20 May 2024

Some memories from
Harold’s Cross ten years
after my mother’s death

No 201 Harold’s Cross Road, the birthplace of the Quaker abolitionist and philanthropist Richard Allen (1803–1886), has been restored (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Like many journalists, I was always aware of ‘campaign journalism’. It was a complimentary label when it was applied to journalists with the Sunday Times ‘Insight’ Team, journalists like Paul Foot, John Pilger or Bob Fisk, or many campaign journalists with newspapers such as the Guardian, the Observer and The Irish Times.

There are differences between reporting, analysis, comment, opinion-writing, consciousness raising and campaigning journalism. But when does it spill over into or descend into propaganda and political manipulation?

I suppose I have engaged in a form of campaign journalism and blogging in my support for the return of the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum to their proper home in Athens.

In another way, I have been campaigning, I suppose, in writing about the deterioration of the former home of the Quaker abolitionist and philanthropist Richard Allen (1803-1886) in Harold’s Cross, Dublin.

I had been familiar with this house in my childhood – my mother even sent me ‘for messages’ as a child in the 1960s to Healy’s, the grocery shop that was once attached to the house that later became Westbank Orphanage or the Protestant Girls’ Orphanage.

I had written since 2013 about the sad neglect and decay of this constituent part of the architectural heritage of Harold’s Cross and Dublin 6. So, ten years later, when I visited Harold’s Cross briefly before Christmas, it was a personal pleasure to see the house had been restored carefully.

To my surprise, the heritage contractors PMac, the Harold’s Cross-based masonry, cleaning and maintenance business involved in the restoration work on behalf of Aspect Design, asked my permission to use some of my photographs on their website, illustrating the ‘before’ and ‘after’ state of this Georgian house.

I rarely agree to commercial or business pages using my photographs online. I figure than a business should pay a photographer to do their work, and I should not deprive professional photographers of potential commissions. However, in this case I was so impressed of the work that I immediately said yes. Ten years of ‘campaign blogging’ had borne its fruit.

I suggested that, in return, PMac should make a donation to an appropriate local charity. They willingly agreed, and quickly told me they are organising a coffee morning in the coming months in aid of the Hospice in Harold’s Cross.

There was an added emotional poignancy to this, because it is ten years ago today since my mother, died in the Hospice in Harold’s Cross, on 20 May 2014.

Ellen Comerford (née Murphy) was born in Millstreet, Co Cork, on 10 February 1919 and went to boarding school in Mountrath, Co Laois

Ellen Comerford (née Murphy) was 95 when she died in the Hospice in Harold’s Cross on 20 May 2014. She was born in Millstreet, Co Cork, on 10 February 1919 and went to boarding school in Mountrath, Co Laois, 20 minutes from Roscrea, Co Tipperary, where her Crowley uncles, Cornelius D Crowley (1879-1972) of Roscrea Castle and Jeremiah D Crowley (1883-1968) of Wallstown Castle, Castltownroche, had extensive business interests.

After a short time in Paris immediately before World War II, she became a civil servant in the Department of Education in Dublin. She married my father, Stephen Edward Comerford (1918-2004) in Blackrock, Co Dublin, on 8 September 1945, in the weeks immediately after World II. By then she was living in Booterstown, and her father was living in Australia.

At first, my parents lived in Bray, Co Wicklow, but they later lived in Dublin in Harold’s Cross and then, in later years, in Rathfarnham. I was the fourth of six children, born on Rathfarnham Road.

I understand how life was difficult for her. My eldest brother died on 18 December 1970 when he was only 24, and she was only 51. No mother recovers from the death of a child, no matter what age either of them is at the time.

My father died in Rathfarnham almost 20 years ago, on 27 December 2004, less than two weeks after his 86th birthday. My widowed mother survived him for almost ten years. I had not known her very well in my childhood or for much of my adult life. But I tried to get to know her better in those last 10 years, as she moved into sheltered housing first on Leeson Park and then in Rathgar.

We visited her first marriage home in Bray, her uncle’s former home at Finnstown House, Lucan, which she knew intimately when the Crowley family lived there, we occasionally had lunch together in Rathgar, Bray or Lucan, and at some stage I returned with her to Paris with a brother and a sister.

I don’t think we every properly resolved the difficulties remaining since my childhood, and I had left her home again in my teens. But, I think, today she might be pleased to know about this piece of restoration work in a part of Harold’s Cross she knew well from the 1950s to the 1970s, and to know how this has boosted the work of the Hospice in Harold’s Cross.

Ellen Comerford (née Murphy) died in the Hospice in Harold’s Cross on 20 May 2014

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
12, 20 May 2024

“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9: 24) … Christ the Pantocrator depicted in the dome in a church in Panormos, near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The 50-day season of Easter came to an end yesterday with the Day of Pentecost (19 May 2024), sometimes known as Whit Sunday. The Church Calendar returns to Ordinary Time, which continues until Advent, and the liturgical colour returns to green.

This week, between the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday next Sunday (26 May 2024), my morning reflections include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Today, the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship recalls Alcuin of York (804), Deacon and Abbot of Tours. Alcuin was descended from a noble Northumbrian family. Although the date and place of his birth are not known, he was probably born in 735 in or near York. He entered the cathedral school there as a child, continued as a Scholar and became Master.

In 781, he went to Aachen as adviser to Charlemagne on religious and educational matters and as Master of the Palace School, where he established an important library. Although not a monk and only in deacon’s orders, in 796 he became Abbot of Tours, and he died there in 804.

Alcuin wrote poetry, revised the lectionary, compiled a sacramentary and was involved in other significant liturgical work.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

‘We pray that the spiritual gifts born of diverse languages and cultures may be released to inspire us all …’ (USPG Prayer Diary) … celebrating Greek rhymes and songs, poets and poems, in a doorway in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Mark 9: 14-29 (NRSVUE):

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them and some scribes arguing with them. 15 When the whole crowd saw him, they were immediately overcome with awe, and they ran forward to greet him. 16 He asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak, 18 and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid, and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” 19 He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, help us! Have compassion on us!” 23 Jesus said to him, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” 26 After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. 28 When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”

A woodcut image of Alcuin of York by Kreg Yingst

Today’s Prayers (Monday 20 May 2024):

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 ‘Pentecost Reflection.’ This theme was introduced yesterday with a Reflection by the Revd Duncan Dormor, USPG General Secretary.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (20 May 2024) invites us to pray:

We pray that the spiritual gifts born of diverse languages and cultures may be released to inspire us all within a truly global Church.

The Collect:

God of wisdom, eternal light,
who shone in the heart of your servant Alcuin,
revealing to him your power and pity:
scatter the darkness of our ignorance
that, with all our heart and mind and strength,
we may seek your face
and be brought with all your saints
to your holy presence;
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.

Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Alcuin
that he served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ
and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Alcuin’s library in York was destroyed by the Vikings in 866 … York Minster Library has been housed in the 13th-century Archbishops’ Chapel since 1810 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

19 May 2024

‘To praise Eternity contained
in Time and coloured glass’:
the poetry of John Betjeman
who died 40 years ago in 1984

The larger-than-life statue in St Pancras Station of the poet Sir John Betjeman by Martin Jennings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today (19 March 2024) marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), who died on 19 May 1984. Betjeman, who was the Poet Laureate from 1972, once described himself in Who’s Who as a ‘poet and hack,’ had a passionate interest in Victorian architecture and in railways, and he contributed to guide books as well as being a popular figure on television.

Betjeman was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general. He remains one of the most significant literary figures of our time to declare his Christian faith, and one of the great makers of the Christian imagination in the last century.

In a letter written on Christmas Day 1947, he said: ‘Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.’

During his life, he crossed paths at different times with two other great Anglican literary giants: the poet TS Eliot, who was once his teacher, and the apologist CS Lewis, who was his tutor in Oxford.

He was a lifelong friend of the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, and he spent time in Dublin during World War II, when he was an active parishioner in Clondalkin, Co Dublin. Many of his poems recount his encounters members of the Church of Ireland and his love of Church of Ireland country parish churches.

Early life, Oxford and CS Lewis

Magdalen College, Oxford… … John Betjeman was an undergraduate, and CS Lewis was his tutor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

He was born John Betjemann on 28 August 1906 in Highgate, and he was baptised in Saint Anne’s Church, Highgate Rise. Although his family was of Dutch ancestry, on the outbreak of World War I his parents, Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann, changed the family name to the less German-sounding Betjeman.

At Highgate School, his teachers included TS Eliot. From there he went to the Dragon School, Oxford, and Marlborough College, Wiltshire, where his friends and contemporaries included the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, the spy Anthony Blunt, and the illustrator and cartoonist Graham Shepard.

At Marlborough too, his reading of the works of Arthur Machen (1863-1947) won him over to High Church Anglicanism – it was a conversion that would influence and shape his writing and his work in the arts for the rest of the life.

Betjeman entered Oxford with difficulty, having failed the mathematics part of the matriculation exam, and was admitted to Magdalen College. However, his tutor, CS Lewis, regarded him as an ‘idle prig,’ while Betjeman found Lewis unfriendly, demanding and uninspiring, describing him as being ‘breezy, tweedy, beer-drinking and jolly.’

Betjeman appears to have spent most of his time at Oxford indulging his social life, developing his interest in church architecture, and following his own literary pursuits. He had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine, and in 1927 was the editor of Cherwell, the student newspaper whose contributors included WH Auden, Graham Greene, Cecil Day-Lewis and Evelyn Waugh.

But Betjeman never completed his degree at Oxford. He twice failed the compulsory Scripture examination, Divinity, known to students as ‘Divvers,’ and was later allowed to enter the Pass School. His tutor, CS Lewis, told the tutorial board he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class. Betjeman passed ‘Divvers’ at a third sitting, but finally left Oxford at the end of Michaelmas term 1928 after failing the Pass School.

For the rest of his life he blamed his failure on CS Lewis, and the two writers were never reconciled, even later in life. Nonetheless, Betjeman had an enduring love of Oxford, and received an honorary doctorate in 1974.

After Oxford, he worked briefly as a private secretary, school teacher and film critic for the Evening Standard before becoming an assistant editor at the Architectural Review. His first book of poems, Mount Zion, was published in 1931 by an Oxford friend, Edward James.

Betjeman developed the Shell Guides with Jack Beddington for Britain’s growing number of motorists. By the beginning of World War II, 13 Shell Guides had been published. Betjeman had written Cornwall (1934) and Devon (1936), and later he collaborated on Shropshire (1951) with his friend the artist John Piper (1903-1992), whose works include the stained glass windows in Coventry Cathedral and the East Window in the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield.

Betjeman in Ireland

John Betjeman and family at Collinstown House, Clondalkin, Co Dublin, where they lived in the 1940s

Betjeman was rejected for active service in World War II but he moved to the Ministry of Information, and came to Dublin in 1941 as the British press attaché to the British High Commissioner, Sir John Maffey (later Lord Rugby), working from 50 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin.

From 1941 to 1943, the Betjemans lived at Collinstown House, Rowlagh, Clondalkin, where their daughter Candida was born. The Georgian house, which was rented from the Jameson distillery family, has since been demolished. John and Penelope Betjeman were registered vestry members in Saint John’s Church, where he regularly read the Sunday lessons.

He also had a close association with Monkstown Parish Church, which he regarded as John Semple’s greatest work of architecture, displaying his ‘original genius’ and ‘eccentric taste.’

He said Monkstown Church was ‘one of my first favourites for its originality of detail and proportion.’ He also liked Semple’s Saint Mary’s in Saint Mary’s Place, near Dorset Street, known to generations of Dubliners as ‘the Black Church’ but now closed.

In 1943, he gave a lecture to the clergy of the Church of Ireland, ‘Fabrics of the Church of Ireland,’ in which he made the point that the ‘fabric of the church is very much concerned with worship. The decoration of a church can lead the eye to God or away from him.’

As press attaché, his roles in Dublin included smoothing relations between Britain and the neutral Irish Free State, contributing to radio programmes such as Irish Half Hour aimed at Irish recruits in the British army, and entertaining important British visitors, including the actor Laurence Olivier, who was filming his production of Shakespeare’s Henry V on the Powerscourt Estate at Enniskerry, Co Wicklow.

According to documents unearthed by a recent Channel 4 documentary, Betjeman told Whitehall that the only way to lure Ireland into the war was to end partition. He said a ‘defensive union of the whole of Ireland’ should be made ‘indissoluble,’ he urged Britain to stop attacking the Irish Free State, including ‘anti-Irish articles and cartoons,’ and he argued that ‘de Valera is Britain’s best friend in Ireland.’

Betjeman’s main sources of information included the journalists of The Irish Times he drank with in the Palace Bar in Fleet Street.

It is said the IRA planned to assassinate him, but the order was rescinded after he met an Old IRA man who was impressed by his works.

Betjeman wrote a number of poems based on his experiences in Ireland during the ‘Emergency,’ including ‘The Irish Unionist’s Farewell to Greta Hellstrom in 1922,’ which includes the refrain ‘Dungarvan in the rain.’ ‘Greta’ was recently identified as Emily (Sears) Villiers-Stuart, an American married into a well-known West Waterford family who lived at Dromana House, near Cappoquin.

In Dublin, he also became friends with Patrick Kavanagh. The Irish poet celebrated the birth of Betjeman’s daughter with his poem ‘Candida,’ and another well-known poem contains the line: ‘Let John Betjeman call for me in a car.’

When Betjeman’s posting in Dublin ended in 1943, his departure made the front page of The Irish Times. After World War II, he returned to London, his wife Penelope became a Roman Catholic in 1948, and the couple drifted apart. He later developed a close, life-long friendship with Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, whose family lived in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford.

Poet Laureate and popular poet

By 1948, Betjeman had published more than a dozen books, including five verse collections, and by 1958 sales of his Collected Poems had reached 100,000; it has now sold over two million copies. He was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972, and this role, along with his popularity on television, brought his poetry to a wider audience.

He voiced the thoughts and aspirations of many ordinary people while retaining the respect of many of his fellow poets. He died at his home in Trebetherick, Cornwall, 40 years ago on 19 May 1984, and is buried at Saint Enodoc’s Church.

Betjeman and Church architecture

Betjeman had a love of Victorian architecture and was a founding member of the Victorian Society. But he also loved old Church of Ireland country parish churches. In ‘Ireland with Emily,’ he writes of those parish churches in rural Kildare, Roscommon, Westmeath and Laois, first published in New Bats in Old Belfries (1945):

There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates.
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover,
Graves of spinster, rake and lover,
Whose fantastic mausoleum
Sings its own seablown Te Deum
In and out the slipping slates.


His favourite church in Ireland was the Church of Ireland parish church in Monkstown, Co Dublin. This church was originally built in 1789, but was remodelled in 1830 by John Semple. In 1974, Betjeman became the first patron of the Friends of Monkstown Church, corresponding regularly with the rector, Canon William Wynne. The church also featured in a BBC documentary, Betjeman’s Dublin.

Betjeman’s poetry and faith

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, and his wryly comic verse is marked by a satirical and observant grace. As WH Auden observed, he was ‘at home with the provincial gas-lit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.’

His poetry is redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the manifestly ordinary. In a 1962 radio interview he explained that he could not write about ‘abstract things,’ preferring places and faces.

Betjeman was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general.

He remains one of the most significant literary figures of our time to declare his Christian faith. In a letter written on Christmas Day 1947, he said: ‘Also my view of the world is that man is born to fulfil the purposes of his Creator i.e. to Praise his Creator, to stand in awe of Him and to dread Him. In this way I differ from most modern poets, who are agnostics and have an idea that Man is the centre of the Universe or is a helpless bubble blown about by uncontrolled forces.’

He was a practising Anglican and his religious beliefs and piety inform many of his poems. In response to a radio broadcast by the humanist Margaret Knight, he expressed his views on Christianity in The Listener in 1955 with his poem ‘The Conversion of St Paul,’ which ends:

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging into doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below —
My parish church — and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.


The Mystery of Faith in four poems

Betjeman was a life-long Anglo-Catholic. In four poems – ‘Churchyards,’ ‘Advent 1955,’ ‘Christmas’ and ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

Professor Kevin J Gardner of Baylor University, in Faith and Doubt of John Betjeman: An Anthology of Betjeman’s Religious Verse (London: Continuum, 2006), says that in these four poems Betjeman finds the sudden and wondrous appearance of God in the most unlikely of places, giving him ‘a sense of spiritual security’ that ‘renders him susceptible to the embrace of mystery and miracle.’

1, Churchyards

‘For churchyards then, though hollowed ground, / Were not so grim as now they sound’ … a grave in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Although it is one of his less-known poems, ‘Churchyards’ is one of the four poems – alongside ‘Advent 1955,’ ‘Christmas,’ and ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican,’ and– in which Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

He recalls the old English churchyards at the heart of village life, with their traditional headstones, and ‘Close to the church when prayers were said, / And Masses for the village dead.’ Today, the churchyard is giving way to a ‘garden of rest,’ although ‘Graveyard’s a much more honest name.’

Mid-Lent is passed and Easter’s near
The greatest day of all the year
When Jesus, who indeed had died,
Rose with his body glorified.
And if you find believing hard
The primroses in your churchyard
And modern science too will show
That all things change the while they grow,
And we, who change in Time will be
Still more changed in eternity.


2, Advent 1955

‘A present that cannot be priced / Given two thousand years ago’ … the Christmas scene seen in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the second of these poems, ‘Advent 1955,’ Betjeman talks about how people today take the real meaning of Christmas for granted. No one seems to appreciate the real gift anymore. Yet this is God’s gift, the greatest gift of all, the birth of Christ.

‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’.
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.


3, Christmas

The third of these four poems, ‘Christmas,’ is one of Betjeman’s most openly religious pieces, in which the last three stanzas proclaim the wonder of Christ’s birth in the form of a question: ‘And is it true …?’

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.


The statue of Sir John Betjeman by Martin Jennings shows the poet holding his hat as he gazes up at the glass ceiling of the Barlow Shed in St Pancras station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

4, Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican

His poem ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican,’ is another of the four poems in which Betjeman makes the mystery of the Christian faith a central issue.

If Betjeman’s imagination wanders in the joys of the beauty of worship and church architecture in ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ then his mind wanders in the joys of beauty in a very different way in ‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – although he reaches similar conclusions.

‘Lenten Thoughts of a High Anglican’ – which in Betjeman’s drafts is titled ‘Lenten Thoughts in Grosvenor Chapel’ – was the first spontaneous poem he wrote after his appointment as Poet Laureate in October 1972. It was first published in the Sunday Express on 13 May 1973, and was included in the collection A Nip in the Air (1974).

Alongside the joviality found in many of his poems, this poem has an unusual tonal complexity. Betjeman describes a mysterious and sexually alluring woman who receives Holy Communion each Sunday. In an attempt to refocus the devotional attention of the parishioners, the priest tells them not to stare around or to be distracted during his celebration of the Eucharist.

But Betjeman’s experience contradicts the admonitions from the priest. In a peculiar way, through this mysterious and alluring woman, he suddenly becomes aware of the presence of God. The intrigue and arousal surrounding the women he describes as the ‘mistress’ speaks to the poet of the mystery of God.

From 1972 until his death 40 years ago in 1984, Betjeman worshipped at the Grosvenor Chapel in London, which had been redesigned and transformed, with an Anglo-Catholic emphasis, in 1912 by Sir Ninian Comper. It was a favourite church of Bishop Charles Gore, and for many years the congregation included such people as the writer Rose Macaulay, author of The Towers of Trebizond.

In an interview with the Sunday Express, Betjeman said: ‘I saw this woman in church one Sunday. I didn’t know who she was. She was the most beautiful creature; and she had a slightly sad expression. And I didn’t even know her name – but it was probably all the better for that. She might have been terrible.’

‘I like there to be a mystery between me and my beloved,’ he continued. ‘And I don’t think there was anything wrong with looking at her in church, do you? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with loving the beauty of the human figure whether it’s in church or in the street … I’m not sure if [the poem] is any good but I hope it will please people. I’ve always wanted my verse to be popular because I wanted to communicate.’

Betjeman’s Dublin-born daughter, the author and journalist Candida Lycett Green, has identified the woman who inspired this poem as Joan Price, who used to go to church at Betjeman’s church, the Grosvenor Chapel. She was the Beauty Editor of Harpers & Queen – now Harper’s Bazaar – and was married to Michael Constantinidis, a sidesman at the Grosvenor Chapel.

Two important places of Anglican worship

Betjeman celebrates the social and cultural significance of the Church of England, yet he points to the social and spiritual failures of the Church, particularly the snobbery and hypocrisy of the clergy and churchgoers.

Two of his poems, ‘In Westminster Abbey’ (1940) and ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ (1954), are set in two of the most important centres of worship in England, one with political significance, the other with academic significance.

Taken together, these two poems give us a poet who believes deeply in Christ and who holds out hope for the Church of England and Anglicanism. One represents a place of public worship the closely links the Church with the political power in the nation; the other represents the very beauty of Anglican worship in a place associated not only with the academic, architectural and musical excellence of the nation.

1, In Westminster Abbey

‘Now I’ll come to Evening Service / Whensoever I have the time’ … ‘In Westminster Abbey’ is one of John Betjeman’s most savage satires (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘In Westminster Abbey’ is one of Betjeman’s most savage satires. This poem is a dramatic monologue, set during the early days of World War II, in which a woman enters Westminster Abbey to pray for a moment before hurrying off to ‘a luncheon date.’

She is not merely a chauvinistic nationalist, but also a racist, a snob and a hypocrite who is concerned more with how the war will affect her share portfolio than anything else. Her chauvinistic nationalism leads her speaker to pray to God ‘to bomb the Germans’ … but ‘Don’t let anyone bomb me.’ But her social and ethical lapses are a product of her spiritual state, which is a direct result of her nation’s spiritual sickness.

But she lets God know prayer and her relationship with God are low down her list of priorities:

Now I feel a little better,
What a treat to hear Thy Word,
Where the bones of leading statesmen
Have so often been interr’d.
And now, dear Lord, I cannot wait
Because I have a luncheon date.


2, Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge

A Sunday morning at King’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Many years ago, in a book review in the Times Higher Education Supplement, Timothy Mowl of the University of Bristol described ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ as of the ‘least important’ of Betjeman’s poems, ‘because it is about a place, not people in a place.’

Here he is at his best as he fuses together in one poem his different passions, and in ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge’ he presents a happy marriage of architectural detail, finely observed, and the sense of the worship of the eternal captured in a moment. He presents the beauty and splendour of Anglican worship, ablaze with colour.

In ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ the moment of worship exists out of time as the living and the dead, the choir and the poet, join in the eternal praise of God. In this poem, Betjeman captures a joyful and spontaneous reaction, albeit an emotionally restrained expression, and a sense of wonder in the celebration of Anglican worship.

Stanza 1 describes the procession of the choir of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, and the spiritually overwhelming aesthetics of the chapel – the stalls, the stained glass, and especially the stunning fan-vaulted ceiling, ‘a shower that never falls.’

Stanza 2 sees the poet’s mind wander away from the service as he imagines being outside among the ‘windy Cambridge courts.’ Again there is a great emphasis on the vast variety of colour, but all the colours are transformed into ‘waves of pearly light’ reflected off the Cambridge stone. The image suggests that the divine is not to be found exclusively in the chapel but in the world, the space that contains both God’s works and humanity’s work.

Stanza 3 is a geographical and historical expansion of these images and ideas. Here, the white of the ‘windy Cambridge courts’ contrasts with the ‘vaulted roof so white and light and strong.’

Betjeman imagines the tombs that fill churches throughout East Anglia, with the effigies of the deceased captured for eternity in postures of prayer:

… the clasped hands lying long
Recumbent on sepulchral slabs or effigied in brass.


The prayers of these dead are a ‘buttress’ for the vaulted ceiling of the chapel at King’s, which, built near the end of the Gothic period, needs no architectural buttresses. Christianity exists not because of aesthetics but because of prayer, and the sanctuary is supported, not because of the marvels of 15th century engineering, but by a tradition of faith. In ‘Sunday Morning, King’s Cambridge,’ the moment of worship exists out of time as the living and the dead, the choir and the poet, join in the eternal praise of God.

The poem has no irony, except perhaps in the last line:

To praise Eternity contained in Time and coloured glass.

Here Betjeman illustrates the futility of our human desire to share in God’s timelessness. All of us are being confounded by our foolish need to control God and time.

A final poem: Loneliness

‘The last year’s leaves are on the beech … The Easter bells enlarge the sky,’ John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The chilling poem ‘Loneliness’ is included in Betjeman’s 1974 collection, A Nip in the Air. While it speaks of how ‘The Easter bells enlarge the sky,’ it shows Betjeman’s deep fear of death. He suffered nightmares about Hell because he was married to one woman (Penelope Chetwode) but was living with another (Lady Elizabeth Cavendish).

The last year’s leaves are on the beech:
The twigs are black; the cold is dry;
To deeps beyond the deepest reach
The Easter bells enlarge the sky.
O ordered metal clatter-clang!
Is yours the song the angels sang?
You fill my heart with joy and grief –
Belief! Belief! And unbelief …
And, though you tell me I shall die,
You say not how or when or why.


However, the poet Hugo Williams hears Betjeman speaking frankly to God: ‘If he has a well-developed sense of his mortality it is no more than any poet needs to make poetry out of.’ Betjeman’s religious values come through in his poems, and he affirms his belief even while fearing it might be false.

Betjeman celebrates the social and cultural significance of the Church of England, yet he points to the social and spiritual failures of the Church, particularly the snobbery and hypocrisy of the clergy and churchgoers. In his poems, he describes the perils of faith and the struggle to believe. He was a troublesome poet who persisted in believing, and in his poetry he explored his thoughts about his Anglican faith, about Englishness and about Christianity in general.

Poems by John Betjeman © John Betjeman Society.


This essay includes material prepared for tutorial groups with MTh students in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, on 19 February 2014 and 5 December 2015, and a paper published in Koinonia (Kansas City, MO), Vol 7, Issue 25 (Lent/Easter 2014), pp 12-18.

The Greeks have a word for it:
42, Pentecost, Πεντηκοστή

Pentecost depicted in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó, in the hills above Hersonissos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Day of Pentecost in the western calendar of the Church (19 May 2024), the fiftieth day of the Easter season, which began on Easter Day (31 March 2024). Today celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and the fulfilment of the promises of Easter. You could say it is the birthday of the Church.

The Feast of Pentecost has parallels in the Jewish calendar, with Feast of Shavuot or the ‘Festival of Weeks,’ which is sometimes called Pentecost too, and which also comes 50 days after Pesach or the Passover.

But the word Pentecost is Greek in its origins, and comes from the Koinē Greek πεντηκοστή (pentēkostē), which means literally ‘fiftieth’.

In the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, one of the meanings of Pentecost refers to the festival of Shavuot. It is celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover, according to Deuteronomy 16: 10 and Exodus 34: 22, where it is referred to as the ‘Festival of Weeks’ or ἑορτὴν ἑβδομάδων (heortēn hebdomádōn).

The Septuagint uses the term πεντηκοστή (pentēkostē) in this context in both the Book of Tobit and II Maccabees. The translators of the Septuagint also use the word in two other senses: to signify the year of Jubilee (see Leviticus 25: 10), which falls every fiftieth year, and in several passages of chronology as an ordinal number. The term is also used in Hellenistic Jewish literature by Philo of Alexandria and Josephus to refer to the Festival of Shavuot.

The festival of Shavuot is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals in Judaism and is celebrated seven weeks and one day after the first day of Passover (see Deuteronomy 16: 9), or seven weeks and one day after the Sabbath (see Leviticus 23: 16). It is discussed in the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Arakhin. The actual mention of 50 days comes from Leviticus 23: 16.

The Festival of Weeks is also known as the Feast of Harvest in Exodus 23: 16 and the Day of First Fruits in Numbers 28: 26. In Exodus 34: 22, it is called the ‘first fruits of the wheat harvest.’

At some time in the Hellenistic period, the ancient harvest festival also became a day of renewing the Noahic covenant, described in Genesis 9: 17, established between God and ‘all flesh that is upon the earth.’ After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, offerings could no longer be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and the focus of the festival shifted from agriculture to the Israelites receiving the Torah.

By that time, many Jews were living in the Diaspora and were Greek-speaking. According to Acts 2: 5-11, there were Jews from ‘every nation under heaven’ in Jerusalem, possibly visiting the city as pilgrims during Pentecost.

The Pentecost narrative in Acts 2 includes numerous references to earlier biblical narratives such as the Tower of Babel, and the flood and creation narratives from Genesis. It also includes references to certain theophanies, particularly God’s presence on Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments were given to Moses.

Some scholars identify the οἶκος (oikos, ‘house’) that was the location of Pentecost in Acts 2: 2 with one of the 30 halls of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, the text is lacking in specific details, and other scholars suggest that the author of Acts could have chosen the word ἱερόν (hieron, sanctuary, temple) if this meaning were intended, rather than ‘house.’ Some suggest that the ‘house’ could be the ‘upper room’ (ὑπερῷον, huperóon) mentioned in Acts 1: 12-26. But there is no literary evidence to confirm the location with certainty.

The events in Acts 2 are set against the backdrop of the celebration of Pentecost in Jerusalem. The author notes that the disciples ‘were all together in one place’ on the ‘day of Pentecost’ (ἡμέρα τῆς Πεντηκοστῆς, imera tis Pentekostes).

The gathered disciples were ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’

The languages are difficult to enumerate, but the vast majority of these people, including the Jews and proselytes living in the diaspora who have come to Jerusalem from Crete, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia Minor, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, north Africa, and perhaps even Rome, may have been Greek speakers.

The largest Greek-speaking cities at the time were Alexandria and Ephesus, and at the time Latin was regarded as a vulgar language. Greek as a language had cultural prestige among the Roman upper class, and Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans is written in Greek. It was not until after 200 CE that the Church in Rome produced documents in Latin, and the first Christian theologian to write in Latin was Tertullian, a North African, writing in the early 200s.

Orthodox Pentecost is celebrated in Greece seven weeks and a day (50 days) following Easter, and marks the end of the Easter cycle that began 92 days before with Orthodox Shrove Monday. This means Orthodox Pentecost usually fall in late May to mid-June in Greece, and the feast traditionally lasts for three days – on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – and with a public holiday on the Monday.

This year, in the Greek Orthodox Calendar, the Day of Pentecost is celebrated on 23 June. Pentecost is one of the Great Christian Feasts of the year, being second in importance only to Pascha or Easter. It is celebrated with much fanfare in Greece, so much so that it seems like ‘a second Easter.’

Because Easter Day was late in the Greek calendar this year (5 May 2024), the Day of Pentecost is celebrated in the Greek Orthodox Church this year on Sunday 23 June 2024.

Previous word: 41, Idiotic, Ιδιωτικός

Next word: 43, Apostrophe

Greek was once the principal language in the Mediterranean … lines from Άρνηση (‘Denial’), a poem by George Seferis, on an old Greek door on Carmel Street in the former Jewish quarter of Mdina in Malta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
50, 19 May 2024, Pentecost

Pentecost depicted in the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó, in the hills above Hersonissos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

The 50-day season of Easter comes to an end today with the Day of Pentecost (19 May 2024), sometimes known as Whit Sunday, celebrating the fulfilment of the promises of Easter.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day have included the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Later this morning, I am taking part in the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, reading one of the lessons and leading the intercessions. But, before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Pentecost reading in the Acts of the Apostles and today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The Ascension (left) and Pentecost (right) in the celing of the Church of the Transfiguration in Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Acts 2: 1-21 (NRSVAUE):

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Fellow Jews and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit,
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

The Day of Pentecost depicted in Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 15: 26-27, 16: 4b-15 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.

4b “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5 But now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The 12 Apostles depicted in an icon in the Cathedral in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Sunday 19 May 2024):

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 ‘Pentecost Reflection.’ This theme is introduced today with a Reflection by the Revd Duncan Dormor, USPG General Secretary:

‘In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power’.

Pentecost: the day the church was born – through the pouring out of the Spirit – carrying the Gospel message from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. A defining moment in which we witness the chaotic joy of new birth; the breaking waters of the Spirit of God dramatically issuing forth new life. And just as that first cry of the newborn infant is universally understood – so too, for those gathered – there is a clear understanding that a radical community is being created. And miraculously, everyone understands.

Those present hear the divine, life-giving message. But not because they suddenly grasp the languages of power or privilege – the Latin of Imperial Rome; the Greek of high culture and philosophy or the Hebrew of the religious elite – but rather because the Spirit speaks in their own tongue.

The Spirit speaks into the hearts of all in the language of childhood, with the same tongue whispered or sung by their mothers; with all the distinctiveness and colour, poetry and rhythm and cadence and timbre, and all the associations that come with it: The language of the heart.

‘In our own languages, we hear.’ This simple, powerful, Pentecostal reality still has the potential to transform and challenge an Anglican Communion still dominated by that other imperial language – English. So that the spiritual gifts born of diverse languages and cultures may be released to inspire us all within a truly global Church.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (19 May 2024, Day of Pentecost) invites us to pray:

May we be filled by the Holy Spirit,
And spread your Good News across the nations.
Let us celebrate the diversity of humankind,
Using language as a gift not a barrier.
Amen.

The Collect:

God, who as at this time
taught the hearts of your faithful people
by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit:
grant us by the same Spirit
to have a right judgement in all things
and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort;
through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Faithful God,
who fulfilled the promises of Easter
by sending us your Holy Spirit
and opening every race and nation
the way of life eternal:
open our lips by your Spirit,
that every tongue may tell of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father,
ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
revive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Preparing for Penrtecost this weekend in in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

18 May 2024

‘Then suddenly we woke,
aflame with love dynamic
as life-giving breath’:
Pentecost in Leicester

‘The Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost’ … a painting by Iain McKillop in his ‘Hope and Tragedy’ exhibition in Leicester Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Tomorrow is the Day of Pentecost (19 May 2024), celebrating the fulfilment of all the promises of the Easter, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the ‘birthday of the Church.’ I am looking forward to the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Giles in Stony Stratford, when I am reading one of the lessons and leading the intercessions.

Earlier this week, I was in Leicester for the first time in 13 years. This time it was just a one-day visit, but I visited Leicester Cathedral for the first time, including the current exhibition in the north aisle of ‘Hope and Tragedy’, a collection of ‘Stations of the Resurrection’ by Iain McKillop. The Easter exhibition opened on the Wednesday in Easter Week (3 April 2024) and continues until next Monday (20 May 2024).

The Revd Iain McKillop is a priest, painter, art historian and academic who works mainly in the field of religious art. He also produces paintings of architectural history and related subjects, and he has exhibited works in many cathedrals and churches, including Bradford, Exeter, Gloucester, Guildford, Leicester, Lichfield, St Edmundsbury, Saint Paul’s, Westminster and Worcester cathedrals. He gives talks and retreats on issues of faith, art and art history.

The Stations of the Cross are a tradition inherited from the early Church. The traditional Stations of the Cross end with the burial of Christ, but in the late 20th century it became popular to add the Resurrection as Stations 15.

The Stations of the Resurrection are a modern development, but the idea dates back to early Church murals and sequences found in illustrated mediaeval manuscripts, and in works by Duccio, Giotto and Fra Angelico.

Father Sabino Palumbieri, a Salesian priest in Rome, developed a series of Resurrection Stations in 1994 in ‘The Way of Light’ (Via Lucis) to complement ‘The Way of the Cross’ (Via Crucis), for the Easter season of the 50 days from Easter to Pentecost. ‘The Way of Light’ has developed since then, and in 2006 the Church of England included Stations of the Resurrection in Common Worship: Times and Seasons for Easter, selecting 19 Stations, with the Conversion of Saul as the last Station in an unusual way of ending the sequence.

Iain McKillop initially produced 20 paintings for his ‘Stations of the Resurrection’ theme over 20 months of near isolation during the Covid 19 pandemic. They were first shown in Guildford Cathedral in 2022, and he hopes to exhibit them in cathedrals throughout England as ‘a memorial to all who were affected by the pandemic.’

During the pandemic, he realised he needed ‘to work on creating something that would raise both my own spirits and those of others, when we would eventually be able to meet, exhibit work and visit churches again.’

The series commemorates all who died or have been affected by the pandemic. They are dedicated to his friend and mentor the Revd Alan Elkins who died of cancer in 2021. He also says he wanted to paint a substantial and significant subject in personal gratitude to Archbishop Rowan Williams ‘for the inspiration and encouragement I had gained through his ministry, guided retreats and writings.’

Iain McKillop’s panels follow the Resurrection stories in the Gospels from Christ’s Resurrection through to the Ascension and Pentecost. The New Testament writers record 19 resurrection appearances, from the first encounter with Mary Magdalene on Easter morning to Saint Paul’s life-changing experience on the road to Damascus.

The artist realised how idifficult it is to arrange the resurrection accounts into a clearly unified chronology. He added two larger Resurrection and Pentecostpaintings as introductions and conclusions to the series – an ‘Introit’ and ‘Postlude’ to encourage viewers to prepare spiritually for the journey and end with reflection on the Spirit’s presence in our lives.

His complete series of 26 images now contains all the themes in the Anglican and Roman Catholic stations, including the additional subjects in Times and Seasons.

The series is accompanied by a series of short written meditations. A book linked to the exhibition, Stations of the Resurrection: Encounters with the Risen Christ, was published earlier this year (January 2024 ). It includes copies of the pictures in this series, with texts by Bishop Guli Francis-Dehqani of Chelmsford and sonnets by the Cambridge priest poet Malcolm Guite.

Over 40 years or so, Iain McKillop has used drawing and painting as ways of thinking through the meaning and relevance of scripture. These Stations of the Resurrection involved three years of studying commentaries and theological writings, including re-exploring and reconsidering what we believe about the spiritual mysteries and hope offered by Christ’s resurrection. He sees the creative process as ‘rather like a form of Lectio Divina, using sketchbooks, paint, study, meditation, contemplation and prayer.’

He says: ‘The work strengthened my own belief that there are truths within the resurrection stories which offer strong foundations on which to build a trusting faith. I hope these ideas and images may help others to … offer people hope and to help to transform our suffering, often corrupted world into a better place that Jesus intended God’s Kingdom to become. To do this, it is important to strengthen confidence in the grounds of our faith.’

One of the concluding images in the exhibition in Leicester Cathedral is ‘The Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost.’ A citation below the painting is inspired by Acts 2: 1-42 and Mark 16: 20: ‘Then suddenly we woke, aflame with love dynamic as life-giving breath … knew truths and surged with memories and thoughts of God; found understanding, powers, persuasive words. Of course we were afraid, but none could hide behind closed doors. We dashed into the streets: Enthusiasts, we sang with confidence of love and future life empowered by you.’

Iain McKillop’s exhibition in Leicester Cathedral ends on Monday 20 May (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Daily prayer in Easter 2024:
49, 18 May 2024

The church bell in the Byzantine-style Church of Aghios Vasilios in Koutouloufári, in the hills above Hersonissos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Easter is a 50-day season that continues until the Day of Pentecost tomorrow (19 May 2024). We are coming to the end of that in-between time in the Season of Easter, between Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost, and this Sunday was the end of the Season of Easter.

Throughout this Season of Easter, my morning reflections each day have included the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The church bell at Aghios Anargyron, beside Rethymnon General Hospital in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

John 21: 20-25 (NRSVA):

20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ 23 So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

The church bells at the Church of Saint Nicholas, near the bus station in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 18 May 2024):

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 ‘Triangle of Hope.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (18 May 2024) invites us to pray:

We pray especially for those caught up in racial injustice as part of the legacy of the dehumanising trade of enslaved Africans. Circle us with your forgiveness, righteousness and hope that we may do justice, seek mercy and walk humbly with you.

The Collect:

O God the King of glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
we beseech you, leave us not comfortless,
but send your Holy Spirit to strengthen us
and exalt us to the place where our Saviour Christ is gone before,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God, giver of love and power,
your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into all the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom:
confirm us in this mission,
and help us to live the good news we proclaim;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Risen, ascended Lord,
as we rejoice at your triumph,
fill your Church on earth with power and compassion,
that all who are estranged by sin
may find forgiveness and know your peace,
to the glory of God the Father.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The bell tower at the Church of Saint George on Egeou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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

17 May 2024

The Jewry Wall, Roman
remains, and the suffering
of the Jewish community
in mediaeval Leicester

The Jewry Wall in Leicester … 19th and early 20th century historians agreed it was part of the mediaeval Jewish quarter in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Leicester earlier this week, for the first time since I was there in 2011 for a course on interfaith dialogue. During this week’s visit, I went to visit the Jewry Wall, which is closed off to the public at present as the site is being redeveloped.

Jewry Wall in Leicester is one of the most impressive fragments of standing Roman building work in Britain. It is now identified as part of the palaestra or gymnasium attached to the Roman town’s public baths complex. But the name of the Jewry Wall has never been explained satisfactorily, and late mediaeval and early modern writers persistently associate Jewry Wall with the mediaeval Jewish community in Leicester.

Despite speculation down through the centuries, however, the name of Jewry Wall continues to defy explanation. The earliest known occurrence of the name is found ca 1665, when the town authorities proposed removing the ruin and Edward Hunt asserted that ‘he hath a right unto the Jury Wall and hee is very loath for to demollish it for Antiquitye Sake’.

It is named as ‘the Jews Wall’ (1683), ‘the Jury wall’ (1698), ‘Judaeorum murus’ and ‘Jews Wall’ (1709), ‘Jewry Wall’ (1712, 1724), ‘the Jews or Jewry wall’ (1732), and ‘Iury Wall’ (1741). By the end of the 18th century, the name ‘Jewry Wall’ was used consistently, although some outsiders called it ‘Old Jewry Wall’, probably through the influence of name of Old Jewry, a street in London.

The Jewry Wall was part of the Roman baths complex and survived because it was built into the wall of Saint Nicholas Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

However, two other names have also been associated with the site: Janus’ Temple and Holy Bones. The association with Janus is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s in the 1130s, telling how Leir, the town’s legendary founder, was buried by his daughter Cordelia in an underground chamber beneath the Soar, which was dedicated to Janus. It has been suggested that the story was inspired by the arches and recesses of the Jewry Wall itself, or by other Roman ruins in the vicinity.

The name Holy Bones is found from the mid-14th century on, and was usually given to the land or thoroughfare to the immediate east of Saint Nicholas Church. On occasion, however, it also included the Jewry Wall site to the west.

William Burton, writing in 1622, linked the traditions of the Temple of Janus and the Holy Bones, saying the bones of sacrificed to Janus had been dug up on the site. Later writers in the 17th century also referred to the Temple of Janus, but Celia Fiennes, writing in 1698, conflated the Holy Bones tradition with the name of Jewry Wall, claiming the ruin as ‘a place where the Jews burnt their sacrifices’.

Other writers suggested it was the site of a British temple where oxen had been sacrificed or even, for one writer, the site of pagan child sacrifice.

The name Janus also played its part in the emergence of an alternative interpretation of the ruin as that of a Janua, or gateway, of the Roman town. This idea was first put forward by William Bennet, Bishop of Cork and Ross, ca 1790.

A new Jewry Wall Museum is being developed in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

John Throsby made the earliest attempt to explain the name of Jewry Wall in 1791, when he surmised that it ‘might happen from the circumstance of the Jews, some centuries ago, being compelled to live together in certain districts of every city in England: in Leicester, they might be compelled to live together, in habitations, near this wall’.

This suggestion of a Jewish quarter was accepted by the majority of 19th and early 20th century historians, and for a time an interpretive plaque was fixed to the wall presenting it as the name’s origin.

However, in 1793, Thomas Robinson suggested that the term was ‘more likely to be a transition from Janus, than from the Jews inhabiting thereabout.’ But his view found little support.

HW Hawkins argued in 1936 that the name might be a form of the word jury, referring to the mediaeval town government by a council of 24 jurats, who met beside the wall, in Saint Nicholas churchyard. His explanation was supported by Kathleen Kenyon, the archaeologist who excavated the Roman site, the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, and Barrie Cox of the English Place-Name Society.

Another, unconvincing hypothesis suggests the name of the wall is derived from the Western or ‘Wailing’ Wall in Jerusalem. But this is unlikely as the Jewish settlement in mediaeval Leicester lasted only a few decades and was always small-scale.

Cecil Roth put forward a theory in 1951, suggesting ‘Jewish’ attributions were given to ancient building of unknown origins. He cited parallels in France, Germany, Poland, Spain – where the walls of Tarragona led to it being called a ‘city of Jews’ in the 12th century, and Greece – where the name Evraiokastro (Εβραιόκαστρο, ‘Jews’ castle’) was given to a number of ancient sites.

The name of De Montfort University has been controversial because he expelled the Jews from Leicester in 1231 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Much of the history of mediaeval Jewry in Leicester can only be traced through the lives of the wealthier members of the community who were active as financiers and money-lenders. The earliest evidence of a Jewish presence in Leicester dates from 1185, when we the pipe rolls record a pledge of 7 marks (£5 6s 8d) by William de Georz to ‘the Jews of Leicester’.

The first named Jew associated with Leicester is Aaron the Jew of Leicester, who in 1193 owed £21 17s. to the estate of the wealthy Jewish financier Aaron of Lincoln, who died seven years earlier. It is possible that Aaron of Leicester was a local agent for his namesake in Lincoln.

He may be the same Aaron of Leicester whose son Samson witnessed a grant in Canterbury ca 1180, the same Aaron whose daughter Gigonia contributed to the Lincolnshire quota of the Jewish tallage of 1223, and whose son Fanlon, ‘a Jew of Canterbury’, was a moneylender in 1224.

A Jew named Josce of Leicester contributed to the Nottinghamshire quota of the 1194 tallage. Another Jew, Benedict of Leicester, is noted as a money-lender in 1205.

There was a small Jewish community in Leicester by the closing decades of the 12th century. They were living there without licence, but in 1226 Ranulf, Earl of Chester, who then held half of what was known as the honour of Leicester, including the lordship of the town, received royal permission for the Jews to remain unmolested. Joe Hillaby speculates that the Jewish community of Warwick, which disappears briefly from the record in the 1220s, may have moved to Leicester, attracted by the greater level of protection offered by Ranulf.

Ranulf’s benign paternalism in Leicester did not last long. His interests in Leicester were held it in custody for the young Simon de Montfort (1208-1265), 6th Earl of Leicester, who recovered his estates in August 1231, Within a matter of months, Simon de Montfort issued a charter banishing Jews from living in the liberty of the town, ‘in my time or in the time of any of my heirs to the end of the world.’

He claimed he was acting ‘for the good of my soul, and the souls of my ancestors and successors.’ Today, we would recognise he was motivated by religious zealotry, combined with discontent at the perceived financial power of leading members of the Jewish community in Lecester. But his views may also have been shaped in France, where in 1217 his mother had given the Jews of Toulouse a stark choice of conversion or death. Simon de Montfort may also have been swayed by Robert Grosseteste, then Archdeacon of Leicester.

The ordered expulsion was an ominous portent of events 30 years later. During the barons’ rebellion, led by Simon de Montfort, his supporters massacred the Jews of London, Worcester and Derby, slaughtered Jews in large number of Jews in many provincial centres, from Winchester to Lincoln, looted Jewish property and destroyed Jeish records.

De Montfort University was established in 1992 and takes its name from Simon de Montfort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Jews ejected from Leicester found refuge outside the city on the lands of Simon de Montfort’s great-aunt, Margaret de Quincy, the widowed Countess of Winchester, who held the other half of the honour of Leicester in a territorial partition originally made in 1204-1207.

The dispute was settled in January 1232, when the King decided in Margaret’s favour. It seems likely this dispute was triggered by the Jewish question, with Simon’s intention of expelling the Jews from Leicester undermined by Margaret’s offer of sanctuary on the outskirts of the town.

Archdeacon Grosseteste intervened, writing a strongly-worded letter to Margaret on how the refugees should be treated. He argued vehemently that the Jews, as murderers of Christ and obdurate unbelievers, were cursed to wander the earth. They were to be held them in captivity, banned from money-lending, and forced into physical labour.

Grosseteste later became Bishop of Lincoln. His extremist anti-Jewish views were equalled among 13th-century English bishops only by John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Edward I. In Oxford, Grosseteste claimed jurisdiction over 45 students who had been arrested by the sheriff and imprisoned in the royal gaol for robbery and assault upon the Jews of Oxford. Soon after the students were handed over to him, Grosseteste freed them all without charge.

Nothing more is heard of the Jewish community in Leicester. But a few Jews with roots in the town are later found in other places. Josce of Leicester was based in Nottingham in 1241-1242, Moses of Leicester was in Lincolnshire in 1244, and a Jossce of Leicester was living in Canterbury ca 1249. This last Josce of Leicester had died by 1254, but his sons, Aaron and Salle, became prominent in the Jewish community in Canterbury. Yet another Josce of Leicester was active as a money-lender in Kent and Warwickshire in the 1270s.

There is evidence of a few Jews living in other parts of Leicestershire, including Market Harborough in 1274. A Jew named Cressant of Harborough was hanged for coinage offences amid wider accusations that Jews were involved in coin-clipping and forgery in the late 1270s and early 1280s. A ‘treasure’ of silver plates and clippings found at Melton Mowbray was treated as the hoard of a Jewish financier. Solomon of Bosworth is named in 1279, indicating a Jewish presence in either Husbands or Market Bosworth.

A convert to Christianity, Joan of Leicester was living in the Domus Conversorum in London by 1280, and she remained there for over 60 years until she died in the early 1340s. Her son, William of Leicester, who had become a king’s clerk, also died there in 1349. Another William of Leicester lived there from 1401 to 1417, although he may have been of Spanish origin.

The Jewish community in mediaeval Leicester was always small. Even at its peak, it probably numbered no more than a handful of families. Leicester was never among the Jewish settlements formally recognised for purposes of taxation, or provided with an archa, a chest for the secure deposit of bonds, and in this it ranked well below its counterparts in, for example, Northampton, Nottingham, Warwick and Coventry.

Simon de Montfort’s expulsion of the Jews from Leicester was largely effective: the Jewish community in Leicester had ceased to exist by 1231, barely a generation after it had been established. His action in Leicester ushered in a series of local expulsions. Jews were subjected to increasing burdens, restrictions and abuses throughout England, and in 1290 Edward I expelled the entire Jewish community from England.

The remains of the Roman public baths, immediately west of the Jewry Wall, were excavated by Kathleen Kenyon in 1936-1939 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

As for the Jewry Wall, it is a substantial ruined wall of second-century Roman masonry, with two large archways. It was the west wall of a public building in Ratae Corieltauvorum or Leicester, alongside public baths.

The foundations of the wall were excavated in the 1930s. It is made of local stones – granite, limestone and sandstone. There are layers of red tiles that run along the wall. These layers are known as levelling or bonding courses. They are typical in Roman building methods and made the wall more stable and even.

The wall was part of the Roman baths complex and this section of the Roman bath house wall survived because it was built into the wall of a church that which preceeded the present Saint Nicholas Church. Some of the stone from the Roman building is visible in the walls of the church.

The wall is an impressive example of standing Roman masonry and is one of the largest pieces of surviving civil Roman architecture in Britain. It dates from ca 125-130 CE, and it is 23 m (75 ft) long, 8 m (26 ft) high and 2.5 m (8.2 ft) thick. The centre of the wall has two large arched openings about 3 m (9.8 ft) wide and 4 m (13 ft) high, and there are further arched alcoves on the eastern side. The wall is immediately west of Saint Nicholas Church, which includes much reused Roman brick and masonry in its late Saxon and early mediaeval fabric.

The remains of the Roman public baths, immediately west of the wall, were excavated by Kathleen Kenyon in 1936-1939. The Jewry Wall Museum, formerly Vaughan College, stood on the remainder of the baths site, which is now being redeveloped. In the past, the museum displayed examples of Roman mosaics, painted wall plaster and other Roman and Iron Age artefacts from sites around Leicester.

The wall appears to have formed the long west side of a large rectangular basilica-like structure. The precise character and function of this building has been a matter of much debate.

When she began her excavations in the late 1930s, Kenyon initially thought the site was that of the town forum, of which the basilica would have formed a part. During excavations in 1961-1972, the true remains of the forum were firmly identified a block further east. The Jewry Wall was then identified as the wall of the palaestra (gymnasium) of the baths complex, and this continues to be the most commonly accepted view.

De Montfort Square in Leicester … in 2001, Leicester City Council ‘rebuked De Montfort for his blatant antisemitism’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The later Jewish presence in Leicester only emerged in the mid-19th century. After visiting Jewry Wall, I walked across the city to visit the synagogue on Highfield Street, built for Leicester Hebrew Congregation and opened in 1898 – but more about that on another Friday evening.

As for Simon de Montfort, he was killed by forces loyal to the king at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. He is often regarded as one of the progenitors of modern parliamentary democracy in Britain.

Leicester City Council made a formal statement in 2001 that ‘rebuked De Montfort for his blatant antisemitism.’ Yet De Montfort University in Leicester is named after him, as is the nearby De Montfort Hall, and he is remembered in many street names in Leicester, including De Montfort Square and De Montfort Street – hardly a ‘rebuke for … blatant antisemitism.’

De Montfort Students’ Union continues to campaign to change the name of the university, having declared: ‘De Montfort is not a name we should be promoting. This is not a name we say with pride. It is not reflective of our core values and beliefs.’

Shabbat Shalom
De Montfort Students’ Union continues to campaign to change the name of the university (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)