Sunday, 5 September 2010

Preaching beneath Semple’s Gothic pinnacles in Rathmines

Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines ... built by Semple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

This morning I was the celebrant at the early Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, before going on into Christ Church Cathedral for the Choral Eucharist.

For four years, from 2002 to 2006, I worked in Belgrave Road, only a few footsteps away from this church. This is one of the three of four landmark buildings in Rathmines, the others being the Clock Tower on the old Town Hall, the Carnegie Library at the end of Leinster Road, and the green copper dome on the Roman Catholic parish church.

But this is also an important church architecturally as one of the churches designed in the Gothic style before Pugin’s arrival in Ireland by John Semple. His other churches in Dublin include the Church of Ireland parish church in Kiltiernan (1826); Saint Mary’s, Donnybrook (1827); Saint Maelruain’s, Tallaght (1829); Saint Mary’s, otherwise known as the Black Church, in Saint Mary’s Place (1830); and the parish church in Monkstown (1833).

Maurice Craig has described Semple as the ‘presiding genius of the Board of First Fruits.’ He was the board’s architect for the Province of Dublin, and he invented his peculiar brand of Gothic, flinging to the winds every notion of scholarship and orthodoxy. This style is like his paintings: he reduced everything to the severest geometry, including buttresses, pinnacles and mouldings, so that everything is expressed as a contrast of planes.

It was said that in his final years Archbishop William Magee (1822-1831) would only consecrate churches that could be used as fortresses because he suffered from delusions, believing that the Protestant population was under siege and in danger of being massacred. Perhaps this fear explains why Urbs Fortitudinis is still a favourite canticle in the Church of Ireland; it may also explain why Semple built so many churches with such extraordinary solidity.

His church in Monkstown is adorned with towers and turrets, “for all the world like chessmen,” according to Craig. Inside, there is an elaborate internal plaster vault to simulate masonry, described by Semple’s contemporaries as “a mule between the Gothics and Saracens.” Peter Costello even suggests that Semple’s Moorish elements may have been inspired by the Alhambra in Granada – Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra had been published in 1832.

Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines ... with Semple’s distinctive pinnacles and deep-set windows and doors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Semple’s church in Church Avenue, Rathmines, has his distinctive pinnacles and deep-set windows and doors. The three wide gables, the tall steeple, and the plain exterior are all typical of Semple’s interpretation of Gothic.

The church, which stands on an island in the middle of the road where Church Avenue and Belgrave Road meet, was built in 1828 as a chapel-of-ease for Saint Peter’s Church in Aungier Street, now long demolished. Holy Trinity was consecrated on 1 June 1828 by Archbishop Magee, but Rathmines did not become a separate parish until 1883. Since then, the parish has only had six rectors.

The vestry walls are lined with photographs of past rectors, including Canon Ernest Lewis-Crosby (1914-1924), who later became Dean of Christ Church Cathedral (1938-1961), and who was still dean when he died at the age of 97. His successor and biographer, Evelyn Charles Hodges (1924-1927), later became Bishop of Limerick (1943-1960).

The present rector of Rathmines is Canon Neill McEndoo, and the Revd Rob Jones is the parish vicar.

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

The Valley of the Squinting Windows or the Kingdom of God?

Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, Dublin 6.

Sunday 5 September 2010,

The 14th Sunday after Trinity

8.30: Holy Communion:

Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14: 25-33


Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

A few years, there were popular bumper stickers on cars and wristbands worn by young people that stated boldly: WWJD – “What Would Jesus Do?”

But the simplicity of the message, despite its appeal, can be disturbing if we allow it to be simplistic.

Because, at times, the Gospel readings and many of the other Bible readings can be not only challenging but puzzling too.

It’s fine if we are asked simply to love God and to love one another is fine, even if we all fail to live up to both challenges for long stretches at a time.

But what about this morning’s readings?

Our New Testament reading is all but the closing verses of one of the shortest books in the New Testament – but at times it is also one of the most puzzling. In the past it was used by those who resisted the abolition of slavery and the slave trade to justify their case, not morally but for their own vested interests.

And our Gospel reading, at first reading, appears to be telling Wannabe Disciples that they should hate “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.”

At first reading, it appears to be shocking.

But you know, I sometimes meet Wannabe Disciples who appear to hate “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.”

You know the sort of person – and they are of every age – who pretends to want to do the right thing but does another, who acts out of self-interest but justifies it by saying like: “Oh, I’d love to do that, you know … but my parents still need me … my family wouldn’t like me to … my friends would think me foolish to do so.”

And I’m wondering to myself, “so you’d behave like a real Christian if your mother was dead … your sister had moved to Canada … you had no friends left on this earth.”

Do they really hate those near or dear to them so much?

Do they really resent them that much?

Or is it just an excuse … a bad excuse?

So often, it seems that when it comes to making ethnical and moral decisions, we take account of what the neighbours are going to think rather than what the Kingdom of God is going to look like.

If we thought first of what our decisions and actions as Christians looked like to those who aren’t Christians, to those who would like to know what Christianity is about, then we might worry less about what family members or people living on our street were thinking about us.

Do I always act in the interests of the Kingdom of God? Or do I do things hoping that others will think better of me, not do them in case others will think less of me? Does duty get in the way of discipleship?

In our Epistle reading this morning, the Apostle Paul appeals to Philemon to act not out of duty but out of love.

Paul is not thinking of justifying slavery in this morning’s Epistle reading. Quite the opposite: he has thought of giving Onesimus his freedom, by stealth (see verse 13).

Paul could have said to Onesiumus he was free on condition he stayed in Rome, or Caesarea or Ephesus, or wherever Paul was writing from. But only on condition that he worked with him (see verses 10 and 11); that would have been conditional freedom only, not true and total freedom.

Paul appeals to Philemon to act not in his own interests, but in the interests of the Kingdom of God.

Imagine if Philemon decided not to listen to Paul. Imagine if he worried about what his neighbours or his family said? Imagine his father saying this is a prize slave I bought for you as a present? Or a neighbour saying, if you free him all the slaves here in Colossae, slaves throughout Phrygia, will be demanding freedom?

The only person who can really free Onesiumus is his owner. And to do that, he must risk ridicule from his family and neighbours. But in doing so, he has the opportunity to be a sign of the Kingdom of God, to be a sign, a token, a sacrament of how God acts towards us.

And each time we return to God, turn back to Christ, then like Onesimus, we can expect to be received not as slaves, but as free brothers and sisters of Christ, welcomed, no longer owing anything, no longer having held against us those things we have done and left undone.

God gives us complete freedom in Christ. And when it comes to making decisions that require moral or ethical action on our part, if we are faced with the choice of living in the Valley of the Squinting Windows or the Kingdom of God, then we must always choose the Kingdom of God, even at the point of risking ridicule.

Then we are no longer slaves but free.

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

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This address was delivered at the Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, Dublin, at 8.30 a.m. on Sunday 5 September 2010.