01 February 2010

Saint Brigid: providing refuge for those under fire

Saint Brigid ... a modern icon

Patrick Comerford

Saint Brigid, 1 February 2010, 8.30 a.m., The Eucharist:

Hosea 6: 1-4; Psalm 134; I John 1: 1-4; John 10: 7-16

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Last week, a feature writer in The Irish Times bemoaned the fact that the name Brigid is no longer as popular as it once was. Despite the popularity of Bridget Jones’s Diary, few mothers or fathers today seem willing to call their daughters Brigid, let alone Bride, or even Biddy.

Saint Brigid, who we remember today, is one of the three patrons of Ireland, alongside Saint Patrick and Saint Columba. Yet, there are so many legends about Brigid, and she has been hijacked by so many pedlars of New Age Celtic Spirituality, it is difficult to separate myth from fact. And so, the lectionary compilers must have been really at the end of their creative tethers to provide our readings for this day.

So let me tell you a story. One evening, over 100 years ago, a vicar’s son – who was abandoning his legal profession and becoming a writer – was walking back to his father’s vicarage at Saint Bride’s in London.

At a junction near Fleet Street, he bumped into another man, and as they stared into each other’s face, the two men realised they were doubles, completely similar in features and physiques.

The young writer was disturbed. What if they had got mixed up? What if that stranger returned to the vicarage, and the budding young writer, in his stead, headed out to the suburbs, rus in urbe, each taking on the other’s life?

Back at Saint Bride’s Vicarage, Anthony Hope [Hawkins] sat up all night, concocted a new fantasy country, Ruritania, and penned his romantic, swash-buckling novel, The Prisoner of Zenda.

As a writer and as Vicar of Saint Bride’s, Anthony Hope’s father, the Revd Edwards Comerford Hawkins, had developed the tradition of Saint Bride’s providing a spiritual home and refuge for journalists and writers. After the church was gutted by firebombs during the Blitz in 1940, it was rebuilt at the expense of newspaper proprietors and journalists.

Over the last two or three decades, the press has abandoned Fleet Street, moving out to Wapping, Canary Wharf, the South Bank and Kensington. But Saint Bride’s remains at the heart of press and media life in London, and the church is still a frequent venue for baptisms, weddings and funerals for journalists and their families.

There were constant vigils in Saint Bride’s in the 1980s and 1990s, for John McCarthy, Terry Anderson and other journalists held hostage in Lebanon. When four young journalists were hacked to death in Somalia in 1993, Saint Bride’s was the appropriate place for the Service of Thanksgiving for their lives and work. The journalists’ altar in the north aisle – where those vigils were held – is dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the task of bringing us the news and bringing us the truth.

Saint Bride’s is a distinctive sight on London’s skyline, clearly visible throughout the City. At 69 meters, it is the second tallest of Wren’s London churches: only Saint Paul’s Cathedral has a higher pinnacle.

This church is the seventh on the site, one of the most ancient in London. One tradition says the first church was founded by Saint Brigid herself. But it is more likely that it was built by Irish monks who were missionaries in England when the Middle Saxons were converted in the seventh century.

The steeple of Saint Bride's, Fleet Street ... inspired the tiered wedding cake (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The famous tiered spire of Saint Bride’s inspired the original design for tiered wedding cakes. The design uses four octagonal stages of diminishing height capped with an obelisk that terminates in a ball and vane.

So Saint Bride’s, the most famous church named after the Irish saint, has its roots in Irish mission work, has a romantic connection with weddings and brides, and has provided pastoral care, comfort and inspiration for writers, journalists and novelists across the generations.

But its ministry and mission cannot be unique. Those who bring us news, good and bad, must know they can find comfort, succour and support in the Church. You may feel at times in your parish ministry that your parishioners are your priority. But they are not your sole responsibility.

The Good Shepherd makes a priority of the one lost sheep. At times the Vicars of Saint Bride’s may have been tempted to dismiss the demands of journalists and writers, or those who wanted the romantic setting of the wedding-cake church for their own weddings, as petty or even irritating.

But listening to the needs of the world, listening to the voices of those on the margins or even outside the Church, taking time to pray for those who are marginalised or in danger because of their work – especially at crisis and crucial moments in their lives – is a vital part of our mission.

And when we look others in the face honestly and lovingly, we may find not only that we are looking in the face of people who are just like us, but that we are looking into the face of Christ and that the Good Shepherd is looking straight back at us, calling us to walk on with him, in search of his sheep, to take on his life.

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


by the leadership of your blessed servant Brigid
you strengthened the Church in this land:
As we give you thanks for her life of devoted service,
inspire us with new life and light,
and give us perseverance to serve you all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer

God of truth,
whose Wisdom set her table and invited us to eat
the bread and drink the wine of the kingdom.
Help us to lay aside all foolishness
and to live and walk in the way of insight,
that in fellowship with all your saints
we may come to the eternal feast of heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at Eucharist in the institute chapel on Saint Brigid’s Day, 1 February 2010

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