Sunday, 27 February 2011

A weekend of prayer and reflection in Lichfield

Lichfield Cathedral, seen from the entrance to The Close (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

On my way to a three-day Interfaith conference in Leicester, I spent the weekend in Lichfield, my favourite cathedral city in England. For years now I have found time regularly to come here to relax, to pray and to contemplate for a few days, following no particular agenda but being present for the daily cycle of offices and the Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral.

On Saturday I was present in the cathedral for the mid-day Eucharist, celebrated in the Lady Chapel, which has just been reopened after some years of restoration work. The great East Windows are still being repaired and the subject of major conservation work, so the temporary plain glass in their space filled the Lady Chapel with bright light and made this a very joyous Eucharistic celebration.

Later in the day, at Choral Evensong, six new prebendaries were installed as members of the cathedral chapter, and Bishop Jonathan Gledhill preached.

I was staying in Pauline Duval’s bed and breakfast, ‘The Bogey Hole,’ in Dam Street. This is a Grade II Listed building, lovingly restored by Pauline and her architect husband Derek, a former Mayor of Lichfield, and my room looked across Minster Pool to the cathedral and its three spires.

After dinner last night in Ego, which also has breath-taking views out onto Minster Pool and across to the cathedral, I took a slow amble around the Cathedral Close. When the lights are out, and the sky is clear, this is one of the most peaceful, contemplative places I know.

I was back in the cathedral this morning for the Eucharist, which celebrated the Patronal Festival of Saint Chad. Dean Adrian Dorber preached, and it was truly wonderful to see the Lichfield Gospel being carried in the procession and being used by Canon Pete Wilcox at the Gospel reading.

In between, there was tome to visit the King’s Head in Bore Street and the Queen’s Head in Sandford Street.Bujt I also took a few hours out in the countryside, taking the bus from Lichfield to Tamworth, which passes through fields and farms in the gently rolling countryside of south Staffordshire.

On these narrow country roads, the only oncoming traffic were small groups of people on horseback out for an easy-going afternoon’s canter. I passed Freeford Manor, the centuries-old home of the Dyott family, and Ellfield House before arriving in Whittington Village, with its old-world pubs and church spire.

Whittington Heath is a vast open area of countryside and woodlands. The bus then goes through Whittington Barracks, and joins the main road again at Packington Hall Farm, famous for its free-range pigs.

Afternoon spring sunshine on the banks of the River Tame near the Moat House in Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The fields turn into woods again at Hopwas Hays Wood, and in the village of Hopwas the road first crosses the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, brimming with boats in the sunshine, before crossing the River Tame and following its backs along Lichfield Road into Tamworth.

On the banks of the River Tame but in the heart of Tamworth stands the Moat House, the Jacobean manor house that was the residence of the Comberford family for generations.

The Comberford name has been restored in the Moat House, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In recent years, the Moat House suffered badly, and was severely in need of maintenance, particularly the Long Gallery where Charles I was entertained when he was still Prince of Wales.

But Ruth McLaren, who has taken over as manager of the Moat House, has started to restore the house in stages, and has renamed the restaurant “Comberford’s.”

It was a pleasant welcome, and a joy to eat there on Saturday afternoon, before dropping in to Saint Edtha’s, to see the Comberford Chapel once again, and into the library before heading out on the road to Comberford village.

A quiet corner in Saint John’s in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Back in Lichfield, before the weekend was over, I also spent some quiet time in the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, giving thanks to God for the many blessings I have had in life. It is almost forty years since I had my first truly adult experience of the light and love of God in my life, in this very same chapel in 1971, when I was a 19-year-old.

This morning at the Cathedral Eucharist, I felt Christ taking me by my hand and gently walking with me into the future. If the next forty years are as blessed as the last 40 years they are going to be joyful.

An organist from Lichfield in Dublin

Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Visiting Lichfield and its cathedral this weekend, I was delighted to find an interesting connection between Lichfield Cathedral and one of the high points of musical and cultural life in Victorian Dublin.

Everyone in Dublin knows both the Feis Ceoil and the Culwick Choral Society. But I wonder how many people realise that both were founded within a year of each other by Dr James C Culwick (1845-1907), or that Culwick was a chorister and assistant organist at Lichfield Cathedral before moving to Ireland in 1866.

Lichfield Cathedral ... seen from Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The English composer and organist held a succession of appointments as organist, first in Birr, Co Offaly, and then in Bray, Co Wicklow, before finally settling in Dublin.

Culwick moved from Saint Ann’s, in Dawson Street, Dublin, in 1881, to take up the prestigious position of organist and choirmaster in the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle.

Meanwhile, he was involved in a number of amateur musical bodies, including the Orpheus Choral Society, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin) in 1893.

His output as a composer includes church services, anthems, finely-crafted secular songs, and notably the dramatic cantata The Legend of Stauffenberg (1890).

In 1897, Culwick was a co-founder of Feis Ceoil, and a year later, in 1898, he founded the the Orpheus Choral Society. The society was later renamed the Culwick Choral Society in his honour.

The Culwick is an amateur choir with over 100 active members drawn from all over Dublin and the surrounding counties. For 113 years, the Culwick has maintained an unbroken tradition of music-making in Dublin. The skill and musicianship of a succession of conductors has been crucial to its success. The present Musical Director, Bernie Sherlock, assisted by the Chorus Master, David Leigh, follows a long line of distinguished conductors.

The choir offers a major choral performance each Spring and a concert of seasonal music at Christmas. Since 1990, a charity performance of Handel’s Messiah in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral each December has been an established feature of the Dublin musical calendar.

But it was only in the last few days that I learned the connection between this very important treasure in Dublin’s cultural life and the life of Lichfield Cathedral, which I am enjoying this weekend.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Saint Chad’s patronal festival in Lichfield Cathedral

Lichfield Cathedral … celebrating the Annual Patronal Festival (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2010)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Lichfield for the weekend, and this year’s Annual Patronal Festival is taking place in Lichfield Cathedral tomorrow [Sunday 27 February] in Lichfield Cathedral. The day will involve the cathedral community joining in prayer for a Sung Eucharist, a reception in the Great Hall of the Cathedral School and – for the first time – a unique photography exhibition marks the event.

The Sunday morning Eucharist, will see cathedral donors and patrons coming together to celebrate the memory and legacy of the Cathedral’s founding missionary bishop, Saint Chad.

This year Lichfield Cathedral is also giving particular thanks for the huge restoration project that has been completed on the Lady Chapel, as the famous Herkenrode glass has been removed for conservation and the Lady Chapel is open to the public once again.

As an additional celebration of the re-opening, the Cathedral Steward, Dr Christopher Lockwood, is opening an special photography exhibition. The exhibition, “The East End Restoration 2010 – The Story Unfolds,” features a selection of photographs from the East End restoration between April and December last year.

The pictures give a close up view of the behind the scenes work carried out by skilled stonemasons and other craftsmen. The exhibition will open to the general public from Monday [28 February] until Friday 25 March in the Cathedral Lady Chapel and admission is free.

Lichfield Cathedral is open from 7.30 am to 6.15 pm on weekdays, 8 am until 6.15 pm on Saturdays and 7.30 am until 5 pm on Sundays.

On the cathedral website, the Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, says:

“Saint Chad’s Day is a very special time in the cathedral calendar which celebrates the memory of this Anglo-Saxon missionary. The cathedral was originally built to house his tomb; it became a place of pilgrimage and the mother Church for the Christian community in Mercia.

“The Annual Patronal Day, celebrated on the nearest Sunday to Saint Chad’s Day, is an opportunity to recognise the great dedication of cathedral donors and patrons. It is only with the support of these individuals that we are able to continue with the urgent East End restoration and aim to raise the remaining £800,000 needed to do this. “

For more information about the East End Appeal or to make a donation, contact Patricia Collins on 01543 306245 or email

The Cathedral Close, Lichfield (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2010)

Meanwhile, six new Prebendaries appointed by the Bishop of Lichfield are being installed in the chapter during a service in the cathedral at 5.30 pm this evening [26 February]. They are: Canon John Allan, Canon Richard Grigson, Canon Rob Haarhoff, Canon Alan Jones, Canon Ian Murray, and Canon Jane Tillier. A seventh new prebendary – Canon Mark Thomas – is to be installed next Saturday [5 March].

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

Friday, 25 February 2011

Amaretto and the ballot box

Mist descending on the Quays in Wexford this evening ... I wondered whether I missed the woodenworks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

After the morning service (the Litany) in the chapel this morning, and then voting early, I was going to go for a walk on the beach later in the day.

I headed south into Co Wicklow, thinking about a walk on the sandy shores of Brittas Bay. But we were there in less than an hour, and I had second thoughts – what about lunch in Wexford?

We filled up with petrol in Gorey, and then stopped briefly in Ferns to have a look at the castle, which has been restored sympathetically in recent years. Although I have regularly visited Saint Edan’s Cathedral and the monastic site in Ferns, this was my first time to visit the castle.

Ferns Castle ... includes what is often described as the most perfect chapel to be found in any Irish castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Ferns Castle, which stands at the top of a hill in the centre of Ferns, may date back to the early 13th century, and was possibly built by William, Earl Marshall.

Although only half the castle now remains, the castle was originally square-shaped, with four large towers, one at each corner and three floors inside. Some 13th century windows remain in the eastern wall.

The most complete of the remaining towers in the castle is the south-east tower. On the first floor, this tower includes a fine circular chapel, with moulded rib-vaulting, ornamented carving, supporting corbels in the shape of capitals, a piscina and a sedilia and eight carved heads. This is often described as the most perfect chapel to be found in any Irish castle.

Some of the surviving mediaeval features of Ferns Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The tower also has several original fireplaces, a vaulted basement, and a narrow winding staircase leading to the very top of the tower.

Another feature of the castle is a fabulous gargoyle extending out from the south side of the south western tower.

During archaeological excavations in 1972-1975, a rock-cut ditch was found around the castle walls and a drawbridge structure was found on the south side.

The castle ceased being a residence in the early 14th century, for the ditch appears to have been filled in by about 1310, and the building was in a bad state of repair by 1324.

Ferns Castle was captured by the O’Tooles in 1331, recovered by Bishop Charnell shortly afterwards, and seems to have stayed in the hands of the Bishops of Ferns until the 1370s when it was captured by the MacMurroughs.

Lord Grey captured Ferns during the revolt of 1536. But the MacMurroughs managed to remain there until 1551, when it was taken over for the Crown by John Travers.

The Masterson family held the castle from 1583 until 1649, when it was surrendered to Cromwellian soldiers, and it is likely that Cromwell’s troops demolished much of the castle.

Beside the castle is a modern Visitors’ Centre that houses the “Ferns Tapestry,” telling the history of Ferns in stitch work, from the arrival of Saint Aidan in 598 AD to the coming of the Normans in 1169.

Looking across the River Slaney from Templeshannon towards Enniscorthy Castle, Saint Mary’s Church and Saint Aidan’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

However, the Visitors’ Centre was closed this afternoon, and we headed on to Enniscorthy, stopping briefly by the banks of the Slaney at Templeshannon to look back at Enniscorthy Castle and Pugin’s Wexford gem, Saint Aidan’s Cathedral.

We then drove on along the banks of Slaney south through Oylegate and Ferrycarrig to Wexford Town, parking the car between the Crescent and South Main Street.

La Dolce Vita ... the best Italian restaurant in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

It was the first time in decades I had climbed up through the lower, covered steps of Keyser’s Lane, and we were soon in Trimmers’ Lane, within sight of the ruins of Selskar Abbey, in time for lunch in La Dolce Vita. This is one of the finest Italian restaurants – not just in Wexford, but in Ireland – and the walls are decorated with a poster and stills from Fellini’s 1960 movie.

No 18 High Street, Wexford ... my home in the 1970s is on the market again (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

After lunch, we had a pleasant stroll through the back streets of Wexford, along Abbey Street and then passing by the small old, three-storey house I once lived in at 18 High Street in the mid-1970s. It is still on the market – although the asking price has now dropped to £75,000.

Saint Patrick’s Churchyard ... many of the heroes of 1798 are buried here (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

We strolled on into Saint Patrick’s Square, stopping to look at the former Quaker Meeting House and to peer in through the gates at the ruins of Saint Patrick’s Church and the churchyard where the head of John Colclough is said to have been buried after his execution on Wexford Bridge in 1798.

The elevated terrace at Clifford Street .... also known as “The Deddery” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

We then walked up Gibson Street to the Old Pound (Saint Peter’s Square), where Saint Peter’s Church once stood, and the curious elevated terraced houses of Clifford Street – one known as the “Deddery,” perhaps an allusion to a mediaeval grave site – to Bride Street, to visit Bride Street Church, or the Church of the Assumption.

Bride Street Church is one of Wexford’s “Twin Churches” – a perfect match for the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Rowe Street. Both were designed by AWN Pugin’s disciple, Richard Pierce, and built between 1851and 1858. In the grounds is an mediaeval altar from a former priory of the Knights Templar outside Wexford, later used as an altar in the Penal Days.

The nuns in the neighbouring Convent of the Perpetual Adoration made a stole that was given to me as a present by Canon Norman Ruddock on the day I was ordained priest.

Bride Street Church ... one of the “Twin Churches” built by Pierce in the style of Pugin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

From Bride Street Church, we turned back into Saint Mary’s Lane, where once again we peered through the gates of an old mediaeval churchyard, before turning into Mann’s Lane and emerging at South Main Street opposite Oyster Lane.

I stood awhile looking at the former Mechanics’ Institute, where the Wexford People had its offices when I worked there in the 1970s, and then strolled down Anne Street, remembering the old County Hotel and the Shamrock Bar – long gone but still recalled in Billy Roche’s Tumbling Down – and was happy to see the old Presbyterian Church is still standing. This church, with a story that dates back to the 1660s, was rebuilt in the 1840s and is now a united Presbyterian and Methodist Church. This is the first church I was ever invited to preach in, by the Revd Robin Elliott in the 1970s.

Wexford Presbyterian Church ... the first church I was invited to preach in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Down on the Quays, trawlers were berthed at the end of a long day’s work. But the mist was beginning to move in from the east, and I imagined they had no other option for the night but to stay there.

I recalled childish pranks of placing penny coins on the tracks as trains were about to pass by, and wondered whether I miss the woodenworks – certainly the quays have lost some of the battered charm of the past.

Back at the Crescent, I recalled the well-worn stories of councillors who had proposed putting gondolas in the water for the opera festival, and wondering whether they would breed or take to flight.

It was getting late and the mist was threatening to turn to fog. There was going to be no opportunity to head out to Curracloe or Kilmuckridge for a walk on the beach. But the walk along the quays had been refreshing and invigorating. Instead, we stopped in Ferns again to see some old friends. It was dark, and we started making our way back to Dublin.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Anglican Studies (6.2): The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and its consequences: a reflection on the Hard Gospel Project

Drumcree Parish Church ... is this the image of the Church of Ireland that many have around the world?

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

MTh Year II

EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Patrick Comerford

Thursdays: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., The Hartin Room.

Thursday, 24 February 2011, 2 p.m.:

Anglican Studies 6.2:
The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and its consequences: a reflection on the Hard Gospel Project

Patrick Comerford



The Church of Ireland has been a polite church. Since disestablishment, we have been a Church that has found it difficult to relate prophetically to the wider political culture, and even to the wider culture itself.

Reconciliation means being reconciled to God and reconciled to one another.

But “how reconciled” are we with one another? To what degree do we need to be reconciled with ourselves:

Reconciled with our past:

One of the symptoms of a dysfunctional family is shown when those who have been hurt in the past try to deal with those hurts in the present and are told by other members of the family that they would be better off to forgive and to forget.

But it is impossible to do both, to forgive and to forget. Unless we remember, we cannot reconcile ourselves with the past. And failing to remember the past creates a dysfunctional identity in the present, which leaves us, therefore, with no possibility of moving forward, honestly and equipped, into the future.

The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, offers a series of reflections on the importance of memory as the root from which the self-understanding of their identities by individuals and groups emerges. In one of the essays in his book, Kundera analyses the writings of Franz Kafka and comments:

Prague in his novels is a city without memory. It has even forgotten its name. Nobody there remembers anything, nobody recalls anything … No song is capable of uniting the city’s present with its past by recalling the moments of its birth.

Time in Kafka’s novel is the time of humanity that has lost its continuity with humanity, of a humanity that no longer knows anything nor remembers anything, that lives in nameless cities with nameless streets or streets different from the ones they had yesterday, because a name means continuity with the past and people without a past are people without a name.

In his essay, Kundera explores the theme in relation to the way in which an attempt had been made by the state authorities to change the awareness of the identity of the Czech people since the end of World War II. An attempt has been made to erase the nation’s memory, and through this the identity of the people has been eroded. As Kundera notes when he quotes his friend Milan Hubi approvingly:

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.

The culture, traditions, songs, religious commitment, political ideas embodied above all in the literature and the poetry of the community are important vehicles communicating and challenging the identity of the society.

But in many instances, in the Church of Ireland, we have forgotten the culture, tradition, songs, commitment, politics, literature and poetry of the community of which we are part. And by erasing that memory of the past we have found ourselves stumbling around in the dark of the present, with road signs or street names to help us find our place.

In the past, there has been such a separation between Catholic and Protestant culture in Ireland that it has been a deep chasm that is reflected in cultural and even in everyday life until quite recently.

I don’t know how extensive the problem of bats in the belfry is for your parish. But there are two principal bat species in Ireland: now one type of bat favours attics and the other favours more open spaces. But in church ruins in Ireland, there is a preponderance of attics in the ruined Church of Ireland parish churches, so that there was a rumour recently that Irish bats were divided on sectarian grounds: Protestant bats and Catholic bats.

But culturally there has been a big divide between Protestants and Catholics even on the playing fields: rugby was essentially a Protestant game, played in Protestant schools, to which middle class Catholics were invited under sufferance. While Gaelic football and hurling were almost exclusively Catholic – well, those were the perceptions. The Irish language was perceived – on both sides – as being the preserve of Catholics, and of Republic Nationalist Catholics at that: and this despite the fact that the first book printed in Irish was the Book of Common Prayer, that the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, a Rector’s son, was a Professor of Irish and one of the key figures in the modern revival of the Irish language.

There were different perceptions of what to expect on each other’s farms, in each other’s homes, how each other set standards as employers and employees. A Russian diplomat who had been posted in Dublin many years ago returned to Moscow and wrote about his perceptions of Ireland. He claimed he could know whether he was at a dinner party in a Catholic or a Protestant household: Catholics arrived late and left late, Protestants arrived early and left early.

But this cultural chasm, this gap that reinforced behavioural patterns, has also deprived us as a Church of finding easy opportunities to be reconciled with our past, with our present, and with our future.

The Past:

There are many things in the past that I cannot be reconciled with. As Archbishop Rowan Williams reminded the Lambeth Conference in 1998, it is very hard for us to accept that we are members of the Body of Christ we consider that body includes people in the past who waged crusades, who carried out the Inquisition, who linked mission and colonialism. But they are dead, and they remain part of the Body of Christ, of the one church I confess as part of the confession of faith each week. I can do nothing to excommunicate them now. I must accept that I will be reconciled with the past, including the ugly past, in Christ’s own plan for the future.

Not being reconciled with our past has deprived many of the Church of Ireland of the great riches our neighbouring churches find it easier to claim.

Many years ago, while I was attending a course at the College of the Ascension in Birmingham, a group of Welsh ordinands who realised I was testing my own vocation to ordained ministry, presented me with a small book on Celtic spirituality. It was a kind and generous gesture. But our failure to reconcile ourselves with the past has made Celtic Spirituality in Ireland something for “them” rather than “us”. And that has deprived “us” of so many riches.

We are unaware of the great stories of the Celtic saints who founded and built up the church in Ireland. We are unable to understand the wonders of the great, carved high crosses that speckle the Irish countryside. We are unable to understand the significance and the spirituality that lay behind the founding of many of our cathedrals and parish churches.

In many Irish towns and villages, it is virtually certain that the Roman Catholic parish church will have name like Our Lady of the Rosary, or Our Lady Queen of Peace … But, invariably, Church of Ireland Cathedrals and parish churches stand on the original monastic site in a town or village, and carry the name of the founding saints, names that are often unpronounceable for the tongues of semi-Anglo-Saxon Church of Ireland parishioners, who, if they don’t know how to pronounce those names, know less about the monks and abbots who bore them: Saint Flannan, Saint Carthage, Saint Colman, Saint Finn Barre, Saint Fachtna, Saint Laserian, ..

It deprives us of some of the wealth and the insights of the founding fathers and the founding mothers of Irish Christianity. The cathedral in Kildare, a small market town 50 km south-west of Dublin, is dedicated to Saint Brigid, one of the three patron saints of Ireland and a woman who was abbot of a mixed community of men and women. During the debate on the ordination of women in the Church of Ireland, I cannot recall one reference to Brigid as one of the apostles of Ireland, nor any reference to the popular medieval depiction of Brigid as a mitred abbot.

For many years I worked in Tallaght parish on the margins of Dublin. Externally, this is a marginalised urban deprived area. A large shopping centre and dull drab housing make up a city that doesn’t even have its own council or mayor, yet is big enough to be Ireland’s third city.

The Church of Ireland parish church, Saint Maelruain’s, stands on one of the earliest monastic sites in Ireland, associated with the Ceilí Dé movement, an early reform movement in the Celtic Church, and such a centre of learning that it was once known as one of the “Eyes of Ireland”. In the early 19th century, the last remaining monastic buildings were demolished to provide building rubble to erect a new parish church. Memory was erased, was bulldozed. Today in a dormitory city, where people feel they have no roots and where they have no sense of continuity, the only common focus is a pyramid-shaped shopping centre. If only the church had retained its memory, those people could have found a sense of identity, a sense of rootedness, in a centre of prayer and worship that dates back through the centuries, and that should be giving them hope for the future.

If we are not aware of the stories of our past, if we are not aware of the riches of the iconography of our saints from the past, then we have been truly impoverished – but not for the sake of the Gospel.

The attitude that Celtic Spirituality being “something for them rather than us” is dangerous: in other ways too. If we leave it aside, then we abandon it to quacks and those with fertile religious imaginations; but also fail too to tap into one of the spiritual vocabularies used by thinking and questioning people today; and we fail therefore to understand their agenda and their questions on faith topics. And that is a failure in mission too.

In addition, we are unable to understand how hurt in the past lives in memories, even unarticulated memories, and has shaped attitudes to us today.

In recent years, there has been a series of scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland: allegations of sexual abuse, the physical abuse of children in homes run by religious orders, the tales of a bishop and his secret mistress …

But we have forgotten that each one of these controversies dogged the Church of Ireland in previous generations, along with rectors who were flogging and hanging magistrates and bishops caught in scandalous positions with naked sailors in London taverns.

But there was worse: as we have seen in our survey of the history of the Church of Ireland, for generations the bench of bishops of the Church of Ireland provided the working majority of the Irish House of Lord, where on their own initiation, they pushed through iniquitous laws aimed against Roman Catholics and remembered to this day as the Penal Laws. Invariably, until the Act of Union was passed in 1800, two out of three of the highest offices of state in Dublin were held by members of the House of Bishops.

Over the past 200 years or more, the Orange Order has been seen one of the strongest vehicles for perpetuating sectarianism on this island. Admittedly, in many parishes, the Orange Order is a benign and benevolent, organisation. Its older members regard it as merely quaint that Roman Catholics are excluded, in the same quaint way that “ladies” are excluded from membership. But so too in the past Presbyterians were excluded from membership. We have allowed ourselves to forget that this organisation was formed firstly to protect the interests of the Church of Ireland as the established church, at a time when the prelates and the landed aristocracy combined to form what was known as the “Protestant Ascendancy”.

Transition from past to present

Fear of the past, and clinging on to the memories of past fears, also immobilise us in the transition from the past to the present.

Fear that innovation or moving towards ownership of the insights of modern liturgical thinking will deprive us of our identity and make “us” more like “them”.

A few examples:

An increasing number of parishes are being amalgamated, so that often we have one rector or parish priest serving six or seven churches. Impossible to visit all of them on a Sunday morning, But when someone suggests Saturday evening liturgy Roman Catholics have long had Saturday evening mass.

This attitude deprives people of opportunity to worship at the weekend and to have their rector stay long enough at the church door afterwards to give them pastoral attention and a listening ear, instead of racing off like Michael Schumann to the next ecclesiastical pit-stop.

This attitude deprives people of an opportunity to have regular sacramental ministry.

This attitude deprives them of sharing the same worshipping experiences as their neighbours, because if we cannot worship together then at least if we can worship at the same time as a community it can engender an amazing sense of a shared worship life in small towns and villages.

Our fear of the liturgical movement and liturgy innovation has left us afraid not just of bells and smells, but of candles and icons, of the healing ministry, of aural confession, of our priests wearing our Sunday best on Sundays.

The Present:

The beginning of the story of reconciliation in Ireland is a little bit more difficult to trace.

As the violent clashes in Northern Ireland unfolded in the wake of the failure of the civil rights marches of the 1960s, there were a number of efforts to try to form peace movements, some of them sad failures, some of them sad constructions in themselves.

Sad failures would include that beautiful but ineffective movement, “What Price Peace?” that arose from a lone vigil by a bereaved Church of Ireland priest, the Rev Joe Parker.

Sad constructions included movements like PACE, Protestant and Catholic Encounter, which brought middle class people together for morning coffee and afternoon tea, and wondered why there couldn’t be reconciliation without first exposing the wounds of the past to the light of the sun so that they could be healed. Can there be any real reconciliation without a healing of memories?

The use of the word reconciliation was probably inspired by Coventry Cathedral. But there the word reconciliation had been adopted by the bombed, by the victims. Is it wrong for the demand for reconciliation to be first made, without facing up to the hurt of past injustices?

At a meeting of peace groups from across Ireland, I once raised the issue of nuclear weapons, and the move to deploy a new generation of nuclear weaponry, Cruise and Pershing Missiles, in Europe. I was sternly told by a group of Belfast women that the nuclear arms race had nothing to do with the “peace movement” and I was publicly berated by one clergyman at the meeting who accused me of not being interested in reconciliation, of, yes, being a Communist.

Reconciliation was all right if you were going to bring back investment to Belfast. But don’t dare talk about reconciliation in terms that challenged the rhetoric of the Cold War. But we have moved on since then.

It may emerge in time that we will agree that real reconciliation in Ireland, as far as the churches are concerned, can be traced back not to the morning coffee and afternoon tea gatherings in South Belfast, but to the pioneering work of the Jesuit Michael Hurley and his friends who established the Irish School of Ecumenics.

In coming to terms with the present, in reconciling our religious traditions and cultures, and in reconciling those of us who live in the present with the ugly heritage and memories of the past, the Church of Ireland has eventually been involved in a three-stage process.

1, Reconciling of Memories: In 1987, the Irish School of Ecumenics undertook a programme of study and reflection on the subject of Reconciliation of Memories. In the course of this programme, theologians, historians, philosophers, political scientists and literary critics were invited to contribute to the examination of those situations where “all could not be forgiven because all had not been forgotten.”

2, Moving beyond Sectarianism: This programme was followed by the Irish School of Ecumenics with a programme called “Moving Beyond Sectarianism”, a six-year research project focussing on the role of Christian religion in sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Instead of demonising the more violent, bigoted and overt expressions of sectarianism, the project chose instead to highlight the subtle, polite and understated expressions of sectarianism. This form of sectarianism seems innocuous but serves as an essential underpinning for the ethos of antagonised division that allows the more blatant expressions to flourish. It pointed the finger at each and every one of us – we were all to blame, and we all needed to take responsibility if we were going to move beyond sectarianism and bring about real, lasting reconciliation.

3, The Hard Gospel: The next stage came the Church of Ireland took the challenges of these projects seriously and we started to own them for ourselves so that the process took on a new dynamic. The General Synod established a Sectarianism Education Programme, and commissioned a scooping study, The Hard Gospel, which did not have to dig too deep to find out how deeply rooted sectarian attitudes and values were throughout the Church of Ireland.

But we all know reports are not the end. So often we are used to reports being received by General Synods, and that’s it. In this instance though, the report was handed down to Diocesan Synods, were it was discussed, in most cases, not as part of the normal business that has to be rushed through as one of many items on the agenda, but at special sessions, called with only one item on the agenda, The Hard Gospel. And the dioceses have sent the report on the parishes, in the form of study packs, each unit beginning with a Gospel study but then demanding a critical look by the participants – whether they are in parishes north or south of the border – at the barriers and boundaries in their own parishes.

Have we hard all we going to hear, or are we going to hear more about the Hard Gospel in the years ahead?

The Hard Gospel: some questions about its scope and extent:

The process (note the high level of response and engagement in the survey).

How do you feel (in general) about the topics covered?

Should some have been omitted?

Should some have been included?

Section 1:

Defining sectarianism: did you find this difficult?

Church of Ireland identity: do you find this limiting or liberating?

What about its future?

Church Government and structures.

North-South differences.

Ethnic difference and asylum seekers.

Political difference: how political can you be? What do you think of clergy involved in politics?

Theological difference: how comfortable are you with that?

Relationships with other churches and inter-church activity.

World religions.

Peace, sectarianism.

Sectarianism Education Project.

The loyal orders and Drumcree: How do you respond to Drumcree?

Section 2:

Gender differences and sexuality.

Young people

Old people.

Responding to society in general.

Training and resourcing of clergy.

Other issues.

The future:

How can you use the Hard Gospel in a parish?

In a study group?

In a youth group?

What issues missing?

What issues over-emphasised or should not be there (e.g. sexuality)?

We have realised we are only starting to scratch the surface. But itching wounds are wounds that want to heal. We are naming the beasts. They are ugly and they breathe deadly fire. But by naming them we are acquiring the courage to be reconciled not just with the past and the present, but with the future. The problems we have to face in the future are many. They include not only theological differences, but inbred, generations old class values, snobbery, elitism, and indifference.

There are problems for members of the Church of Ireland in Northern Ireland, formed in the old political mould, adjusting to the changes brought about by the Belfast agreement, and facing the future with some trepidation. Bishop Harold Miller of Down and Dromore, speaking in Newtownards at his diocesan synod some years ago, articulated some of these fears on their behalf:

“Here in Northern Ireland, we find ourselves in a time of both great change and of numbed ‘stuckness’. We are uncertain, in our post-traumatic ‘peace’ about whether or not we can find our way through to a complete resolution of our troubles. And we are uncertain about whether the Belfast Agreement can provide the foundation we had hoped for, which would allow a society to develop which would include all, and have the loyalty of all.

“We can critique the ‘Peace and Reconciliation’ model of South Africa, but we do not know how or when we might find our own equivalent but locally applicable way of dealing with our common hurts and memories, and especially with the hurts and memories of victims of the troubles.”

But at least we have made a start. We have begun to own the process of reconciliation. We have named the beasts, now are we prepared to move on and slay them? Are we ready to be reconciled with the past, held in our memories; reconciled with the present; and reconciled with what the future can hold for us as potential as we move forward as a church in mission?

Thursday 10 March:

Partition, conflict and peace: the Church of Ireland in the 20th and 21st centuries.

7.2: Theologies of reconciliation and the challenges of divided societies (M Volf, R Schreiter, J de Gruchy).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. These notes were prepared for seminar on 24 February 2011 was part of the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context.

Anglican Studies (6.1): Christianity and nationalisms

A Serbian Orthodox Church in Zadar in Croatia after it was the spray-painted with multiple Us for Ustasa, with the Catholic cross in between

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

MTh Year II

EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context:

Patrick Comerford

Thursdays: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., The Hartin Room.

Thursday, 24 February 2011, 2 p.m.:

Anglican Studies (6.1):
Christianity and nationalisms.

Patrick Comerford


Last week, we looked at some of background to and experiences of sectarianism, North and South of the border. Some these were so culturally rooted that it is difficult to challenge them as we live our lives of mission and ministry in the Church. Others, at times, seem to be enshrined in legislation.

Most of us probably react with embarrassment and cringe when we face up to our own intimate experiences of nationalism and identity expressed as Christianity, especially when they relate to our own families, our own parishes, our countries.

How long have you thought that these experiences were unique?

Part of the cause of social embarrassment is being over self-aware, and feeling that few if any share the same experience. Shame goes hand-in-hand with public exposure.

How often have you asked yourself questions like: Why is this happening in my parish/diocese?

How often have you been exasperated, wondering do things like this happen only in Ireland? Only in Northern Ireland? Only in the Republic of Ireland? Only in the Church of Ireland?

This afternoon, I would like us to discuss the conflict of cultures and the place of religion in conflict, especially looking at the link between Christianity and nationalisms.

This is not only a concern for Christianity or for Ireland, but is a global concern. We live in a world of conflict in which religion plays a key role.

Have our perceptions of Islam changed after 9/11?


● The way Serbs and Croats were defined as the former Yugoslavia broke up – Serbs were Orthodox and used Cyrillic letters for their shared language, and were dismissed as “Chetniks,” while Croats were Catholics who used Roman letters and were dismissed as “Ustasas.”
● The role of religion in conflict in Iraq;
● The perceptions of Islam following the 9/11 attacks;
● The response in the Islamic world to President Bush’s use of the word “crusade”;
● The conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan, and many Gulf states.

How do you think Muslims reacted to George Bush’s use of the word “Crusade?”

Our cultural assumptions about religion frames and is framed by the language we use about conflict.

For example, almost a decade ago (12 October 2002) there was a bombing of a bar in Bali, in which 202 people were killed, including 88 Australian tourists.

Two cultural images were conveyed, two cultural presuppositions were confirmed, in the news coverage of this incident and its aftermath:

1, Bali is an island of peace;
2, Unlike the rest of Indonesia, Bali has a strong Hindu presence, making it an oasis of peace.

There is something amiss with these two images:

Are there some religions we are culturally conditioned to think of as peaceful?

1, That there are peaceful religions, and there are violent religions. In particular we are culturally disposed towards thinking of Hinduism and Buddhism as religions of peace, and Islam as a religion of violence.

And yet, one of the factors in years of political violence in Sri Lanka – another island that once had the image of being an island haven of peace – is the tension between Buddhists and Hindus, and the Buddhist sangha or monks were among the most vocal critics of any government effort to enter dialogue with the Tamil Tigers.

Indeed, the image of violent Buddhists runs contrary to historical reality. Yet, how many Japanese suicide pilots went to death in World War II chanting praise to Buddha of with the words from the Lotus Sutra, ‘Namyoho Renge Kyo’ ?

Japanese kamikaze pilots waiting for their flights

2, The second image is that those violent religions usually boil down to one religion in particular, that is, Islam.

We have inherited a notion of Islam as a religion with an inherent violence built into its thoughts, values and teachings.

Is this image of Hizbullah typical or stereotypical? And how often do we transfer this image to Islam in general

Popular media regularly conveys images of Islam as a religion of institutionalised violence, expressed in judicial sentencing, such as stoning, chopping off hands, and of social violence, typified in how we discuss jihad, suicide car bombers, the attacks on New York, Madrid and London, the wars in the Middle East, the export of violence from Iran, Hamas and Hizbullah in Palestine and Lebanon, or Chechen fighters in the former Soviet Union.

Is there a ‘Christendom’? Is there a looming clash of civilisations? Dark blue: Western ‘Christendom’; sky blue: Orthodox ‘Christendom’; green: Islamic world; dark red: Sinic world; purple: Latin America; brown: Sub-Saharan Africa; orange: Hindu world; yellow: Buddhist world; grey: former British colonies; turquoise: Turkey; blue: Israel; light brown: Ethiopia; light green: Haiti; red: Japan

In a paper in Foreign Affairs in 1996 that gave its title to a subsequent book in 1997, Samuel Huntington spoke of a “clash of civilisations” between the Christian or post-Christian world, and the Islamic world.

Until his death in 2008, he continued to speak in terms of a looming “clash of civilisations between Islam and the West.”

Despite the apparent outworking of some of his predictions, there are many faults in the theory of an inevitable “clash of civilisations.” Huntington equated a religion with a civilisation, so that Islam is a unitary political, social and definable “civilisation” that depends on a religion for its understanding and explanation, while Christianity underpins western civilisation, and that Islam made no contribution to Western culture and civilisation.

But there is also a reality that must concern us. Many people associate religion with violence, and with war. For example, Polly Toynbee wrote a commentary in The Guardian in the run-up to the first anniversary of 9/11 (6 September 2002) that was headed: ‘Religion isn’t nice. It kills’.

One of the major criticisms of religion in general, and religions in particular, is the role of religion in violence and conflicts.

In all religions, and we should be aware of it most in Christianity. Awareness allows us to face one of the main criticisms of Christianity from those on the margins, and allows us to have some terms and terminology so we can face the problems of violence in our own areas.

I want us to consider three concepts that have made it difficult to disentangle religion – and Christianity in particular – from politics and nationalism:

● Christendom
● The Crusades
● The Nation State.


Constantine the Great … the beginning of Christendom?

Christendom is not co-terminal with or another phrase for “the Kingdom of God.” But it has often been misrepresented as such. The term “Christendom” may have several meanings, but it refers in particular to a world view that identifies Christianity with cultural, economic and political expressions of a society that is perceived as being normative for or a standard for the rest of human society.

It is a common perception that the Church was pacifist until the Constantinian settlement, when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in AD 313, extending toleration to Christianity. This claim needs objective historical analysis, because it is often argued from a partisan viewpoint. Other questions we need to ask include whether the Church under persecution could consider co-operating with the state in such circumstances, and whether there was a separation of the role of policing and the role of the army?

The earliest use of the terms Christianity (Χριστιανισμός) and Catholic (Καθολικός) is in the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (2nd century). The word Christendom comes from the Latin word Christianus. The Christian world was also known collectively as the Corpus Christianum, often translated as the Christian body, referring to the community of all Christians. The Christian polity, embodying a less secular meaning, has been compared with the idea of both a religious and a temporal body: Corpus Christianum, and at times the Corpus Christianum has been seen as a Christian equivalent of the Muslim Ummah.

In a more political or secular was Christendom has been used as a descriptive term for the “Political Christian World,” as if this had been in the past and might or ought to be now or in the future a cultural hegemony, what we might now refer to as “the West.”

But of course, from where we stand geographically, Christianity began in the East, or at least in the Middle East or the Eastern Mediterranean.

In looking at early church history a few weeks ago, we noticed briefly how Christianity spread through the Classical or Greek and Roman world in the apostolic and then post-apostolic period.

The period of Early Christianity came to a close when the imperial persecution of Christians ends, with the coming to power of Constantine the Great, the Edict of Milan (AD 313), and the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325).

A coin bearing the image of the Emperor Theodosius I … he made Christianity the state religion of the empire in 392

Later, Christianity became the state religion of the Empire under the Edict of Thessaloniki in 392 when the Emperor Theodosius I prohibited the practice of pagan religions and the Church gradually became a defining institution of the Empire.

Saint Augustine envisions the City of God

And so, we can see, the Christian attitude to war begins to shift after Constantine and with the writings of Augustine (died 430). Was this good theology, or was it forged in the face of a real threat, with the barbarians at the gates? Augustine wrote The City of God shortly after Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410. But, even then, is it any less valid a way of formulating theology in the face of the real pressures of life?

After the Barbarian invasions and the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, a new threat was posed to Christianity with the rise of Islam, the Muslim capture of Jerusalem in 638, the arrival of Muslim armies in Europe, and the threat to the New Rome, Constantinople.

As the Empire in the West disintegrated into feudal kingdoms and small states, the concept of Christendom changed as the western church became separate from the Emperor and Christians in the Empire of the East.

In the East, the Byzantine Empire saw itself vas the last bastion of Christendom. Christendom entered a new phase with the rise of the Franks and their conversion to Christianity.

Christendom later refers to the mediaeval and renaissance notions of the Christian world as a sociopolitical polity. In essence, the earliest vision of Christendom was a vision of a Christian theocracy or a government founded on and upholding Christian values, whose institutions are spread through and over with Christian doctrine.

In this period, the clergy wield political authority. The specific relationship between political leaders and clergy varied. But, in theory, the national and political divisions were often subsumed in the leadership of the Church.

On Christmas Day 800, Pope Leo XIII crowned Charlemagne as the Emperor of what became the Holy Empire.

This empire created an alternative definition of Christendom in contrast to the Byzantine Empire. The question of what constituted true Christendom would then occupy political and religious leaders for generations and centuries to come.

The pontificate of Innocent III is considered the height of temporal power of the papacy. The Corpus Christianum describes the then current notion of the community of all Christians in communion with the Pope – a community guided by Christian values in its politics, economics and social life.

However, in the East, Christendom was seen as co-terminus with the Byzantine Empire, which was gradually loss of territory in the face of the rapid expansion of Islam and the rise of new Persian Empire.

The Crusades

The capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade

Until the Great Schism divided the Church religiously, there had been a concept of a universal Christendom that included the East and the West. But this was rocked by the Great Schism and was destroyed by the Fourth Crusade.

The Crusades originated in Western Europe, particularly in the Frankish realms (France) and the Holy Roman Empire. They were proclaimed as a campaign, fought under the Cross, to reclaim control of Jerusalem and the “Holy Land” for “Christendom” and were fought for almost two centuries, between 1095 and 1291. Initially the Crusades were proclaimed for the recovery of Jerusalem and the ‘Holy Land,’ and the protection of pilgrims, but they soon became a ‘holy war’.

In the First Crusade (1095-1099), at the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, Orthodox Christians fought alongside Jewish and Muslim residents to defend Jerusalem against the Crusaders, so that many Christians were slaughtered alongside their Muslim neighbours.

Many Muslims sought shelter in al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount area. One Crusader account reports how the Crusaders “were killing and slaying even to the Temple of Solomon, where the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.”

According to Raymond of Aguilers, “in the Temple and porch of Solomon men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins.”

Fulcher of Chartres says: “In this temple 10,000 were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet coloured to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.”

The Fourth Crusade ended in the sack of Constantinople in 1204

Some of the crusade expeditions were diverted completely from their original aim. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) resulted in the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the partition of the Byzantine Empire between Venice and the Crusaders, and hastened the destruction of Byzantium.

But it was not until the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) that any Crusade received the official blessing of the Pope.

Dante in his Inferno places Muhammad in the Eighth Circle of Hell as a sower of discord, along with Christian schismatics, while in a frozen lake at the bottom of hell he placed Ganelon, who betrayed Roland and the rear-guard of Charlemagne’s army. In the Fifth Heaven he placed the Crusader King, Godfrey of Bouillon.

But, writing about the Crusades, Sir Steven Runciman says: “High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed ... the Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.”

We still use, misuse and abuse the term “Crusade” when we are describing certain campaigns. The Crusades have left far-reaching political, economic, and social legacies that continue to survive in our time.

Colin Chapman says the Crusades “have left a deep scar on the minds of Muslims all over the world. Although they ended more than 700 years ago, for many Muslims it is as if they happened only yesterday. And recent events such as the Rushdie affair, the Gulf War and the Bosnian conflict have made many [Muslims] feel that the Crusades have never ended.”

Later Christendom

The Western Church was boosted in its political authority and its perception of a shared boundary with Christendom through the shared experience of the Crusades, the fight against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, and against the ottomans in the Balkans. But some of its worst expressions were also found, for example, in the Inquisition, the pogroms directed against Jews, and “crusades” against heretics, such as the Albigenses and the Cathars.

Western Christendom faced a major crisis of identity with the Western Schism and the Avignon Papacy, a split that came to an end only with the Council of Constance. And mediaeval Christendom was also challenged by the reputation of morally lax pontiffs and their dependence on secular rulers, coupled with greed for material wealth and temporal power

The Reformations and the concurrent rise of independent states gave the term “Christendom” a new, more general, meaning in Western Europe, signifying countries that were predominantly Christian – whether they were Catholic or Protestant – as opposed to Islamic or other countries.

Post-Reformation Roman Catholics the restoration of Christendom and argued that, the term applied to the civilisation of Catholic nations that espoused the doctrine of the Social Reign of Christ the King, and that recognised the Roman Catholic Church.

The nation state

The Hundred Years’ War accelerated the process of transforming France from a feudal monarchy to a centralised state. The rise of strong, centralised European monarchies was part of the transition in Europe from feudalism to capitalism and the rise of modernity.

The Peace of Augsburg in 1555 officially ended the idea among secular leaders that all Christians must be united under one church. The principle of cuius regio eius religio (“whoever the king, his the religion”) established the religious, political and geographical divisions of Christianity.

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 ended the concept of a single Christian hegemony. After that, each government determined the religion of its own state, and the wars of religion came to an end.

With the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the concept of the sovereign national state was born. The Corpus Christianum has since existed with the modern idea of a tolerant and diverse society consisting of many different communities.

The nation state, in seeking to define itself, must by definition limit itself. These limitations find a number of expressions, such a language, a constructed culture (including music, poetry, drama, songs, architecture and paintings), and, of course, religion.

Is it possible to imagine the construction of the modern Italian state – proclaimed 150 years ago on 17 March 1861 – without a shared Italian language, seen as the creation of Dante, and expressed in the operas of Verdi?

Consider how the revival of the Irish language and the popularisation of images such as Round Towers and Celtic High Crosses came at a crucial time in Irish nationalism in the late 19th century.

Germany is a modern nation state without a shared religious identity. Nevertheless, it still resulted in the most profane effort to exclude one religious expression – the Holocaust.

Some contemporary examples of role of religion in conflict:

“Το παιδομάζωμα” (ή “το σκλαβοπάζαρο”) του Νικολάου Γύζη ... The Levy of Christian Children, by Nicholas Ghyzis

In the creation of the modern Greek state and the modern Turkish state, religion played a key role in the forging of national identities, so that Greek was equated with Orthodox Christian and Turk with Muslim.

The consequences of this reached beyond the generations, after the creation of am an independent Cyprus in 1960. The Muslim/Christian dividing line defined the line of advance when the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974.

Did religion define nationality for Europe nation states?

What role does it play in our understanding and creation of a new European identity?

But this is not solely a European phenomenon. Religious identity has been used to define separate national identities in India and Pakistan. This has created problems for those outside these definitions, including Christians and Sikhs, and the conflict continues between Hindus and Muslims, with violence constantly and continually threatening to inflame border conflicts between Pakistan and India.

Religion has been a factor in many of the conflicts in Europe in the 1990s. As Yugoslavia was breaking up, the labels Catholic and Orthodox were used to distinguish Croat from Serb. When Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo slaughtered, was it because they were Muslims in Bosnia (where they were otherwise like all other Slavs)? Was it because they were Albanians or Muslims in Kosovo?

A Muslim holding the Quran and a Coptic Christian holding a cross are carried through opposition supporters in Tahrir Square in Cairo earlier this month

In Egypt, many Arabs and Muslims have found it difficult to see Coptic Christians as true Egyptians. On the other hand, the word Copt means Egyptian, and many Christians have seen themselves as the true and authentic Egyptians.

How did you react to the way in which Muslim-Christian unity became one of the themes during the recent protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo? Did you see the news scenes where members of the Coptic Christian minority prayed in the square and how many of the placards combined the crescent and the cross? A common chant was: “Hand in hand.”

What about the conflict in Sudan? Is this between Arabs and Africans, or between Muslims and Christians? And have the churches been too closely identified with the cause of Southern Sudan?

Consider the conflict in Israel and Palestine. Is this a Jewish-Muslim conflict? How do Christians whose families have been living there for generations and centuries feel in terms of their identity? Is there a place for them there?

Was the invasion of Iraq built on a case for a ‘just war’? Or did it build on our traditional antipathies towards, fears of, and misconceptions of Islam.

What are the Christian responses to violence?

What do we mean by a ‘just war’?


In today’s world, how do we move from encounter to dialogue and understanding?

Appendix 1:

The criteria for a just war:

Seven conditions:

Declaration by a legitimate authority;
2, Just cause;
3, Formal declaration;
4, Right intention;
5, Last resort;
6, Reasonable hope of success;
7, Due proportion between the benefits sought and the damage done.

Three Conditions for conduct:

Guaranteed immunity of non-combatants.
2, Prisoners must be treated humanely;
3, International treaties must be honoured.

Were these conditions met in Northern Ireland?
In Iraq?
Who was responsible for meeting these conditions?
Can there be an ‘unjust’ war or a ‘just’ revolution? Or are these models relevant?

What is a jihad?

The word jihad in fact has its roots in the Arabic verb to exert, and means not holy war (as translated by Thomas Aquinas) but an exertion on behalf of true religion and submission to God.

On the other hand, Islam allows no other form of war and violence except that with some religious objective.

Appendix 2:

Περιμένοντας τους Bαρβάρους (Waiting for the Barbarians), CP Cavafy:

— Τι περιμένουμε στην αγορά συναθροισμένοι;

Είναι οι βάρβαροι να φθάσουν σήμερα.

— Γιατί μέσα στην Σύγκλητο μια τέτοια απραξία;
Τι κάθοντ’ οι Συγκλητικοί και δεν νομοθετούνε;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Τι νόμους πια θα κάμουν οι Συγκλητικοί;
Οι βάρβαροι σαν έλθουν θα νομοθετήσουν.

—Γιατί ο αυτοκράτωρ μας τόσο πρωί σηκώθη,
και κάθεται στης πόλεως την πιο μεγάλη πύλη
στον θρόνο επάνω, επίσημος, φορώντας την κορώνα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Κι ο αυτοκράτωρ περιμένει να δεχθεί
τον αρχηγό τους. Μάλιστα ετοίμασε
για να τον δώσει μια περγαμηνή. Εκεί
τον έγραψε τίτλους πολλούς κι ονόματα.

— Γιατί οι δυο μας ύπατοι κ’ οι πραίτορες εβγήκαν
σήμερα με τες κόκκινες, τες κεντημένες τόγες•
γιατί βραχιόλια φόρεσαν με τόσους αμεθύστους,
και δαχτυλίδια με λαμπρά, γυαλιστερά σμαράγδια•
γιατί να πιάσουν σήμερα πολύτιμα μπαστούνια
μ’ ασήμια και μαλάματα έκτακτα σκαλιγμένα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα•
και τέτοια πράγματα θαμπώνουν τους βαρβάρους.

—Γιατί κ’ οι άξιοι ρήτορες δεν έρχονται σαν πάντα
να βγάλουνε τους λόγους τους, να πούνε τα δικά τους;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα•
κι αυτοί βαρυούντ’ ευφράδειες και δημηγορίες.

— Γιατί ν’ αρχίσει μονομιάς αυτή η ανησυχία
κ’ η σύγχυσις. (Τα πρόσωπα τι σοβαρά που εγίναν).
Γιατί αδειάζουν γρήγορα οι δρόμοι κ’ η πλατέες,
κι όλοι γυρνούν στα σπίτια τους πολύ συλλογισμένοι;

Γιατί ενύχτωσε κ’ οι βάρβαροι δεν ήλθαν.
Και μερικοί έφθασαν απ’ τα σύνορα,
και είπανε πως βάρβαροι πια δεν υπάρχουν.

Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.
Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard


The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and its consequences: a reflection on the Hard Gospel Project.

Thursday 10 March:

Partition, conflict and peace: the Church of Ireland in the 20th and 21st centuries.

7.2: Theologies of reconciliation and the challenges of divided societies (M Volf, R Schreiter, J de Gruchy).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This lecture on 24 February 2011 was part of the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Looking at the Transfiguration through icons

The Transfiguration (Theophanes of Crete, Stavronikitas Monastery, Mount Athos) ... the Transfiguration is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church

Patrick Comerford

There are two options or sets of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week (6 March 2011), the Sunday before Lent.

The first, Option A, is the set of readings for the Transfiguration: Exodus 24: 12-18; Psalm 2 or 99; II Peter 1: 16-21; and Matthew 17: 1-9.

The second, Option B, for Proper B, is: Genesis 6: 9-22, 7: 24, 8: 14-19; Psalm 46; Romans 1: 16-17, 3: 22b-28 (29-31); and Matthew 7: 21-29.

The Gospel reading in Option B brings to an end our series of Gospel readings on the Sermon on the Mount. The Gospel reading in Option A also takes us to the top of a mountain for a new understanding of the covenant between God and us.

Matthew 17: 1-9:

1 Καὶ μεθ' ἡμέρας ἓξ παραλαμβάνει ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὸν Πέτρον καὶ Ἰάκωβον καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀναφέρει αὐτοὺς εἰς ὄρος ὑψηλὸν κατ' ἰδίαν. 2 καὶ μετεμορφώθη ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν, καὶ ἔλαμψεν τὸ πρόσωπον αὐτοῦ ὡς ὁ ἥλιος, τὰ δὲ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο λευκὰ ὡς τὸ φῶς. 3 καὶ ἰδοὺ ὤφθη αὐτοῖς Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας συλλαλοῦντες μετ' αὐτοῦ. 4 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Πέτρος εἶπεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ, Κύριε, καλόν ἐστιν ἡμᾶς ὧδε εἶναι: εἰ θέλεις, ποιήσω ὧδε τρεῖς σκηνάς, σοὶ μίαν καὶ Μωϋσεῖ μίαν καὶ Ἠλίᾳ μίαν. 5 ἔτι αὐτοῦ λαλοῦντος ἰδοὺ νεφέλη φωτεινὴ ἐπεσκίασεν αὐτούς, καὶ ἰδοὺ φωνὴ ἐκ τῆς νεφέλης λέγουσα, Οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν ᾧ εὐδόκησα: ἀκούετε αὐτοῦ. 6 καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ μαθηταὶ ἔπεσαν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον αὐτῶν καὶ ἐφοβήθησαν σφόδρα. 7 καὶ προσῆλθεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ ἁψάμενος αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Ἐγέρθητε καὶ μὴ φοβεῖσθε. 8 ἐπάραντες δὲ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῶν οὐδένα εἶδον εἰ μὴ αὐτὸν Ἰησοῦν μόνον.

9 Καὶ καταβαινόντων αὐτῶν ἐκ τοῦ ὄρους ἐνετείλατο αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς λέγων, Μηδενὶ εἴπητε τὸ ὅραμα ἕως οὗ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγερθῇ.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’

Introduction: The Biblical story

This is one of the three descriptions of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels (see Matthew 17: 1-9; Mark 9: 2-8; Luke 9: 28-36). In addition, there may be allusions to the Transfiguration in John 1: 14 and in II Peter 1: 1-18, where Peter says he has been an eyewitness “of his sovereign majesty.”

Of course, there is an obvious question: Why is there no Transfiguration narrative in Saint John’s Gospel? But then, there is no Eucharistic institution narrative in the Fourth Gospel either. Perhaps we could say that the Fourth Gospel is shot through with the Transfiguration and the light of the Transfiguration, from beginning to end, just as it is shot through with Eucharistic narratives from beginning to end.

But should we describe the Transfiguration as a miracle? If we do, then it is the only Gospel miracle that happens to Christ himself. On the other hand, Thomas Aquinas spoke of the Transfiguration as “the greatest miracle,” because it complemented baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven.

None of the accounts identifies the “high mountain” by name. The earliest identification of the mountain as Mount Tabor was by Jerome in the late fourth century.

But does it matter where the location is? Consider the place of Mountains in the salvation story and in revelation:

● Moses meets God in the cloud and the burning bush on Mount Sinai, and there receives the tablets of the Covenant (Exodus 25 to 31);
● Elijah confronts the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18);
● Elijah climbs Mount Sinai and finds God not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in the still small voice in the cleft of the Mountain (I Kings 19: 12);
● The Sermon, which is the “manifesto” of the new covenant, is the Sermon on the Mount, which we have been reading for the past few weeks;
● The Mount of Olives is a key location in the Passion narrative;
● Christ is crucified on Mount Calvary;
● John receives his Revelation in the cave at the top of the mountain on Patmos.

As for the cloud, as three Synoptic Gospels describe the cloud’s descent in terms of overshadowing (episkiazein), which in the Greek is a pun on the word tent (skenas), but is also the same word used to describe the Holy Spirit overshadowing the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (Luke 1: 35).

In the Old Testament, the pillar of cloud leads the people through the wilderness by day, just as the pillar of fire leads them by night. Moses entered the cloud on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24: 18), the Shekinah cloud is the localised manifestation of the presence of God (Exodus 19: 9; 33: 9; 34: 5; 40: 34; II Maccabees 2: 8).

The cloud takes Christ up into heaven at the Ascension (Acts 1: 9-10).

Saint Paul talks about the living and the dead being caught up in the cloud to meet the Lord (I Thessalonians 4: 17).

The principle characters:

Christ is the focus of the Transfiguration, but who are the other principle characters in this story?

1, The Trinity: In Orthodox theology, the Transfiguration is not only a feast in honour of Christ, but a feast of the Holy Trinity, for all three Persons of the Trinity are present at that moment:

● God the Father speaks from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17: 5).
● God the Son is transfigured;
● God the Holy Spirit is present in the form of a cloud.

The Transfiguration (Kirillo-Belozersk), anonymous, ca 1497 ... the Transfiguration is also considered the “Small Epiphany”

In this sense, the Transfiguration is also considered the “Small Epiphany” – the “Great Epiphany” being the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Trinity appears in a similar pattern).

2, Moses and Elijah: At the Transfiguration, Christ appears with Moses and Elijah, the two pre-eminent figures of Judaism, standing alongside him. Saint John Chrysostom explains their presence in three ways:

● They represent the Law and the Prophets – Moses received the Law from God, and Elijah was a great prophet.
● They both experienced visions of God – Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on Mount Carmel.
● They represent the living and the dead – Elijah, the living, because he was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire, and Moses, the dead, because he did experience death.

Moses and Elijah show that the Law and the Prophets point to the coming of Christ, and their recognition of and conversation with Christ symbolise how he fulfils “the law and the prophets” (Matthew 5: 17-19). Moses and Elijah also stand for the living and dead, for Moses died and his burial place is known, while Elijah was taken alive into heaven in order to appear again to announce the time of God’s salvation.

It was commonly believed that Elijah would reappear before the coming of the Messiah (see Malachi 4), and the three interpret Christ’s response as a reference to John the Baptist (Matthew 17: 13).

3, The Disciples: Peter, James and John were with Christ on the mountain top.

Why these three disciples?

Do you remember how this might relate to Moses and Elijah? Moses ascended the mountain with three trusted companions, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, to confirm the covenant (Exodus 24: 1), and God’s glory covered the mountain in a cloud for six days (Exodus 25 to 31).

In some ways, Peter, James and John serve as an inner circle or a “kitchen cabinet” in the Gospels.

They are at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1, Mark 9: 2; Luke 9: 28), but also at the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Mark 9: 2; Luke 6: 51), at the top of the Mount of Olives when Christ is about to enter Jerusalem (Mark 13: 3), they help to prepare for the Passover (Luke 22: 8), and they are in Gethsemane (Matthew 26: 37).

They are the only disciples to have been given nickname by Jesus: Simon became the Rock, James and John were the sons of thunder (Luke 5: 10). Jerome likes to refer to Peter as the rock on which the Church is built, James as the first of the apostles to die a martyr’s death, John as the beloved disciple.

They are a trusted group who also serve to represent us at each moment in the story of salvation.

The meaning of the Transfiguration:

The Transfiguration (Spaso Preobrazhensky Monastery, Yaroslavl, ca 1516) ... The Transfiguration is the fulfilment of all the Theophanies, a fulfilment made perfect and complete in the person of Christ

The Transfiguration of Christ in itself is the fulfilment of all of the Theophanies and manifestations of God, a fulfilment made perfect and complete in the person of Christ. We could sat the Transfiguration is the culmination of Christ’s public life, just as his Baptism is its starting point, and his Ascension its end. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey, in his small book, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ, wrote: “The Transfiguration stands as a gateway to the saving events of the Gospel.”

The Transfiguration reveals Christ’s identity as the Son of God. In the Gospel, after the voice speaks, Elijah and Moses have disappeared, and Christ and the three head down the mountain. The three ask themselves what he means by “risen from the dead” (Mark 9: 9-10). When they ask Jesus about Elijah, he responds: “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come …” (Mark 9: 12-13). He tells them to keep these things a secret until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Yet, in keeping with the Messianic secret, he tells the three not to tell others what they have seen until he has risen on the third day after his death.

Saint Paul uses the Greek word for Transfiguration, metamorphosis (μεταμόρφωσις), as found in the Synoptic Gospels when he describes how the Christian is to be transfigured, transformed, into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3: 18). Transfiguration is a profound change, by God, in Christ, through the Spirit. And so, the Transfiguration reveals to us our ultimate destiny as Christians, the ultimate destiny of all people and all creation to be transformed and glorified by the majestic splendour of God himself.

Celebrating the Transfiguration:

Peter’s reference to the booths could imply that the Transfiguration took place during the time of the Feast of Tabernacles, when Biblical Jews were camping out in the fields for the grape harvest. This Feast also recalled the wanderings in the wilderness recorded in the Book Exodus.

In early Church tradition, the Transfiguration is connected with the approaching death and resurrection of Christ, and so was said to have taken place 40 days before the Crucifixion.

There is historical evidence that the feast of the Transfiguration belonged first to the pre-Easter season of the Church the Transfiguration was first celebrated on one of the Sundays of Lent. A sermon on the Transfiguration was preached in Lent by John Chrysostom while he was a priest in Antioch in 390. Saint Gregory Palamas, the great teacher of the Transfiguration, is commemorated during Lent.

We know from iconographic evidence that the Feast of the Transfiguration was celebrated on Mount Sinai from the mid-fifth century, and the feast may have reached Constantinople in the late seventh century.

From 1474 until at least 1969, it was observed in the Roman Catholic Church on the Second Sunday in Lent. In some modern calendars, including Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican calendars, the Transfiguration is now commemorated on the Sunday before Lent.

However, traditionally, the Feast of the Transfiguration is observed in the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox calendars on 6 August. It may have been moved there because 6 August is 40 days before 14 September, the Feast of the Holy Cross, so keeping the tradition that the Transfiguration took place 40 days before the Crucifixion.

What was the Anglican attitude to the Feast of the Transfiguration?

It disappeared from the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and when it reappeared in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer it was only in the calendar without any other provisions.

In the Book of Common Prayer 2004, the Church of Ireland is provided with Collects and Post-Communion prayers for the Feast of the Transfiguration on 6 August, and there is an alternative provision to mark the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent.

Too often in the Orthodox world, the celebrations of the Feast of the Transfiguration are overshadowed by those of the Dormition on 15 August. Yet, the summer celebration of the feast lends itself very well to the theme of Transfiguration.

In the Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Transfiguration is considered a major feast, and is counted among the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church. This is also the second of the “Three Feasts of the Saviour in August.” These are:

● The Procession of the Cross (1 August);
● The Transfiguration (6 August);
● The “Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands” (16 August).

Orthodox celebrations of the Transfiguration are preceded by a one-day Forefeast, including Great Vespers and an All-Night Vigil on the eve of the Feast. The day itself celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, preceded by the Matins service.

On the day of the Transfiguration, grapes are traditionally brought to church to be blessed after the Divine Liturgy – although, if grapes are not available in the area, apples or some other fruit may be brought. This begins the “Blessing of the First Fruits” for the year. The blessing of grapes and other fruits and vegetables is a beautiful sign of the final transfiguration of all things in Christ. It signifies the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God’s unending Kingdom of Life where all will be transformed by the glory of Christ.

The Afterfeast lasts for eight days, ending on the day before the Forefeast of the Dormition. In the Orthodox Church, the Transfiguration falls during the Dormition Fast, but the fast is relaxed and the consumption of fish, wine and oil is allowed on this day.

But the Transfiguration also has associations with ordination: from the time of Pope Leo the Great (died 460), the Transfiguration was the Gospel reading set for Ember Saturday, the day before ordinations took place.

Icons of the Transfiguration

The Transfiguration is a popular name for Orthodox churches and monasteries, and – as one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Church – it is also a popular subject for icons, and it is said to be the scene on which trainee icon-writers traditionally cut their teeth.

Let me introduce six examples, and then offer an introductory explanation:

1, The Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Sinai:

The sixth century Transfiguration mosaic in the katholikon in Mount Sinai, may be the earliest surviving representation of the Transfiguration in iconography

The Transfiguration is among the oldest feasts of the Christian East and was depicted on the mosaic in the apse of the main church (Katholikon) in Saint Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai as early as 565.

This mosaic is a notable early interpretation of the Transfiguration in Byzantine iconography, and has been central to the development of later iconography.

Christ, with black hair and beard, is in an oval of “glory” between Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets. Below, the three awed disciples are seen in different poses. The soffit of the triumphal arch has medallions with busts of the twelve Apostles, but the three Apostles who are witnesses to the Transfiguration are replaced in those medallions by Paul, Thaddaeus and Matthias. The base of the apse is bordered with another series of 15 medallions with busts of the Prophets.

This monumental composition from the late 6th century is a true masterpiece of Byzantine art. The subject is treated with intense light and profound spirituality, and in a most expressive and transcendental manner the maker of this mosaic succeeds in representing the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, as formulated in 451 AD by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.

The spandrels of the arch are occupied by two flying angles and the centre by the Amnos (Lamb). The Virgin Mary is depicted in a bust on the south side and Saint John the Baptist on the north.

The Transfiguration, from Saint Catherine’s, Mount Sinai, mid-12th century, part of an iconostasis in Constantinople

This superb mosaic was the work of master mosaic workers who probably came from Constantinople. Because of the sanctity and spirituality of the site and the famous mosaic of the Transfiguration, the Katholikon became known as the Church of the Transfiguration of Christ the Saviour.

2, The icon of Theophanes the Greek (1403):

The Transfiguration, an early-15th century icon, now in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, attributed to Theophanes the Greek

Theophanes the Greek (Θεοφάνης, ca 1340 – ca 1410) was one of the greatest iconographers in Muscovite Russia, and was noted as the teacher and mentor of the great Andrei Rublev. This icon of the Transfiguration was probably written in the year 1403.

Theophanes was born in Constantinople ca 1340. He moved to Novgorod in 1370, and from there to Moscow in 1395. His style is unsurpassed in the expression he achieves by almost mono-coloured painting. His contemporaries said he appeared to be “painting with a broom,” referring to the bold, broad execution in some of his finest frescoes, which are unique in the larger Byzantine tradition. Theophanes was described by his contemporaries in Moscow as being “learned in philosophy,” a reflection on his broad education and erudition.

A hint of his education and erudition is found in his icon of the Transfiguration, now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The arresting geometry and brilliance of the figure of Christ in this icon is balanced against the ordered disarray of the earthbound Apostles, who are strewn about like rag dolls in the uncreated Light of Mount Tabor. The balance of mathematical harmony in line and shape, with the masterful use of an earth-tone palette and precious gold leaf, evoke a spirituality that is immensely powerful and speaks to the painter’s genius.

The Transfiguration, by Theophanes the Greek, late 14th century, in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Unlike many icons in the earlier Greek style, this icon has no golden background that sweeps all the figures into eternity. While every part of the plane is occupied, the main focus is on the Transfigured Christ and on the disciples who are overawed by the splendour of his glory. The gold-backed Christ figure, gleaming in white, draws together the perspectives on eternity and history, draws together the past, represented by Moses and Elijah, the present, represented by the three disciples, and the future, with the understanding in the Transfiguration of who the disciples – indeed who we – are who we are called to be.

The rays of glory radiating from Christ, who is elevated, seem to relate the apostles to Christ by means of a triangular composition: Christ is above at the highest point and the apostles are below. And so, as you look at this icon, your eye is taken straight to the central figure of Christ, bathed in white, with Moses and Elijah on either side, each in deep yellow and brown and Moses holding a tablet.

Christ is holding a scroll, symbolic of his authority and of the fact that he is the Living Word of God. Because of the compositional focus and the colour, Christ is the central focal point of the icon. While Moses and Elijah are level with him, they are not presented in a way that would divert our attention from Christ.

Christ’s raiment is a bright whitish colour radiating in several directions almost like a star. Behind him is a silvery-blue circle permeated with golden shafts of light that probably represents both the cloud and his glory.

The colour scheme of the icon helps to express the nature of the Transfiguration: although the overall background colours are shades of orange, yellow, and black, the light emitted from Christ is casting a blue-green hue over the apostles who are witnesses of it.

The three apostles, Peter, James and John, like Moses and Elijah, are in tallow and brown. They are terror-struck by what is going on, displaying their amazement and reactions to the mightiness of Christ’s glory. But they are not cut off from the action, for each of them is at the receiving end of a blue ray emanating from Christ.

There are two smaller scenes in this icon that did not appear in earlier icons of the Transfiguration, but have influenced every icon of the Transfiguration ever since. These two, almost identical and parallel scenes, can be seen on the left and the right sides of the icon.

Almost midway between Christ and the apostles are two caves in which four figures stand, observing the scene. These scenes represent the ascent and descent of the mount by Christ and the apostles, and are examples of the multiple temporalities that can exist in icons. As if to both exaggerate and to minimise the distance between the two zones, these are much smaller scenes. Yet, Christ stands out as the leader: he leads them up the mountain, but he also leads them down.

In the upper left and right corners are two identical scenes of angels, perhaps in clouds. This multiplication of witnesses emphasises the importance of the Transfiguration and its spiritual meaning. This icon, with its bold, dramatic style and strong sense of movement is an excellent example of Theophane the Greek’s “tense, expressive, and mystical style of painting, an extreme form of Paleologian art.”

The icon of the Transfiguration by Theophanes is worth comparing with two other representations of this theme produced in the century or so that followed.

3, The Transfiguration icon by Andrei Rubelv:

The Transfiguration, by Andrei Rublev

The second icon is the work of Andrei Rublev, the disciple of Theophanes the Greek. This icon was written in 1405 for the Liturgical Feast Row in the iconostasis (icon screen) of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin in Moscow.

As in his icon of the Visitation of Abraham, or the Holy Trinity, Rublev discards everything superficial, leaving only the six essential figures, beautifully composed into two groups of three and connected only by the rays of light emanating from the mandorla of Christ.

The Transfiguration, by Andrei Rublev, ca 1405, The Kremlin, Moscow

The group at the top reminds us of Rublev’s greatest masterpiece by the gentle curvature of the bodies of Elijah and Moses, enveloping, as it were, the central figure of Christ. The soft colours, dominated by the ochre of the background, stand in direct contrast to the bright work from Novgorod, and to the rich palette of Theophanes.

4, The Novgorod icon of the Transfiguration:

The Transfiguration, Novgorod, probably written in the late 15th or early 16th century

This icon of the Transfiguration was possibly written in the icon workshops in the northern Russian town of Novgorod in the late 15th or early 16th century. The manner of painting and the surviving inscriptions indicate a date in the 16th century.

Probably for speed of execution, the master copied the figures of the prophets and apostles from standard images, and only details reveal their individual natures – a few variations in facial feature, the colour of the robes. Yet, this icon surprises the viewer with its monumental composition and brightness of colours. At the same time, it shows unmistakable signs of Muscovite influences in the elongated proportions of the figures.

5, Cretan icon, ca 1550:

The Transfiguration of Christ, ca 1550, an unknown Cretan icon writer, now in the Ikonen-Museum, Recklinghausen

The same iconography can be seen in the Transfiguration of Christ, ca 1550, by an unknown Cretan icon writer, and now in the Ikonen-Museum in Recklinghausen. We can see the same arrangement on this icon. The transfigured Christ stands in an aureole between the prophets Moses and Elijah, while the three apostles, Peter, John and James, throw themselves to the ground in fear, dazzled by the supernatural light.

Christ stands on a sharp rocky outcrop in a radiant white garment, giving the blessing with his right hand and holding a closed scroll in his left. He is surrounded by an oval aureole of light, in which is inscribed a rectangle with inwardly curving sides, from which rays emanate towards Elijah and Moses, each standing on his own mountain summit in an attitude of veneration. Three further rays strike the three disciples, who have thrown themselves to the ground in prayer.

To this basic scheme two other events have been added, one preceding, the other following the Transfiguration. On the left, Christ is climbing the mountain with the three disciples, on the right we see their descent.

The anonymous writer of this icon was a contemporary of Theophanes the Cretan, an icon-writer of the Cretan school, who wrote three important icons of the Transfiguration in Mount Athos, one in Stavronikita Monastery (ca 1546) and two earlier ones in Pantokrator Monastery (ca 1535-1545). His elegant Palaeologan iconographical format provides a bridge between the traditions of the 15th century Cretan school and 16th century art

In these works, Theophanes places Christ in a round aureole or mandorla. His Athonite icons are modelled on a miniature then in a monastery near Thessaloniki. The Stavronikita icon is chiefly characterised by a balanced, symmetrical arrangement of the figures and the details of the landscape. In the principal icon in Pantokrator, Theophanes includes the innovation introduced by Theophanes the Greek 130 years earlier in Moscow, showing Christ leading the three disciples up the mountain and down again.

6, A Finnish icon

The Transfiguration, by Jyrki Pouta, a teacher from Vaajakoski

The Transfiguration is one of the 12 icons which Jyrki Pouta, a Finnish teacher from Vaajakoski, written for the Orthodox Church of Resurrection. He was given a free hand, but paid respect to both the Gospel traditions, and Orthodox tradition in writing this icon.

In his icon, the face of Christ shines like the sun and his clothes are snow white as light of an innocent person, the garments of heavenly beings. The presence of light and dark cloud often signifies the Divine Presence, which also surrounded Mount Sinai when God gave the holy law to Moses.

In the icon, light radiates from Christ to those closest to God: Elijah, Moses and the three disciples. Elijah stands to the left of Christ, representing the Prophets and the living, because he was bodily assumed into heaven.

The expectations and mission of Elijah are fulfilled in the mission of John the Baptist.

Moses is placed on the right of Christ, representing the Law and the dead, for Moses died on Mount Sinai.

Pouta’s decision to show Moses as a young man is exceptional, for in other icons he looks old. He led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but only glimpsed the Promised Land, never getting there.

Both Moses and Elijah saw God’s glory on the Mountain and both announced the suffering of Christ. Moses, Elijah and Christ stand on three mounts.

The three Greek letters on Christ’s halo form the shape of the cross.

The central position of Christ, the fact that he is the largest size, and the blue outline emphasise that he belongs to heaven, that he is part of the creator, and that he is coming again. Blue is also the colour of water (baptism).

The oval shape symbolises God’s kingdom, which is about to open its door to whole world. In Orthodox iconography, the colour red also tells us that Christ was born from the Virgin Mary, became flesh and ascended from earth to heaven.

The Gospel narratives tell us that the disciples, startled by the brightness, turned their heads away, although Peter – as the icons show – saw Christ. He is traditionally coloured with green and locates on the bottom left. The position of his hands is a reminder of prayer.

Explaining the icon of the Transfiguration as metamorphosis

The icon explained:

The figure of Christ is always the central figure in icons of the Transfiguration, and is usually placed within a circular mandorla

1, In the icon of the Transfiguration, Christ is always the central figure appearing in a dominant position, usually within a circular mandorla, although sometimes in an oval or almond-shaped mandorla. He is clearly at the visual and theological centre of the icon. He is dressed in white robes. His right hand is raised in blessing, and his left hand contains a scroll.

The mandorla with its brilliant colours of white, gold, and blue represent the divine glory and light. The halo around the head of Christ is inscribed with the Greek words O ON, meaning “The One Who is.”

Although his body may not look any different from how we should imagine it, Christ’s clothing is dazzling white. Remember how Saint Paul tells us: “As many of you as are baptised by Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Galatians 3: 27).

In the icon by Theophanes the Greek, Christ is at the centre of a circular mandorla at the summit, with rays going down to the three disciples at the foot of the mountain. On the other hand, Moses and Elijah are outside the circle, and there are no rays reaching out to them.

In icons where the rays reach Moses and Elijah, they are being drawn into the scene, into the event. But in icons where the rays reach out only to the three disciples, then the disciples, and the viewers too, the worshippers, are being drawn into this new disclosure of salvation.

The mandorla is interpreted in Orthodox theology as the divine energies that suffuse Christ and, through him, the whole of creation.

When the mandorla is circular, it expresses the accessible glory of God. Circularity is more inclusive, and leads us into Christ. Another good example of a circular mandorla is found in a well-known 16th century icon of the Transfiguration in the Monastery of the Pantocrator on Mount Athos.

On the other hand, an oval-shaped mandorla, as in the Sinai mosaic, expresses the luminance of God and delineates in a more exclusive way. If the rays are drawn mathematically from an oval mandorla, the icon writer is making a statement about Christ as the Lord not only of time but also of space too.

An innovation in the icon by Theophanes is the two huge, vector-like shapes behind Christ, expressing the two-fold character of the event – it is about both ascent and descent.

The Prophet Elijah appears on Christ’s right-hand side

2, The Prophet Elijah appears on Christ’s right-hand side.

Moses, holding the Ten Commandments, is on Christ’s left-hand side

3, Moses is holding the Ten Commandments and is on Christ’s left-hand side.

Elijah and Moses stand at the top of separate mountain peaks to the left and right of Christ. They are bowing toward Christ, with their right hands raised in a gesture of intercession towards him.

If the event took place on one mountain top, such as Mount Tabor, why do you think are these two on separate mountain tops?

Peter, James and John react to the vision

4, The three Apostles who accompanied Christ to the mountain, Peter, John, and James, are below Christ, and react to the vision of his Transfiguration.

The garments of the Apostles in state of disarray, indicating the dramatic impact of the vision on them

5, The garments of the Apostles are in state of disarray, indicating the dramatic impact the vision has on them.

The posture of three apostles in the icon shows their response to the Transfiguration. John in the centre has fallen prostrate. He is often shown having fallen head over heels supporting himself with his right hand and covering his face with the other. Peter is rising up from a kneeling position and raises his right hand toward Christ as he speaks, expressing his desire to build the three booths, tabernacles or tents.

The Apostle James falls to the ground or falls over backwards

6, The Apostle James reacts to the vision by falling to the ground or falling over backwards, attempting to cover his eyes with his hands to prevent him from seeing more.

If the apostles’ eyes are closed or shielded, remember how Luke in his account says they were weighed down with sleep (Luke 9: 30-32) … and how these three later could not stay awake in Gethsemane.

The two smaller scenes, introduced by Theophanes the Greek in the Tretyakov icon in Moscow, show that the Transfiguration is about both ascent and descent. To see the transfigured Christ, we have to leave behind the familiar, but we also have to come back down to earth again. There can be no staying permanently in an unnaturally extended religious comfort zone.

Indeed, in the two smaller scenes in the Tretyakov icon, Christ is paying more attention to the disciples on the way down than he is on their way up.

A modern icon of the Transfiguration by Alexander Ainetdinov ... in Orthodox icons of the Transfiguration, we have drama and a moment full of movement

In Orthodox iconography of the Transfiguration, we have no static scene, but drama and a moment full of movement. The icon serves as a narrative to open our eyes and hearts to a different, more allusive way of looking at the Gospel: here are live, happening events, real human beings, and challenges to the past, present and future.

In the icon by Theophanes the Greek, and many other icons of the Transfiguration, the three disciples look as though they still have to undergo their climb of the mountain. There is still a considerable distance between them and Christ. And so the icon does not tell of a world already reconciled; it lives with the tensions of an unreconciled world, it beckons and it challenges.

The icon directs our attention toward the event of the Transfiguration and specifically to the glory of God as revealed in Christ.

This event came at a critical point in Christ’s ministry, just as he was setting out on his journey to Jerusalem. He would soon experience the humiliation, suffering, and death of the Cross. However, the glorious light of the resurrection was revealed to strengthen his disciples for the trials that they would soon experience.

Why was the Transfiguration so eagerly adopted as Feast and as a theme in iconography in the Byzantine and Orthodox Church?

The Transfiguration by Aidan Hart ... in the Transfiguration, both the humanity and divinity of Christ are manifested to us

The Transfiguration has immense Christological importance, for both the humanity and divinity of Christ are manifested to the disciples, and so to us. This was developed as a theological thought in a sermon on the Transfiguration once said to have been written by Saint Ephrem the Syrian (ca 306-373), but now thought to have been written by a latter writer. Nevertheless, you can see how the Transfiguration helped at that time to underpin the teachings on the divine and human natures of Christ, encapsulated in the Creeds of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon.

The Transfiguration also points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God

The Transfiguration also points to Christ’s great and glorious Second Coming and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, when all of creation will be transfigured and filled with light. The vision of Christ in his glory and the experience of the divine light are at the very heart of both Orthodox mysticism and Orthodox eschatology. The “uncreated light” is a hallmark theme in Orthodox spirituality, especially in the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas and the school of the thought that is hesychasm, which draws constantly on the themes of the Transfiguration.

Saint Gregory Palamas distinguishes between the essence of God, which is beyond human apprehension, and the energies of God, which are the ways in which we can experience and know God. According to him, the light of the Transfiguration “is not something that comes to be and then vanishes.” Rather, Christ’s disciples experienced a transformation of their senses so that “they beheld the Ineffable Light where and to the extent that the Spirit granted it to them.”

This was, therefore, not only a prefiguration of the eternal blessedness to which all Christians look forward, but also of the Kingdom of God already revealed, realised and come.

In Orthodox theology, since Patristic times, the three booths or tents that the three disciples want to erect represent three stages of salvation:

● Virtue, which is the active life of ascetic struggle, and which is represented by Elijah.
● Spiritual knowledge, which requires right discernment in natural contemplation or contemplation of the natural order, which was disclosed by Moses.
● Theology, which means contemplation of God, which requires the consummate perfection of wisdom, and which was revealed by Christ.

The Transfiguration is both an event and a process

The Transfiguration is both an event and a process. The original Greek word in the Gospel accounts for Transfiguration is metamorphosis (μεταμόρφωσις), and gives us access to deeper and more theological meaning, a deeper truth, than the word derived from the Latin transfiguratio, which can be translated by “to be changed into another from.” But the Greek metamorphosis (μεταμόρφωσις) means “to progress from one state of being to another.” Consider the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into the butterfly. The metamorphosis invites us into the event of becoming what we have been created to be. This is what orthodox writers call deification.

As the Revd Dr Kenneth Leech once said: “Transfiguration can and does occur ‘just around the corner,’ occurs in the midst of perplexity, imperfection, and disastrous misunderstanding.”

The Transfiguration ... a fresco in an Orthodox church in the US

Resources and reading:

Andreopoulos, Andreas, Metamorphosis: the Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, 2005).
Baggley, John, Doors of perception: icons and their spiritual significance (London: Mowbray, 1987).
Bulgakov, Sergei, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2008).
Cunningham, Mary B., and Theokritoff, Elizabeth (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Karakatsanis, Athanasios A (ed), Treasures of Mount Athos (Thessaloniki: Holy Community of Mount Athos, 1997).
Lash, (Archimandrite) Ephrem, An Orthodox Prayer Book (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Nes, Solrunn, The Mystical Language of Icons (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).
Ramsey, (Archbishop) Michael, The Glory of God and the Transfiguration of Christ (London: Longmans, 1949/1967).
Stevenson, Kenneth, Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007).
Ware, (Bishop) Kallistos, The Orthodox Way (Oxford: Mowbray, 1979).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 23 February 2011 and includes material first presented at a seminar on 6 April 2010.