29 September 2010

An invitation into a church built on the past but looking to the future

Saint Michael above the main door into Saint Michael on Greenhill in Lichfield … but what does this story say to you today? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

We have been back at work since Monday, having started a new academic year as staff and students at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. Our first Community Eucharist is at 5 p.m. this evening [29 September], and in the Calendar of the Western Church we are commemorating Saint Michael and All Angels.

It is a privilege to preside this opening Eucharist this evening, and the preacher is my colleague, the Revd Patrick McGlinchey. The Lectionary readings are: Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51.

Last year, when I preached on this day in the institute chapel, I spoke of how I am a cathedral buff, and admitted that on city breaks I love visiting cathedrals, not just for their liturgy, worship and music, but for their architecture and art too. I spoke too of many visits since the 1970s to Coventry Cathedral, which is one of the most influential cathedrals in the Church of England when it comes to art and architecture.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall outside Coventry Cathedral

Coventry’s art and architecture have had a profound and lasting influence: even my old school chapel was a mini-replica of the cathedral. As you approach the cathedral, you are overlooked – overwhelmed – by Sir Jacob Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall outside. When Basil Spence commissioned Epstein, some members of the rebuilding committee objected because the controversy over some of his earlier works. And, although Coventry was at the centre of post-war reconciliation, some even objected that he was a Jew – to which Spence retorted: “So was Jesus Christ.”

This year, during the summer months, I have managed to visit and revisit some of my favourite churches here in Ireland and in England, especially in Co Wexford and in Staffordshire.

One of those churches is Saint Michael on Greenhill in Lichfield, a parish church built on the high ground of Greenhill on the east of the city. The church dates back to at least 1190, but the site, on a sandstone ridge overlooking the city, is much older: the churchyard, which is now preserved as a wildlife area, is one of five ancient burial grounds in England and – at nine acres – is also one of the largest churchyards in England.

Local lore says the site was consecrated by Saint Augustine of Canterbury, and that it was this ancient place that attracted Saint Chad to Lichfield, making it the centre of the new diocese in the Kingdom of Mercia.

The earliest church on the site was first noted in 1190, and the oldest remaining parts of the present church, dating from the 13th century, are found in some masonry in the chancel. In a recess in the north wall of the chancel, under the pointed arch, is the tomb of William de Walton, who in 1344 was the first recorded benefactor of Saint Michael’s. In the chancel is an effigy of a man in civilian dress, said to be a 14th century lawyer.

In the centre of the nave, a floor slab commemorates Samuel Johnson’s parents, Michael and Sarah Johnson, and his brother Nathaniel, all buried in the church. But the memorial is not as old as it appears: the original stone was removed when the church was repaved in the late 1790s; although the inscription is one composed by Johnson a few days before his death, the present slab was only placed here in 1884 to mark the centenary of Johnson’s death.

Much of the mediaeval fabric of the church was lost when the church was restored in 1842-1843 under the local architect, Thomas Johnson. His work included re-roofing the nave, repairing the side aisles and the nave clerestory, reintroducing perpendicular windows in the north aisle, rebuilding the north porch, remodelling the south aisle with new buttresses and adding a south door in place of a window. The chancel was restored in 1845 and 1846 to designs by Sydney Smirke, the east window was turned into a three-light window, all the side windows became single lancets, and the clerestory was removed.

The chancel was restored again and refurbished in 1890-1891, the tower was repaired and the internal lancet window was unblocked; later, the spire was restored.

Saint Michael’s is an active parish church within the local community today, grouped in a benefice with Saint Mary’s, which was once at the heart of civic and guild life in the city centre but is now designated a chapel of ease, and Saint John’s in the neighbouring village of Wall.

The climb up the hill to Saint Michael’s, through the growth and the graves, provides an impressive view back across Lichfield and over to the cathedral. Above, on the wall above the main door into the church, is an image of Saint Michael slaying the devil. I have loved visiting this church for the past forty years. But it is not only about historic sites, ecclesiastical architecture, and literary associations. The ancient dedication of this church to Saint Michael is also an important reminder of core values worth recalling on this day, as we remember Saint Michael and All Angels.

The Archangel Michael ... a contemporary icon

What is your image of an angel? Is it a fluffy little cherub with white wings and pudgy cheeks, floating above the earth on white fluffy clouds? Or is an angel for you someone like Saint Michael above the main door into Saint Michael on Greenhill, inviting you into the Communion of Saints, to put behind all that rejects God, inviting you into a Church that is built on the past but looking anew to the future?

Is an angel some “new age” figure, easily dismissed because of the weird views of the authors of all those angel books on the popular “Mind and Spirit” shelves in the bookshops? Or is an angel for you like the Archangel Michael depicted in Lichfield and Coventry, inviting you into the triumph of good over evil, to join Christ in Glory?

Is Saint Michael the patron saint of shoppers at Marks and Spencer and all others who have made the shopping malls their earthly cathedrals? Or, like the Michael of Lichfield and Coventry, does he challenge you to reflect on our values today? For the name Michael (Hebrew, מִיכָאֵל; Greek, Μιχαήλ) asks the question: “Who is like El (the Lord God)?”

In the Bible, Michael is mentioned by name only in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation. But he represents reliance on the strength of God and the triumph of good over evil. In today’s world, where angels and archangels are often the stuff of fantasy, science fiction and new-age babble, it is worth reminding ourselves that angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news.

Traditionally Michael’s virtues were standing up for God’s people and their rights, taking a clear stand against manifest evil, firmly opposing oppression, violence and corruption, while always seeking forbearance and mercy, clemency and justice – virtues we should always keep before us in our ministry and mission as messengers of God.

In our processional hymn this evening, Ye holy angels bright (Irish Church Hymnal 376), Richard Baxter invites each of us to join with the angels, the saints above and the saints on earth in praising God. We join in that praise in the Gloria, and it is an invitation that is repeated again in the Great Thanksgiving: “And so with all your people, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you ...”

How shall I sing that majesty ... Coe Fen in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Our Post-Communion hymn, How shall I sing that majesty (Irish Church Hymnal 468), contrasts God’s heavenly glory, splendour and majesty with our own inadequacies and frailties. It emphasises the truth that when we attempt to sing of God’s glory, all our human efforts appear feeble and pathetic.

When I sing that hymn – set to one of my favourite tunes, Kenneth Naylor’s Coe Fen – I am forced to ask: “Who am I?” It is the question we all ask when we first hear God’s call to mission and ministry. I may not feel as powerful and agile as Michael when it comes to battling for the world and confronting evil. But we do this in the company of the great heavenly host of archangels and angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, strengthened by God alone. For we should always be prepared, like Michael and the angels, to ask and to answer the question: “Who is like the Lord God?”


Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in 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

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