the Anglican Men’s Union, Boys Brigade and male clergy networks. These groups can commit themselves to promoting gender equality within the Church by enhancing checks and balances and removing gender disparities.

The Zambian Church continues to see success with its approach. Communities have seen an improvement in both the response to and prevention of gender-based violence. Survivors now have increased assets and many are self-reliant. The programme has since been replicated in other communities.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (1 October 2023, Trinity XVII) invites us to reflect on these words:

‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25: 40).

Saint Michael (right) and Saint Gabriel depicted in a window in the tower (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself,
and so bring us at last to your heavenly city
where we shall see you face to face;
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:

Lord, we pray that your grace
may always precede and follow us,
and make us continually to be given to all good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The High Altar and reredos are difficult to discern behind the drums, guitars and projector screen (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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

The tower at the north of the north aisle looks out of proportion to the rest of the building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)