Friday, 29 July 2011

Summer School in Cambridge comes to an end

A quiet corner of Cambridge, off King’s Parade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The 12th Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Studies has come to an end, I have packed left my rooms at Sidney Sussex College, my bags are in the Porters’ Lodge, and I am ready to leave Cambridge to catch a plane at Stansted Airport.

After our closing lectures and thanks, we had lunch in the Hall and I was one of a group of students from this year who were interviewed by Dr Constantinos (Costas) Athanasopoulos about our experiences at the summer school including our visit to Saint John's Monastery yesterday, for the IOCS distance learning website.

Later, I had coffee in Michaelhouse with the Revd Christopher Woods, an old friend and former student, who is about to move in a few weeks’ time from Christ’s College to Westcott House – Sidney Sussex stands halfway between the two colleges.

Before leaving, I had my own quiet walk about through the streets in the historic centre of Cambridge, dropped in to Saint Botolph’s Church for the first time, and then remembered to have a haircut near Pembroke College.

It’s been a good week. I’m looking forward to coming back to Cambridge again. And I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s wedding in Dublin.

A quiet corner of Cambridge, behind Saint Bene’t’s Church and Corpus Christi College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Engaging with secularism: different approaches, east and west

Inside the Main Gate at the Porters’ Lodge in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

On the closing day of the summer school [Friday 29 July] in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, two lecturers invited us this morning o look at a variety of approaches to engaging with secularism and modernity.

Dr Brandon Gallaher of Keble College, Oxford, spoke on: “An Alternate Modernity? Orthodox and Roman Catholic Engagements with Secularism and (Post-)Modernity, and the Nature of Episcopal Authority.” Professor Nicholas Loudovikos of the Superior Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki addressed the topic: “An Orthodox Perspective on Psychology and Secularism.” They were speaking on the closing day of the summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, which has the theme: “The Challenge of a Secular Age.”

Dr Gallaher looked at Pope Benedict XVI’s critique of and his engagement with to secularism and modernity, and the response of the Moscow Patriarchate, including the works of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and his book Freedom and Responsibility. In a Search for Harmony. Human Rights and Personal Dignity, and of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev.

He outlined the complexity of secularism and modernity, and rejected an Orthodox tendency to look at them as monolithic. Religious communities will still have a stake in secularised societies, and society will have to deal with that.

Post-secularism has been described by Jürgen Habermas and addressed by Pope Benedict, but has not been addressed as firmly by Orthodoxy, he said. “You have to talk to people who are secular, and not at them,” Dr Gallaher said.

There are multiple modernities, reconstituting multiple constructions over time, and spoke of those who seek a specifically Christian way of being modern.

Pope Benedict has talked about the dictatorship of relativism and the need to avoid. He speaks of a Christocentric vision that could oppose this, and says theology always needs to be done in a Church context.

For Pope Benedict, Christianity is the true humanism. Western society has forgotten its Christian roots, has relegated God to the merely personal and private, and has no absolute or eternal values. Although claiming to be neutral, secularism is merely negative tolerance, leading to negative discrimination. He says: “In the name of tolerance, tolerance is being abolished.”

Freedom becomes an empty goal because freedom is defined as what one can do with power. Reason ends up destroying itself. Reason and freedom need to make contact again with their roots. Reason needs faith and faith needs reason.

The Pope speaks of the necessary relatedness between reason and faith. They are called to hep and purify each other, acknowledging their mutual need, and correcting and purifying each other.

The Enlightenment has its roots in Christianity, and secularism rightly understood can be a good thing. He calls Christianity back to understanding its essential values, and secularism can be profoundly Christian, so that faith is calling the secular realm back to its root.
Turning to the experience of the Russian Orthodox Church, Dr Gallaher was more critical, looking at the conflicting demands of dialogue and tradition. The approach to dialogue has often been characterised by the invitation: “Come in.”

But he pointed out that while the Roman Catholic Church is a multinational organisation, the Russian Orthodox Church is still essentially a national church and is working in the context of a post-Soviet situation.

He looked at the development of dialogue between the two churches, which share similar concerns about militant secularism, which Metropolitan Hilarion sees as a grave threat to Christian Europe.

Metropolitan Hilarion has been a key figure in dialogue between the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate. But Dr Gallaher sourced much of Metropolitan Hilarion’s views on population and immigration in the writings of the right-wing American writer Patrick Buchanan.

He also looked at Metropolitan Hilarion’s views on Church-State relations in Russia, and his writings on secularism, in which he sees Christian roots and much good.

Returning to the different ways in which the question of secularism is approached by the two Churches, he concluded that Pope Benedict had found space for dialogue with secularism, which is a child of Western Christianity, while the Orthodox begin with tradition which leaves little possibility for dialogue with what is seen as liberal and secular.

He argued that Orthodoxy had much to learn from the Vatican’s approach to dialogue, which is needed. He said there is a need for a “spiritual daring” and to risk one’s values for an “ultimate modernity.”

Dr Gallaher is Lecturer in Theology at Keble College, Oxford, and is about to take up a British Academy post-doctoral fellowship at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, working on a project on secularism and religious authority in modern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologies.

He studied at the University of British Columbia, McGill University, Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and Regent’s Park College, Oxford. His doctoral work at Oxford under Professor Paul Fiddes was on the role of freedom and necessity in the Trinitarian theologies of Sergii Bulgakov, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar. He has published on Russian theologians and philosophers, including Sergeii Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Solov’ev, and is co-editing a Florovsky Reader with Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writing a foreword.

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in the summer sunshine this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Our final lecture this morning was delivered through a conference call. Professor Nikolaos Loudovikos of the Superior Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki spoke to us from Greece on the topic: “An Orthodox Perspective on Psychology and Secularism.” Dr Loudovikos, who is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church, is Professor of Dogmatics and Philosophy at the Superior Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki.

Drawing on Charles Taylor’s definitions of secularism, he traced it to the rise of a society in which self-sufficient humanism, an exclusive humanism, is an option, owing allegiance to nothing else.

He also looked at the psychological aspects of secularism and modernity, and drew on his own studies of Saint Maximus the Confessor, Saint Gregory Palamas, Saint Thomas Aquinas and his own work in psychology as he looked at the possibility of humanity becoming what we are made to be.

He spoke of the impossibility of personhood without communion and of the need for a “dialogue of reciprocity.”

Father Nikolaos studied psychology, pedagogy, theology, and philosophy in Athens, Thessaloniki, Paris and Cambridge, and his thesis for his PhD in theology at the University of Thessaloniki examined The Eucharistic Ontology in the Theological Thought of Saint Maximus the Confessor. He has taught in Cambridge, Durham, Winchester, and Patras, and is also a part-time lecturer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies here in Cambridge.

His recent publications include: The strive for participation: Thomas Aquinas and Gregory Palamas (Athens); A Eucharistic ontology: Maximus The Confessor’s eschatological ontology of being as dialogical reciprocity (Athens and Boston); The terrors of the person and the ordeals of love: critical thoughts for a postmodern theological ontology (Athens); and Theopoiia: postmodern theological aporia (Athens).

The bell of the chapel at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

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

‘Keeping’ chapel in Sidney Sussex and Saint Bene’t’s

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

Patrick Comerford

An anonymous 19th century ballad, The Freshman and the Dean, is a reminder of how Cambridge undergraduates were expected to “keep” chapel twice on Sundays four times during the week:

It was a fast Freshman who slumbering lay
At a quarter to eight by the right time of day,
Yet still did he slumber, nor heeded the bell,
Which so early did ring him to morning Chapel.


Yes, time flies away and such changes it brings.
That it’s hard to believe in the Oneness of things!
For an acorn grown old as an oak may be seen.
And a Freshman himself may some day be a Dean!

There’s a hurrying of Gownsmen, their Chapels to keep,
But this gay gallant Freshman lay soundly asleep;
The psalms were all sung and the prayers were all said,
But this fastest of Freshmen lay fast in his bed !

’Twas past ten o’clock, when our hero at last
Was leisurely taking his morning repast.
When a neat “billet-doux” from the Dean did arrive,
Requesting his presence at quarter past five.

“How now, Mr Newman, this must not go on,
Sunday morning Chapel is a sine qua non
In the future don’t give me occasion to speak,
But keep two on each Sabbath and four in the week.”

“Mr Dean,” said our Freshman, “I'm in your bad books,
But I’m sure that my fault’s not so bad as it looks,
For to Chapel each morning in spirit I go,
Though my body sleeps snugly in bed as you know.”

“Oh, if that be the case,” said the Dean with a frown,
“You are free. Sir, (in spirit) to roam through the town.
But remember, or treatment more stringent awaits,
That your body, this week, will keep snug within Gates.”


This moral, my friends, you may all take to heart.
In your dealings with Dons, it don’t pay to be smart;
For, ’though briefly you score in an elegant way.
They’ve a card up their sleeve when it’s their turn to play!

During this week, I have been attending chapel in Sidney Sussex College most evenings. But I could not say any morning that “my body sleeps snugly in bed.” I’ve been skipping out of Sidney Sussex most mornings to attend the Daily Eucharist at 8 a.m. in Saint Bene’t’s, a short walk away at the corner of Bene’t Street and Free School Lane.

Tucked into a corner of Corpus Christi College, Saint Bene’t’s is beautiful and ancient church, appreciated by many for its history and architecture. The name of the church may have inspired the setting for Susan Howatch’s third set of three novels – the Saint Benet’s Trilogy – although the novels are is set in the fictional Saint Benet’s Church in London in the 1980s and 1990s.

But this church is also an oasis of calm in the middle of the university and the city. There are many other historic and notable Anglican churches nearby – Saint Botolph’s, Saint Edward’s, Great Saint Mary’s and Little Saint Mary’s – to say nothing of the chapels of the many Cambridge college. But there is something special and something deeply spiritual about Saint Bene’t’s.

The interior of Saint Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The oldest building in Cambridge

Saint Bene’t’s is an ancient parish church, the oldest building in Cambridgeshire, and has been a place of Christian worship for almost 1,000 years. This is an Anglo-Saxon foundation dating from around 1020, when Canute was King of England. The church is dedicated to Saint Benedict, yet, despite of its name, St Bene’t’s was never a monastic place of worship, and has been a parish church from the very beginning.

The Saxon tower was probably completed around 1033. The tower has distinctive “long and short” corner dressings of Barnack stone, and the bell opening is carved from a single stone. All four original Saxon cornerstones or quoins can still be seen inside the church, along with the magnificent Saxon arch. The round holes in the tower are said to have been made to encourage owls to nest and catch mice.

Although the tower may have been built to hold bells from the beginning, the earliest record of bells in the tower only dates from the 13th century – when the bell of St Bene’t’s was used to call students to special lectures and to examinations.

The rector of the day, Alan, complained about this in 1273, but the Bishop of Ely persuaded him to allow the bell to be used “in a civil and honest way.” After that, the parish clerk was paid an annual fee of 6s 8d for ringing the bell to call the students.

The arcading separating the nave and the south aisle dates from around 1300. To the south or right of the altar, are two curved ogee arched recesses dating from the 14th century. One arch houses the sedilia or seats for the officiating clergy – the priest, deacon and subdeacon; the other arch once held the piscina, the shallow basin used for washing the Eucharistic vessels and for the disposal of water used sacramentally, with a drain direct to the earth.

Close to Corpus Christi

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

In the 14th century, the church was used by some of the Cambridge guilds, and in 1352 the Guild of Corpus Christi, which met at Saint Bene’t’s, joined with the Guild of Saint Mary, which met at Great Saint Mary’s Church, the University Church, to found the College of Corpus Christi.

For many decades after the foundation of Corpus Christi, the college had no chapel, and the members worshipped at neighbouring Saint Bene’t’s Church. Saint Bene’t’s was used as the college chapel for many years and the two still have strong links. Tiny peepholes in a wall at the east end of the south aisle indicate a 16th century staircase leading to an upper room. The staircase is now blocked off, and the upper room is part of Corpus Christi College.

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

The association between the church and the college was so strong that Corpus Christi was popularly known as Bennet College, and in the early 16th century a gallery was erected connecting Old Court and the church.

On the floor near the staircase is a brass to Richard Billingford, DD, Master of Corpus Christi and Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who died in 1432. He wears a doctor’s cap, and the robe called a cappa clausa, which is still used for some university ceremonies.

Last year, for the first time since probably the 16th century, the Corpus Christi Day procession took place from Saint Bene’t’s to Corpus Christi College.

The bells of Saint Bene’t’s

In 1553, the church had “thre great Belles and one Sanctus Bell.” The oldest surviving bell in the church is the second, dated 1588. The third bell, dated 1607, bears the inscription: “Of all the bells in Benet I am the best, and yet for my castings the parish paid lest.”

The bells continued to be used for summoning to “ye schooles ... acts, clearums, congregations, lecturs, disses, and such like,” according to a receipt for a fee of 6s 8d dated 1624.

However, by 1650 the bells were “much out of frame and almost become useless.” In 1655, the churchwardens appealed for money to repair the bells. The university gave 30 shillings, with the caveat that it was a free gift was not to be regarded as setting a precedent. Corpus Christi College also gave money. Today there are six bells, dated 1663, 1588, 1607, 1825, 1610 and 1618.

Rebuilding and retention

The Victorians rebuilt the chancel and the chancel arch in the 19th century, adding new clerestory windows and a new roof, as well as widening the north and south aisles. The north and east walls of the chancel were rebuilt in their original positions, but the south wall, which may be part of the original Saxon church, was retained.

Some of the items of historical interest that have been retained in the church include a 13th century coffin lid, a late mediæval iron-bound chest, a funeral bier, refectory table and bench from the 17th century, and an 18th century fire hook for pulling burning thatch from the roof.

There is also a modern icon of Saint Benedict and Saint Francis – the church was staffed by Franciscans for 60 years from 1945 to 2005 – as well as a crucifix carved by a sister of the Community of Saint Clare, and ‘The Passion,’ a modern sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta.

Since 1578, there have been 73 incumbents at St Bene’t’s and 52 of these have been members of Corpus Christi. Most did not stay long, perhaps because there was no rectory and they had to move elsewhere when they married. Many had distinguished careers, including eight who became masters of Corpus Christ College, four who became bishops and two who became archbishops.

Those former vicars include Michael Ramsey, who was here in 1938 and later became Archbishop of Canterbury. He is still remembered fondly, and the Ramsey Rooms, created at the west end of the south aisle in 2002, beside the tower, are used for Sunday School and other meetings.

The most recent Vicar of Saint Bene’t’s was the theologian, writer and broadcaster, the Revd Angela Tilby, who has also been a tutor in Church History at Westcott House on Jesus Lane. She had been vicar from 2007, and she spent her last Sunday in the church earlier this month on 3 July before leaving to take up a new position as a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.

The church continues the rhythms of common daily prayer today, with the Eucharist at 8 a.m. each morning and Evening Prayer at 6 p.m.

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

Old portraits and new needs in Cambridge

Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College last night ... the IOCS summer school comes to an end today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The portraits of two Irish bishops – Archbishop John Bramhall of Armagh and Bishop John Garnett of Clogher – decorate the Old Library and the stairs leading up to it in Chapel Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Last night [28 July], we had our closing dinner of the Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Studies in the Old Library, dining beneath the portrait of Archbishop Bramhall and other Episcopal worthies associated with Sidney Sussex.

Archbishop Bramhall (1594 -1663), who received his BA, BD, MA and DD degrees while he was a member of Sidney Sussex, came to Ireland as Archdeacon of Meath in 1633, became Bishop of Derry in 1634 and became Archbishop of Armagh in 1661. As archbishop, he presided at the consecration in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, of two archbishops and ten bishops for the post-restoration Church of Ireland, and became Speaker of the Irish House of Lords.

Bishop Garnett (1709-1782) graduated BA at Cambridge in 1728, and MA in 1732. He was a Fellow of Sidney Sussex College and Lady Margaret preacher to the university before going to Ireland in 1751 as chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant, the Duke of Dorset, and in 1752 became Bishop of Ferns. He became Bishop of Clogher in 1758. Bishop Garnett died in Dublin in 1782.

Professor David Frost, in that famous tie, speaking under the portrait of Archbishop John Bramhall in the Old Library in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Principal of the IOCS, Professor David Frost, a Shakespearean scholar, a liturgist and a former Fellow of Saint John’s College, where we watched Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the previous night, stood beneath Bramhall’s portrait after dinner last night as he told a story about a number of Anglican, Orthodox and Roman Catholic bishops who were known variously as “Your Eminence,” “Your Elegance,” “Your Excellence,” and “Your Effluence.”

But on a more serious note, he also launched an appeal for a new home for the IOCS, which has been housed for the past ten years at Wesley House on Jesus Lane, and has been using facilities offered by other colleges in the Cambridge Theological Federation.

But as it expands, the institute needs a place of its own and is now looking at two linked Victorian terrace houses in Portugal Place, beside Saint Clement’s Church, an early English church which is used by both a small Church of England parish and the much larger Greek Orthodox parish of Saint Athanasios. It is a vision that needs practical as well as financial support.

Later, it fell to me – as one of the longer-standing students at these summer schools – to thank the directors, staff and lecturers for all they have done for us in the past and in the present, and for all they hope to do in the future.

And then – in a less sober mood – many of us adjourned to the Eagle in Benet Street, not so much for the Liturgy after the Liturgy, Dinner after the Dinner, or Drinks after the Drinks, but to continue the conversation and our friendships, before returning to Sidney Sussex. The summer school enters its last day today [Friday].

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