20 July 2010

Visiting the churches of Cambridge

Saint Bene’t’s Church is the oldest building in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

During this summer school, we are using the chapel of Sidney Sussex College twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. But one of the delights of staying in Cambridge is visiting the churches and college chapels that are close to hand.

On Sunday morning, I was in Little Saint Mary’s for the Eucharist or High Mass, celebrated by the vicar, Father Andrew Greany, assisted by Father Mark Bishop, a self-supporting priest who is a Crown Court judge and Chancellor of the Diocese of Lincoln. The visiting preacher was the Revd David Neaum, Assistant Curate at Saint Gregory, Marnhull.

Little Saint Mary’s is a mediæval parish church on the corner of Trumpington Street and Little Saint Mary’s Lane is in the heart of Cambridge.

The church once served as both a parish church and the college chapel of next-door Peterhouse. Richard Crashaw, the metaphysical poet, was associated with Little Saint Mary’s while he was a Fellow of Peterhouse (1638-1643). Less than ten years later, the church's decoration and ornaments were badly damaged by the Puritan extremist William Dowsing.

The church was refitted in 1741 with wooden panelling, box-pews, choir gallery and central pulpit (the present pulpit). It was restored by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1856-1857, when the 18th-century woodwork was removed and again in 1876. Further restoration work was carried out in 1876 and 1891, but by 1880 the church’s appearance was much as it is now.

Since the late 19th century, Little Saint Mary’s has offered both the City and University of Cambridge a distinctive liturgical and sacramental witness in the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism. The south chapel was added in 1931, designed by Thomas Lyon, the architect of the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, where I am staying this week.

During the week, I’ve also dropped in occasionally to Saint Bene’t’s Church, where the vicar is the theologian, writer and broadcaster, the Revd Angela Tilby.

The tower of Saint Bene’t’s – an abbreviation for Saint Benedict’s – is the oldest building in Cambridge. The church, which now looks as though it has been built into a corner of Corpus Christi College, but is much older than the college it once served as a chapel.

Saint Bene’t’s is an Anglo-Saxon foundation, dating back to about 1020, when Canute was the King of England. The round holes in the Saxon tower are said to have been made to encourage owls to nest and catch mice.

Blind recesses on the south side of the transept in Saint Bene’t’s once opened into a room that is now part of Corpus Christi College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

On the south side of the transept, there are blind recesses that once opened into a chapel room above the vestry. This room is now part of Corpus Christi College. Below these blind recesses are two curved ogee arched recesses from the 14th century. One arch houses the sedilia or seats for the officiating clergy – the priest, deacon and subdeacon; the other once held the piscina or shallow basin used for washing the Communion vessels and the disposal of water used sacramentally, with a drain direct to the earth.

Some of the items of historical interest in the church include a 13th century coffin lid, a late mediæval iron-bound chest, a 17th century refectory table and bench, and an 18th century fire hook for pulling burning thatch from the roof. But there is also a modern icon of Saint Benedict and Saint Francis – the church was staffed by Franciscans for 60 years from 1945 to 2005 – a crucifix carved by a sister of the Community of Saint Clare, and ‘The Passion,’ a modern sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta.

The Pelican, the symbol of Corpus Christi College, on a hassock in Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

I even noticed a hassock in the West Tower with the symbol of the Pelican – a quiet testimony to the church’s continuing links with Corpus Christi College.

Former vicars of Saint Bene’t’s include Michael Ramsey, who was here in 1938 and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He is still remembered fondly here, and the Ramsey Rooms, created at the west end of the south aisle in 2002, beside the tower, are used for Sunday School and other meetings.

In all, there are six priests on the staff of Saint Bene’t’s: the vicar, an honorary assistant priest (the Revd Dr Rachel Nicholls), and four assistant priests, including the chaplain of Corpus Christi College, the Revd James Buxton. The church continues a tradition of marking the rhythms of daily prayer, with a celebration of the Eucharist at 8 a.m. each morning and and Evening Prayer at 6 p.m.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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