Sunday, 29 July 2012

A unique church doorway and a bishop’s forced departure

The sandstone Romanesque doorway in Saint Lachtain’s Church, Freshford, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

On the way road from Dublin to Cork yesterday, we took a break at Freshford in Co Kilkenny, to see a unique church door, and to visit a house associated with one of the most difficult Reformation bishops in the Church of Ireland.

The village green in Freshford, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The village of Freshford was the site of a monastery founded in the early seventh century by Saintt Lachtain.

In 836, Viking raiders burnt Saint Lachtain’s Church. The church was rebuilt in 1100, and the present Saint Lachtain’s was built in 1731.

All that survives of the 12th century church is the sandstone Romanesque doorway in Saint Lachtain’s Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Freshford. This is one of only two such portal designs remaining in Ireland. The other doorway is in Saint Brendan’s Cathedral in Clonfert, Co Galway.

The base of the Shee cross on the village green in Freshford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The church is close to the village green, The Square, which is in the shape of a triangle. An interesting feature on the green is the soft sandstone base of the Freshford Cross.

When Lucas Shee of Uppercourt Manor died in 1622, his widow Ellen Butler erected a cross in his memory at the back entrance to Uppercourt Manor. When Sir William Morris came to live in Uppercourt in 1790, he had the cross moved and re-erected on the green in Freshford.

The inscription at the base of the cross once read: “The noble Ellen Butler, wife of Lucas Shee Esq., got this monument made. Pray, traveller, that the souls of both may have eternal rest.”

Uppercourt Manior … once home of Bishop John Bale, the Shee and Morris families, and the Mill Hill Fathers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Uppercourt Manor is a short distance outside Freshford and stands on the site of the bishop’s palace built at Achadh Úr (Aghour) in 1225.

In 1553, the Reformation Bishop of Ossory, John Bale (1495-1563), came to Kilkenny and lived at Uppercourt Manor. Bale was such a quarrelsome controversialist that he became known as “bilious Bale.” His “morality” plays denounced the monastic system and its supporters in unrestrained language and coarse imagery, marked by their profane parody.

From the moment he arrived in Ireland, Bale was uncompromising in his theological views. When he was being ordained bishop in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 2 February 1553, he refused to be consecrated by the traditional rites used in the Church of Ireland., insisting that he was sworn to obey the laws of England.

Bale’s account of his time in Ossory, Vocacyon of John Bale to the Byshopperycke of Ossorie, shows how his zeal for the Reformation was never tempered by discretion. He quarrelled bitterly with the clergy and people of the diocese, and alienated his neighbours.

When Mary Tudor’s accession was proclaimed to great celebration in Kilkenny on 20 August, there was a Catholic procession through the streets. Bale managed to preach in Kilkenny that day on Romans 13 and on the duty of obedience and, remarkably, three of his 25 plays were performed at the Market Cross in Kilkenny on the day of Queen Mary’s coronation.

On Saint Bartholomew’s Day, he preached on the text: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” That evening, he dined with Robert Shee, the Mayor of Kilkenny.

By 31 August, the old services and rituals had been revived throughout the Diocese of Ossory. A week later, when Bale sent five of his workers into his fields in Freshford to make hay on Friday 8 September 1553, regarded as a holy day, they were attacked and killed, including three Englishmen and a 16-year-old girl, and the bishop’s horse was stolen.

The Mayor of Kilkenny, Robert Shee, came to Bale’s rescue, and gave him an armed escort from Uppercourt to Kilkenny. Within a week, though, Bale fled, never to return to Kilkenny. He died in Canterbury in November 1563 and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

The Shee family moved into Uppercourt Manor, and there for a century until the Cromwellian confiscations of 1653. The present house was built by Sir William Morris around 1790. Eventually, the Mill Hill Fathers bought the house in 1932 and turned into secondary school. The manor now stands on a stud farm owned by Dr Paul O’Byrne, who has restored the house.

Clomantagh Castle, near Freshford … seen through a ruined window of Clomantagh Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

On our way back onto the motorway, we stopped briefly to look at the ruined church and restored castle at Clomantagh.

Clomantagh Castle is part of a unique settlement of tower house, farmhouse and bawn. The tower house was built in the 1430s, and the adjoining farmhouse dates from the early 1800s. The castle has a “Sheela-na-gig” carved on one of the stones.

Although there are no gravestones in the church itself, there are about 40 stones standing in the graveyard around the church ruins, some dating from the 1760s.

On our way back from Cork to Dublin this afternoon, we travelled through Lismore and Cappoquin, visiting Lismore Cathedral, Lismore Castle, Cappoquin House, and my my grandmother’s former farmhouse near Mount Mellary, before driving on across the Knockmealdown Mountains, through “the Vee” and down into Golden Vale of Co Tipperary.

But they are visits to talk about on another day.

Gathering all in to the party

Feeding the 5,000 ... a modern Greek Orthodox icon

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 29 July 2012, the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

10 am, Saint John’s Church, Monkstown, Co Cork

Choral Eucharist 180th Anniversary Service, with Monkstown Chamber Choir

2 Samuel 11: 1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3: 14-21; John 6: 1-21

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

We all love anniversaries and parties.

If, like me, you are a daily user of Google as a search engine on the internet, you have come to enjoy the humorous “Google Doodles” which cover a variety of anniversaries, no matter how obscure.

During July, these anniversary doodles have marked:

● Amelia Earhart’s 115th birthday
● Santos Dumont’s 139th birthday
● Gustav Klimt’s 150th birthday
● José María Velasco’s 172nd birthday

Who knows who Santos Dumont is?

Why celebrate a 172nd birthday? Or a 180th anniversary?

But birthdays, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, retirements – we all enjoy a good party. Why, if we allow ourselves to admit the truth, we even enjoy the afters at funerals.

Parties affirm who we are, where we fit within the family, and mark the rhythm of life and the continuity of community.

It is not only the eating or the drinking. It is very difficult to sit beside someone at the same table after a funeral, or to stand beside someone at the bar at a wedding, and not to end up getting to know them and – as we say in Ireland – “their seed, breed and generation.”

Even though Saint Paul in our Epistle reading this morning alludes to the fact that there are different families, he reminds us that there is a unique way in which we, as Christians, are members of the same family, a particular family, the Church, the family of God.

Families share names, share stories, share memories, share identities, share anniversaries. And that is not all in the past. These celebrations allow us to express and share our hopes for the future too ... is that not what baptisms and weddings are about in every family – hope for the future, hope for life itself?

The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle – apart from the Resurrection –recorded in all four Gospels (see also Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 32-44; Luke 9: 10-17), with only minor variations on the place and the circumstances.

The story of the multiplication of the loaves as Saint John alone tells it has a number of key details, such as a Passover context, that are there to remind us of our feeding at the Eucharist and of Messianic hope for the future.

Christ lifts up his eyes. Earlier in this Gospel, when the disciples came back to Christ at the well in Sychar, they found him talking with the Samaritan woman. He told them to “lift up their eyes” and to see the “harvest” of the seed he had been sowing.

Now in this story, just as at Jacob’s Well, the disciples have failed to buy or produce enough bread for a meal. In this story, Christ responds not by sympathising but by demanding great generosity, so great that it would take six months’ wages to be so generous.

Barley loaves were the food of the poor, and so the boy’s offering symbolises the poverty of the people, while the disciples fail to offer from the riches of the kingdom.

Christ, who has told the woman at Sychar that she shall no longer thirst, is now going to tell the people he feeds, and the disciples too, that he is the bread of life, and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry, whoever believes in him will never be thirsty (see John 6: 35).

The ΙΧΘΥC symbol carved into marble and highlighted by later visitors in Ephesus

The feeding with the fish looks forward too to a later meal by the shores of Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples when the Risen Christ feeds them with bread and fish. The fish is an early symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of words spelling out ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr), Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

Christ asks the disciples to make the people sit down – well, not so much to sit down as to recline. They are asked to recline on the grass as they would at a banquet or at a feast – just as Christ does with the disciples at the Last Supper.

And then, in a Eucharistic sequence, he takes the bread, blesses or gives thanks, breaks it and gives it. John here uses the word εὐχαριστήσας (eucharistisas, verse 11), from the verb εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteo), “to give thanks,” the very word from which we derive the word Eucharist in the liturgy.

John alone tells us that Christ later tells the disciples to gather up the fragments lest they perish. Gathering is an act of reverential economy towards the gifts of God; but gathering also anticipates Christ gathering all to himself (John 6: 39; see also John 17: 12).

Look at the amount that is left over in the outpouring of God’s generosity. There are 12 baskets – one for each tribe of Israel and one for each of the 12 disciples. God’s party, the Eucharist, is a looking forward to the new Israel, not the sort of earthly kingdom that the people now want but the Kingdom of God.

In the next chapter, when the crowds follow Christ to Capernaum, he tells them: “I am that bread of life” (John 7: 48). In this way, the Feeding of the Multitude connects with the feeding of the freed slaves in the wilderness and the coming of freedom, and with the heavenly banquet and the coming of the kingdom.

The earlier food miracle in this Gospel is the Wedding in Cana, when Christ turns the water into wine. Now we have a miracle with bread. The Eucharistic connection of bread and wine is so obvious.

Saint John’s account of the multiplication of the loaves has a number of key details that remind us of the Eucharist.

When Christ asks the disciples to gather up the fragments, he uses the word συνάγω (synago, to gather up) – the same as the word συναγωγή (synagogue) for the assembly of faith, and as the word σύναξις (synaxis) for the gathering or first part of the Liturgy.

Christ puts no questions of belief to the disciples or to the crowd when he feeds them on the mountainside. They did not believe in the Resurrection – it had yet to happen. But he feeds them, and he feeds them indiscriminately. The disciples wanted to send them away, but Christ wants to count them in. Christ invites more people to the banquet than we can fit into our churches.

When we invite people into the Church, we have so much to share – must more that the meagre amount people may think we have in our bags.

When this church was being built in the 1830s, the donors and fundraisers came from a variety of backgrounds – they included peers of the realm and magistrates, Tory and Whig MPs, supporters of Catholic Emancipation and the descendants of ascendancy archbishops, a failed poet and the cousin of a future Nobel playwright.

Saint John the Evangelist ... a window in Saint John’s Church, Monkstown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Why they decided to name this church after Saint John the Evangelist, I am not sure. But we have here too a fine stained glass window of the saint, holding the Fourth Gospel in one hand and a poison chalice in the other.

This recalls the legend that Saint John was tested by the high priest of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, who gave him a poison chalice to drink. Saint John blessed the chalice, the poison escaped in the form of a winged dragon, and Saint John then drank safely.

But there is another poison that can damage the church today – we can fail to love.

Saint Jerome tells us that Saint John continued preaching in Ephesus even when he was in his 90s. He was so enfeebled in his old age that the people had to carry him on a stretcher into the Church in Ephesus, on the hill above the Temple of Artemis. And when he was no longer able to preach, he would lean up on one elbow and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”

This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his deathbed. Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week, the same happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, with the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And he replied: “Because it is enough.”

There we have the basics of living as a Christian in a nutshell. All we need to know is “Little children, love one another.” If we want to know the rules, there it is: “Little children, love one another.”

In his old age, that is all Saint John preached in Ephesus, week after week.

And if we live by that, then all those Christ wants to feed, all those Christ wants to gather into his family, into the Church, into the Kingdom of God, will be fed and gathered and become one with us at his banquet in the kingdom.

That is why we build churches, that is why as a church we celebrate and have parties, why we celebrate anniversaries, why we are gathered in to share the Word and to share the Sacrament.

And so, in Saint Paul’s words in this morning’s epistle reading:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3: 16).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

This sermon was preached at the Choral Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, Monkstown, Co Cork, on Sunday 29 July 2012.


Blessed are you, O Lord,
and blessed are those who observe and keep your law:
Help us to seek you with our whole heart,
to delight in your commandments
and to walk in the glorious liberty
given us by your Son, Jesus Christ.

Post Communion Prayer:

Strengthen for service, Lord,
the hands that holy things have taken;
may the ears which have heard your word
be deaf to clamour and dispute;
may the tongues which have sung your praise
be free from deceit;
may the eyes which have seen the tokens of your love
shine with the light of hope;
and may the bodies which have been fed with your body
be refreshed with the fullness of your life;
glory to you for ever.