01 July 2011

Prayer and mission in the ‘Devil’s Acre’

At the Affirming Catholicism Conference in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, yesterday, were (from left), the Revd Canon Dr Charlotte Methuen, of Keble College Oxford and Ripon College Cuddesdon; Janet Morley, author of All Desires Known and Bread of Tomorrow; Bishop William Mchombo of Eastern Zambia; and Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford

I was speaking yesterday [30 June 2011] at the conference organised by Affirming Catholicism on the theme: ‘Thy Kingdom Come! Prayer and Mission in the building of The Kingdom.’ The one-day conference took place in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Church House, and last night I stayed in the Clergy House beside the church, gently conscious of the chimes of Big Ben throughout the night.

Saint Matthew’s offers accommodation and hospitality to both the local community, and to guests from around the world. The house, which has a passage linking it to the church and looks down into the courtyard of Saint Matthew’s, was built as a memorial to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott’s son, John Oldrid Scott.

The church is in one of the poorer districts of the Borough of Westminster, surrounded by social housing funded by the Peabody Trust, and from its earliest days the church has been closely associated with the recovery of the Catholic heritage of the Church of England.

In the mid-19th century, the people in the area around Great Peter Street lived in abject conditions, and Charles Dickens once described the area notoriously as the “Devil’s Acre.” It is said a house in Old Pye Street was used to teach and train pick-pockets, and In 1855 a lodging house in the area was said to have been home to 120 people. It is most likely that this is the area that inspired Dickens as he wrote about Fagin and Oliver Twist.

One description of the area noted: “It is in these narrow streets, and in these close and insalubrious lanes, courts and alleys, where squalid misery and poverty struggles with filth and wretchedness, where vice reigns unchecked and in the atmosphere of which diseases are generated and diffused.”

The Church responded to these squalid problems by building four new churches in this part of Westminster, and in 1844 the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey gave £1,000 towards building Saint Matthew’s, Westminster. The foundation stone was laid on 8 November 1849, and the church was consecrated on this day 160 years ago, on 30 June 1851 -- an anniversary that passed as the conference took place.

The Clergy House and Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster ... an integral part of mission in this inner-city area for 160 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The first vicar of Saint Matthew’s, the Rev Richard Malone, faced a major challenge in his missionary work. It is indicative of his work that the first person he baptised was not a child, but William Brown, a mature 27-year-old and the adult son of a harness maker.

Gonville ffrench-Beytagh – who has been one of my inspirations in ministry and mission since I first encountered his story 40 years ago in 1971 when he was Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg – was a curate in Saint Matthew’s for a short period from 1973 to 1974 after his forced exile from South Africa.

Another former curate here, from 1896 to 1898, was one of the foremost leaders of the Anglo-Catholic movement: Frank Weston taught daily in the Church School and in Catechism classes on Sunday afternoons. In March 1898, he wrote: “I have in tow about twenty young ruffians, mostly immoral little pagans, only four communicants.”

Despite the poor social conditions in the parish, according to his biographer, Frank Weston reported that this was “a parish where all was at peace and everything went on as if by clockwork. The services in the church and meals in the Clergy House could alike be depended on, but the first were elaborate and the others were not!”

The memorial in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, to the former curate, Bishop Frank Weston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

After two years at Saint Matthew’s, Frank Weston was called to missionary work in Africa. Eventually, he became the Bishop of Zanzibar in 1908. His combination of incarnational and sacramental theology with radical social concerns formed the keynote of his address to the Anglo-Catholic Congress in 1923. He believed that the sacramental focus gave a reality to Christ’s presence and power that nothing else could. “The one thing England needs to learn is that Christ is in and amid matter, God in flesh, God in sacrament.”

And so he concluded: “But I say to you, and I say it with all the earnestness that I have, if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in His Blessed Sacrament, then, when you come out from before your tabernacles, you must walk with Christ, mystically present in you through the streets of this country, and find the same Christ in the peoples of your cities and villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slums … It is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children.”

Mark Chapman, of Ripon College Cuddesdon, told me these words were written by Frank Weston as he stayed once again here in Saint Matthew’s as he prepared for that conference. They were appropriate words to recall yesterday as I spoke at the Affirming Catholicism conference in Saint Matthew’s on: “Prayer, mission and building the kingdom: the work of USPG.”

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

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