18 January 2015

Visiting an ancient burial ground and
church at Saint Michael’s in Lichfield

Saint Michael’s Churchyard is one of the largest and one of the oldest burial grounds in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Before I left Lichfield yesterday, I visited Saint Michael’s parish church on Greenhill and one of the oldest and one of the largest burial grounds in England.

Although much of the present church on a sandstone ridge on the east side of Lichfield dates from rebuilding projects in the 1840s, there has been a church on this high ground since at least 1190.

The nine-acre site surrounding the parish church is the site of one of the earliest settlements in Lichfield, and was a significant burial ground from an early date.

There is a legend that this was the burial place of 999 early Christian martyrs who were the followers of the legendry Saint Amphibalus, who had converted Saint Alban to Christianity in the third or fourth century. There is no evidence to support the legend of those martyrs in the year 300 during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian. But the legend became so popular that it was often said that the name Lichfield actually means “field of the dead.”

This tradition develops a mediaeval story created by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and was exaggerated from the 12th century on after Lichfield became an important stopping place on pilgrim routes.

The legend was largely forgotten by the 1500s, but it was revived later that century when Lichfield was incorporated as a borough in 1548. The new civic council needed an image for its seal but wanted to break with the pre-Reformation image of Saint Chad. The corporation decided to use the story of the 999 martyrs on its seal, and so gave new life to a dead and unfounded story.

It may be that this legend led to George Fox, the founding Quaker, to declare: “Woe unto the bloody City of Lichfield.”

After his release from prison in Derby, Fox walked to Lichfield. When he was about a mile outside Lichfield, he felt a command from God to take off his shoes and to walk into the city. There in the Market Square, he stood barefoot in the snow as he cried out again and again: “Woe unto the bloody City of Lichfield.”

Fox later said he a vision of a channel of blood running through the streets of Lichfield and that the market place was a pool of blood, and explained later that God wanted him to preserve the memory of the thousand Christians martyrs from the reign of Diocletian.

A few decades later, the Staffordshire historian Robert Plot declared that the nearby area now known as Christian Fields was the site of their martyrdom and it has born the name ever since. Of course, no archaeological evidence was ever found to support these stories from Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert Plot. Today, Christian Fields is a nature reserve south of Eastern Avenue, between Dimbles Lane and Curborough Road.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church … the interior has been altered radically in the last two centuries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Despite the false foundations for this legend and the religious impulses it has inspired, Saint Michael’s and its churchyard were still worth visiting once again yesterday afternoon.

There may have been a church on this site at Greenhill from an early date, and once again local legend says the first church on the site was consecrated by Saint Augustine. Other accounts say it was because the site was so well known that Saint Chad was attracted to Lichfield, making it the centre of his new diocese in Mercia.

The tomb of William de Walton in the north wall of the chancel in Saint Michael’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There is evidence on the site of crouched burials from before the Norman Conquest. However, the first church at Saint Michael’s is not recorded until 1190.

The oldest remaining parts of the present church date from the 13th century. In a recess in the north wall of the chancel under the pointed arch is the tomb of William de Walton, who in 1344 was the first recorded benefactor of Saint Michael’s. At his feet is a friendly looking dog, indicating he died in peace in his sleep rather violently or at war.

The church register dates from 1574. The font dates from 1669 and is octagonal with stylised fleur-de-lis and Tudor roses.

From the late 17th century, Saint Michael’s was associated with the family of Lichfield’s most famous writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).

Johnson visited Lichfield for the last time in the autumn of 1784. He returned to London on 16 November, and composed an inscription for a floor slab in the centre of the nave to commemorate his immediate family.

On 2 December, he wrote two letters to Lichfield giving explicit directions for epitaphs to be placed over the middle aisle of Saint Michael’s Church where his father Michael Johnson (died 1731), his mother, Sarah Johnson (died 1759), and his brother, Nathaniel Johnson (died 1737), were buried.

A plaque in Market Street remembers Samuel Johnson’s cousin, Richard Greene (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

He wrote to his cousin, the apothecary Richard Greene (1716-1793), who was the Senior Bailiff of Lichfield and lived in Market Street, saying:

“I have enclosed the epitaph for my Father, Mother, and Brother, to be all engraved on the large size, and laid in the middle aisle in St. Michael’s church, which I request the clergyman and church-wardens to facilitate.

“The first care must be taken to find the exact place of interment, that the stone might protect the bodies. Then let the stone be deep, massy and hard; and do not let the difference of ten pounds, or more, defeat your purpose.

“I have enclosed ten pounds, and Mrs Porter will pay you ten more, which I gave her for the same purpose. What more is wanted shall be sent; and I beg that all possible haste be made, for I wish to have it done while I am yet alive. Let me know, dear Sir, that you receive this. I am, Sir, your most humble servant, Sam Johnson.”

On the same day, he wrote to Lucy Porter: “I am very ill, and desire your prayers. I have sent Mr Green the epitaph and a power to call on you for ten pounds.”

Within a fortnight, Johnson died quietly on 13 December 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on 20 December.

The Johnson family memorial, with the inscription commissioned by Samuel Johnson commemorating his father, mother and brother (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The original stone Johnson commissioned was removed when Saint Michael’s was repaved in the late 1790s, and much of the mediaeval fabric of the church was lost when the church was restored in the 1840s by a local architect Thomas Johnson and the London-born architect Sydney Smirke.

Johnson’s stone, with the same inscription, was replaced in 1884 to mark the centenary of Samuel Johnson’s death. The church we see today includes further architectural renovations designed in the 1890s by John Oldrid Scott.

The graves in the churchyard include an unusual “saddle-back” tomb and the graves of members of the family of the poet Philip Larkin. John Brown, who sounded the trumpet for the 17th Lancers at the Charge of the Light Brigade, is also buried here.

A saddleback tomb in Saint Michael’s churchyard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Here too is the gravestone of the last victims of a public hanging in Lichfield. John Neve, William Wightman and James Jackson men were found guilty of forgery and were hanged at the gallows at the junction of Tamworth Road and London Road on 1 June 1810. Their gravestone, which was restored recently, only gives the initials of the three men and the date of their execution.

I missed the mausoleum of Canon James Thomas Law (1790-1876), a Grade II Listed Building on the northern edge of the churchyard. Law was a prebendary of Lichfield Cathedral and chancellor of the Diocese of Lichfield, a key figure in the foundation of Lichfield Theological College, and Master of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (1821-1836), where I was being interviewed and filmed by Dave Moore the day before.

Law had the mausoleum designed like a canopied mediaeval tomb as a memorial to his wife who died in 1864. Originally, it was surmounted by a clock with two dials that were illuminated at night by gas. Built on the side of the Trent Valley Road it was a reminder of the time to travellers on their way to the railway station. But the clock is now missing and the mausoleum is overgrown.

Lichfield Methodist Church … the city looks into the church, and the church looks out to the city (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

From Saint Michael’s and Rotten Row, we walked back down through Greenhill into Tamworth Street, where we had coffee earlier in the afternoon in The Spark.

Across the street from the Spark, the Methodist Church has placed glass doors at the main entrance. It means that on a Sunday morning the church is looking out onto Lichfield, and Lichfield is looking into the church at worship … an architecturally perfect way of expressing the mission of the Church.

A winter walk along Cross in Hand Lane on Saturday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Earlier in the day, we had attended the mid-day Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral, after a nmid-day walk by Minster Pool. In the morning, after breakfast, I had a walk in the countryside along Cross in Hand Lane. The fields were covered in a crisp morning frost, and there was a ridge of light snow down through the middle of the lane.

But by late afternoon this stay in Lichfield was coming to an end. We walked back up Beacon Street to the Hedgehog for a late lunch before catching the train to the airport. Outside the Hedgehog, the sun was setting in the fields to the west.

I was reminded of the canticle ‘Hail Gladdening Light,’ which had been sung at Choral Evensong on Thursday:

Now we are come to the Sun’s hour of rest;
The lights of evening round us shine;
We hymn the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit divine!

Worthiest art thou at all times to be sung
With undefiled tongue,
Son of our God, giver of life, alone:
Therefore in all the world thy glories, Lord, they own. Amen.

‘Now we are come to the Sun’s hour of rest’ … sunset at Cross in Hand Lane in Lichfield on Saturday evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Finding the values of diversity and
unity in the call of the first apostles

A young boy lights a candle outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo, where the tributes formed a carpet of flowers after last Sunday’s rally in Paris

Patrick Comerford,

Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Dublin,

Sunday 18 January 2015,

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

10 a.m.:
Morning Prayer,

Readings: I Samuel 3: 1-10, 11-20; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; Revelation 5: 1-10; John 1: 43-51.

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

I imagine many of us were fascinated by the demonstrations last weekend that saw 1.5 million people pour onto the streets of Paris last Sunday, and perhaps 3.5 million people take to the streets of cities, towns and villages throughout France.

Before I go any further, let me deal with a few basic questions and answers so that there is no misunderstanding of what I am saying this morning.

I believe in free speech, but like any right, the right to free speech has come at a great price over the centuries. It is best defended not by being provocative, but by being responsible.

Free speech does not give anyone the right, for example, to rush into a cinema crowded with children and to start shouting ‘Fire!’ Nor does it give anyone the right to stand outside a synagogue, chanting neonazi slogans.

I do not see the need for blasphemy laws to protect God. If God is so weak that God needs the protection of legislation and politicians, then that is not an almighty or an all-loving God.

But I do believe politicians have a responsibility to legislate against incitement to hatred and to the propagation of racism.

On the other hand, society should not should allow extremists define what is offensive when it comes to religion or politics. As a Christian, I need to listen to critics of my Church and of the record of the Church in the past, and those I disagree with need to listen to why I disagree with them.

In the past, Christians took offence at Biblical criticism, which is now accepted by all theologians. Good manners, patient listening and respect for difference of opinion are far more effective than laws, fines and prison bars.

I have seen and found many of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo to be offensive, puerile and tasteless. But to say they are provocative reminds me of an abusive husband who claims his wife provoked him into beating her. The word provocation implies that in some way the victim is responsible for his or her own suffering.

Nothing ever excuses shooting those we disagree with, no matter how adolescent, or tasteless, or irresponsible they are in expressing their disagreement.

Nothing excuses taking hostages. People in a supermarket or a factory are unquestionably entitled to go shopping or to go to work without giving a second thought to the opinions or imagined hurts of others.

And nothing ever excuses those who use the community’s stand for justice and against violence to promote racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.

But last Sunday’s marches were not about the freedom to be abusive or to propagate hatred. They were not about defending offensive and puerile cartoons. They were about expressing French society’s communal assertion that the values of liberty, equality and fraternity are essential to French society and identity and the cohesiveness of France as a nation.

But this was about more than France, and we saw this in many of the images that were created last Sunday.

Jewish and Muslim leaders shake hands at the start of the march in Paris last Sunday

We saw Europe’s leaders come together to support the French people, linking arm-in-arm at the beginning of the march. We need to remind ourselves that the European project began as a response to the horrors of war and racism and genocide in Europe in the mid-20th century. We cannot ever return to where we were in the past.

We saw people from all walks of life come together, not blaming each other for the violence because of their background or religion. In many parts of Paris, Jews, Christians and Muslims linked arms and affirmed each other.

We saw how the march never descended to racism or Islamophobia. This could have happened so easily, but the organisers specifically excluded the extremists.

Let us not think that this could not have happened: there are marches each week in the streets of German cities demanding the exclusion of Muslims from civic, political and polite society.

Let us not think that the recent violence could not happen here, in Ireland or close to hand in Britain. There are disturbing reports over the past week on the number of small groups of extremists in Ireland and Britain who have travelled to Syria and other parts of the Middle East or North Africa to join the so-called Islamic State and other jihadi groups.

I was aware of the high state of alert in Britain at the moment as I travelled through Birmingham International Airport twice this weekend.

Fear may mobilise us into a sensible state of awareness and alertness. But it must never descend to hatred, bigotry, racism and extremism.

You might ask what any of this has this to do with the Gospel … and more specifically this morning’s Gospel reading?

Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim to be part of the family of Abraham when it comes to faith in one God and to be people of the book, people who believe that this one God is revealed to humanity through prophets and sacred scripture.

There are other smaller, groups who stand within this tradition … the Samaritans, the Mandeans and the Yazidis. They have all suffered in recent years in the Middle East, squeezed between the claims and counter-claims of extreme politics and militant interests.

But it is interesting that when Christ holds up people as good examples of true religion, he chooses Samaritans, not once but three times:

the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 1-42);

the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37);

and the Samaritan who is the only one among ten lepers to return to give thanks and to bow before Christ in humility and worship (Luke 17: 11-19).

The Samaritans held the same religious beliefs as Jews at the time, worshipped the same one God, but were treated as outsiders and unclean – whether they were lepers or women only compounded how they were treated as outsiders.

Yet Christ includes them in his ministry of healing, proclamation and worship.

The Kingdom of God is one where those we want to marginalise, reject or see as outsiders are told that they are not only counted in, but in the inner circle.

The Kingdom of God rejoices in diversity and in difference.

And these values are expressed in a gentle but not too subtle way in this morning’s Gospel reading too (John 1: 43-51).

The back story is that immediately after his baptism by Saint John the Baptist in the River Jordan, Christ begins calling his first disciples. First he calls Andrew and Simon Peter. Andrew is called first, but before responding to the call to follow Christ, he goes back and fetches his brother Simon and brings him to Jesus (John 1: 35-42).

Andrew and Simon are brothers but their names indicate the early differences and divisions in the Church. Andrew’s name is Greek ('Ανδρέας, Andreas), meaning “manly” or “valorous,” while Simon’s name (שמעון‎, Shimon, meaning “hearing”) is so obviously Jewish.

The Gospel reading this morning moves on to the story of the call of Philip and Nathanael, and comes immediately after the story of the call of Andrew and Peter.

And we find the same again with Philip and Nathanael: Philip is a strong Greek name – everyone in the region knew Philip of Macedon was the father of Alexander the Great; while Nathanael’s name is a Hebrew compound meaning “the Gift of God.”

So, from the very beginning of the story of the call of the disciples, the diversity and divisions within the Church are represented, even in the names that show they are Jews and Greeks, the Hebrew-speakers and those who are culturally Hellenised.

Later this Philip is the first of the apostles to bring Samaritans into the Church (see Acts 8: 4-13), much to the surprise of the other disciples, who had not yet agreed to bringing the Gospel to people who were not Jews.

Philip goes on to baptise an Ethiopian court official who is an outsider in oh so many ways that I need not go into here (see Acts 8: 26-40). Before the conversion of Saint Paul, Saint Philip, who is called in this morning’s Gospel reading, is the great missionary in the Apostolic Church, bringing the Good News to those who are seen as outsiders in terms of religion and ethnicity.

The mission of the Church is founded not just on respect for diversity, but on loving and embracing diversity. This is not a matter of tolerance – it is a matter or knowing what the Kingdom of God is like, and knowing how that should be reflected in our values here today.

In reacting to false divisions in the early Church, the Apostle Paul tells us: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28; see Colossians 3: 11).

This is an idea and an ideal that is explicit in the New Testament reading (Revelation 5: 1-10) that is also provided for this morning. That reading tells us that the Church or the saints are “from every tribe and language and nation” and that they, we, are made “to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth” (see Revelation 5: 9-10).

The diversity of the Church should reflect the diversity of society and of humanity. The call into the Kingdom of God comes to a diverse group of people in ways first hinted at in the call that came to the first disciples as a diverse group of people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, often – as with Philip and Nathanael – when they were least expecting it.

But they responded to that call faithfully. Andrew went and fetched Simon Peter. Philip found Nathanael (John 1: 45).

If these are challenging weeks across Europe, then this Gospel reading helps us to face these challenges with respect and with love.

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

The call of Philip and Nathanael … a modern icon


Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in the chapel of Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on 18 January 2015.