20 February 2017

Another Precentor in the family
who was accused of ‘lewd
preaching and misdemeanour’

The Precentor’s Stall in the chapter stalls in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was installed in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on Sunday afternoon [19 February 2017] as Precentor in the Joint Chapter of the Cathedral Churches of Saint Mary’s, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s, Killaloe, Co Clare, and Saint Brendan’s, Clonfert, Co Galway.

In the past, there has been a number of bishops in the family, including an Archbishop of Cashel, Bishops and Ferns, Waterford and Lismore and in Kildare and Leighlin, and at least two cathedral deans, both in Kilkenny, as well as priors, rectors and other clergy.

So it should be no surprise that I am not the first but the second cathedral precentor in this family.

During the reign of Queen Mary, Henry Comberford (ca 1499-1586), became Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral in 1555, and he was a key figure in the events surrounding the Reformation in Lichfield.

Henry Comberford, who born ca 1499, came from Comberford, half-way between Lichfield and Tamworth, and his family also owned the Moat House on Lichfield Street, Tamworth, and Wednesbury Manor.

His brothers included Humphrey Comberford, one of the last Masters of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John in Lichfield, and Judge Richard Comberford, the putative ancestor of the Comerford family in Ireland.

Punters under the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, where Henry Comberford was a Fellow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

With his brothers, Humphrey and Richard, Henry Comberford was educated at Cambridge, where he graduated BA (1533), MA (1536) and BD (1545), and he went on to become a Fellow of Saint John’s College and a Proctor of Cambridge University. His brother Richard Comberford was also a Fellow and Senior Bursar of Saint John's College.

Like many of his contemporary clerics, Henry became a careerist and a pluralist. After ordination, he was the Rector of Saint Mary’s, Polstead, near Colchester, Suffolk (1539), a Proctor of Cambridge University (1543-1544), Rector of All Saints’, Earsham, near Bunbay, Norfolk (1553-1558) on the nomination of the Duke of Norfolk, Rector of All Saints’, Hethell, near Norwich (1554-1559), Rector of Norbury, Derbyshire, then in the Diocese of Lichfield (1558), and Rector of Yelvertoft, Northamptonshire, in the Diocese of Peterborough (to 1560).

The Precentor’s House in the Cathedral Close, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Henry was the Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral from 9 June 1555 to 1559, and Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington at the same time. He may also have been Archdeacon of Coventry (ca 1558 to 1559), in the Diocese of Lichfield, although this is disputed.

The precentor was the first residentiary canon of Lichfield Cathedral, and as such was a Justice of the Peace or Magistrate for the Cathedral Close. For many centuries, the precentor’s house traditionally has been at No 23 in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield. Bishop’s Itchington, or Fisher’s Itchington, near Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, takes its name from the River Itchen and from the Bishops of Lichfield, the former landowners of the village. The prebend of Bishop’s Itchington was traditionally held by the Precentor of Lichfield.

Henry accumulated most of his appointments during the reign of Mary (1553-1557), but when she died in November 1558 and her half-sister Elizabeth became queen, Henry appears to have been willing initially to accept the Elizabethan Anglican settlement, and his name appears on the coronation pardon roll of 15 January 1559.

However, within a month, the two bailiffs of Lichfield City, Edward Bardell and John Dyott, in February 1559, accused Henry of ‘lewd preaching and misdemeanour.’ Dyott is referred to in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, Act 3, Scene 2, in the dialogue between Shallow and Silence. He was an uncle of Sir Richard Dyott, who was a trustee of the Comberford estates in the following century.

Henry was summoned before the Privy Council on 27 February 1559, was deprived of all his benefices because of his extreme Catholicism, and was in prison until April 1559.

Four months later, in June 1559, Ralph Baynes, who had been Henry’s contemporary at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, was deprived as Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. At the same time, the Dean of Lichfield, John Ramridge, was sent to the Tower of London. When he was released on bail, Dean Ramridge escaped to Flanders, where he was later murdered. In addition, between 1559 and 1564, the Chancellor of Lichfield, Canon Alban Longdale, was deprived, the Treasurer, Canon George Lee, resigned, and many of the prebendaries and cathedral clergy were deprived or were forced to resign between 1559 and 1564.

In 1560, Henry was also deprived of the parish of Yelvertoft.

The Cathedral Close in Lichfield, seen from the west doors of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In a report on the recusants of Staffordshire in 1562, Edward Grindall, Bishop of London, described Henry Comberford as ‘learned, but wilful’ and after three years of protracted actions, he was finally sacked as the Precentor of Lichfield and as the Prebendary of Bishop’s Itchington that year, and was succeeded by Edward Leds or Leedes.

Later, Henry was ordered to live in Suffolk. But he may not have been as extreme in his Catholic views as his detractors claimed, for he was given the liberty to travel twice every year into Staffordshire, allowing six weeks on each occasion.

Nevertheless, in 1570 – the year his old protagonist Grindal became Archbishop of York – he was apprehended for celebrating the mass in the house of Anne Percy (1538-1596), Countess of Northumberland.

On 10 November 1570, Lady Northumberland’s house at Broomhall in Sheffield was searched, and Henry Comberford was arrested. When he was examined later by the York ecclesiastical commissioners, he affirmed both ‘the Masse to be good’ and ‘the Pope to be supreame Head of the universall Churche,’ beliefs he vowed to maintain ‘untill deathe’.

The former precentor further claimed that it was through his efforts that the Countess of Northumberland had renounced Protestantism and embraced the Catholic faith. Although the countess was allegedly responsible for persuading and encouraging her husband to stand up for his Catholic beliefs and take part in the northern rebellion of 1569, her religious convictions had not always been so strong. Henry lamented that she had been ‘possessed with an evell spirite' which had caused her to ‘utter infinite and blasphemous othes to denye god and the Catholik Church’. It was only through fasting, praying, reciting of psalms and reading of the gospel ‘where the castinge owt of devells is menciond’ that he had brought her to her senses.

The choir stalls and chapter stalls in Lichfield Cathedral by candlelight after Evensong (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In his examination, Henry revealed that ‘abowte tenn yeres paste whilste he was at his praiers’ he had been visited by a messenger from God. This messenger had supposedly bidden him to ‘ponder well the third Chapter of Danyell.’

Daniel 3 tells the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who, when instructed by King Nebuchadnezzar to worship the golden idol, trusted in God and defied the king’s command, ‘resolving to suffer with patience what soever [God] would permitte to fal unto them.’

Placed within the context of early Elizabethan Catholicism, it seems that Henry was using this biblical story to justify his resistance to the Elizabethan settlement. The use of Daniel 3 to justify non-compliance with a ruler had been employed by Protestant anti-Nicodemite propagandists during Mary’s reign and it may be that Comberford drew inspiration from these tracts. However, he seems to have been the first to deploy this biblical passage in a Catholic context – the next Catholic writer known to do so being the English Jesuit Henry Garnet in his 1593 tract, A treatise of Christian renunciation.

Henry Comberford was imprisoned in York, and from his prison cell in the Upper Sheriff’s Kidcote on Ouse Bridge, he seems to have spread his beliefs amongst his fellow prisoners. As his fame grew, those outside the prison walls sought audiences with him. The confessions of at least two York prisoners, William Tessimond and John Fletcher, suggest the influence of Comberford’s teaching.

The historian John Aveling points out the importance of Henry Comberford in the development of recusancy in York. He attributes to him no small part in the growth in number of recusants in the city from only 15 in 1568, to 67 in 1576.

Christopher Watson, a wealthy gentleman of Ripon, over 20 miles York, explained how a local priest had brought him to York to meet Comberford, ‘who with godly prudence and good deliberation took him by the hand and brought him within the saving Ark of Noah.’ This encounter convinced Watson to spend all his wealth relieving afflicted Catholics, and by 1580 his activities had earned him a place in York Castle where ‘his continual exercise was ... to pray, to praise God, and to work the works of mercy.’

Henry Comberford also seems to have made a significant impact upon another Yorkshire town, Hull. On 7 January 1576, the York high commission, recognising that ‘he (by fame) hath seduced divers ... causing them by his persuasion to be disobedient in coming to the church,’ commanded him ‘to cease from such seducing and to be quiet.’

Finding him ’utterly disobedient,’ they moved him out of the prison at York and into the closer confinement of Hull Blockhouse. It seems that he began at once to develop yet another recusancy network in his new surroundings, despite the harsher conditions of the Blockhouse.

Archbishop Sandys wrote to the privy council on 28 October 1577, decrying the many ‘stiffe necked, wilful’ and ‘obstinate’ people of his diocese who were ‘reconciled to Rome and sworne to the pope.’ It is unknown whether the former precentor had been granted such faculties for reconciliation, but it was certainly Sandys’s belief that ‘the moste of them have ben corrupted by on Henry Comberforde, a moste obstinate popishe prieste.’

Sandys wrote again to Burghley in April 1578, explaining apprehensively how, ‘[t]he obstinate which refuse to come to churche, whereof the most parte are women, neither canne I by persuasion nor correction bringe them to any conformitie. They depende uppon Comberford and the rest in the Castle at Hull.’

Henry Comberford was still a prisoner in Hull for his religious beliefs in 1579. There he was regarded as dangerous to the state. It is hard to imagine how dangerous a man he could have been, for by then he was 80 years of age. Grindal was an argumentative and difficult prelate, with Puritan sympathies – even falling out of favour with Elizabeth – and by then had become Archbishop of Canterbury.

Henry Comberford died on 4 March 1586 in Hull Prison at the age of 87.

Lichfield Cathedral seen from Saint Chad’s Church and Stowe Pool after sunset (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Henry’s Catholic views were shared by his sister, Dorothy Comberford, wife of Christopher Heveningham of Aston and Pipe Hall. Pipe Hall, the manor of Pipe at Burntwood, west of Lichfield, is part of Saint Michael’s Parish, Lichfield, and during the reign of Elizabeth I, according to the Staffordshire historian Michael Greenslade, ‘the manor was a nest of Papists.’

Dorothy was fined with her cousin Katherine Badduley or Bodlilighe of Stone for non-attendance at church in 1581. In 1606, her son, Sir John Heveningham of Pipe Hall, a ‘suspected papist,’ was accused of failing to attend church at Saint Chad’s Church, Stowe, but he defended himself by pointing out that he had worshipped at Lichfield Cathedral and arguing that Stowe was not a parish church.

Henry’s nephew, Thomas Comberford of Comberford Hall, was implicated in plots by the Staffordshire Catholic gentry in support of Mary Queen of Scots. Later, he was apprehended in 1573 by the Earl of Shrewsbury, who reported that Comberford was a place ‘where masses were frequented.’ Shrewsbury also arrested two priests who had said a very large number of Masses there.

Thomas was released after a short period, but he, his wife Dorothy, and other members of the Comberford family were fined on several occasions in the 1580s for not attending church. Thomas appears to have more careful to conform for the rest of his life, although two of his tenants were accused of harbouring seminarians and priests.

I regularly return to Lichfield Cathedral and to Cambridge and Comberford. I smiled in Limerick Cathedral yesterday as I recalled that there was another precentor in the family story who was sacked after being accused by one of his neighbours of ‘lewd preaching and misdemeanour,’ and who was described by a bishop as being ‘learned, but wilful.’ His ‘lewd preaching and misdemeanour’ was not the sort that would have excited tabloid journalists today.

Lichfield Cathedral, where Henry Comberford Precentor at the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘Who are these like stars appearing?’
… introducing Spirituality and Cinema

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Monday 20 February 2017

Opening Hymn (475):

Who are these like stars appearing ...?

Opening Reading:

Sirach 1: 1-10

Opening Prayer:

God of all power,
Ruler of the Universe,
you are worthy of glory and praise.

Glory to you for ever and ever.

At your command
all things came to be:
the vast expanse of the interstellar space,
galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home.

By your will they were created and have their being.

From the primal elements
you brought forth the human race,
and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill.
You made us the rulers of creation.
But we turned against you,
and betrayed your trust;
and we turned against one another.

Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.

Again and again, you called us to return.
Through prophets and sages
You revealed your righteous Law.
And in the fullness of time you sent your only Son,
born of a woman,
to fulfil your Law,
to open for us the way of freedom and peace.

By his blood, he reconciled us.
By his wounds, we are healed.

– Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer (TEC, 1977), p. 370.


Well, after that hymn, referring to the saints as stars, that dramatic Apocryphal Old Testament reading in the Church of Ireland lectionary for Morning Prayer this morning [20 February 2017], where Wisdom herself could be walking the red carpet into the Oscar awards next Sunday evening, and that prayer referring to interstellar spaces and galaxies, we are going to turn to the Stars … the Stars of Hollywood and the movies.

Of course, not all who seek the limelight are role models, nor should we forget those who are kept out of the limelight. But there is a lot of deep spirituality, some deep spiritual messages, in many movies. They provide interesting opportunities to raise spiritual and pastoral concerns within the context of popular, secular culture, and they also teach us a lot about how to convey truth, values and messages in successive generations.

Two of the movies up for Oscars this year are worth considering for the spiritual values they explore and debate.

No, I am not talking about La La Land, which has received the most nominations with a record-tying 14, but Loving, which has been nominated for ‘Best Actress’ (Ruth Negga), and Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, which has been nominated for one award, ‘Best Cinematography.’

Loving tells the story of the beautifully-named Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in the 1967 US Supreme Court decision Loving v Virginia, which invalidated Virginia’s so-called anti-miscegenation laws. Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, but is from Limerick.

Many of the people who defended laws against marriages like this, in the US, South Africa, and many other places, invoked arguments that found Biblical justification. So this a movie that talks about the values of love and marriage, but also asks who should be married, and asks deep questions about when it is right to disobey the law and how we should disobey unjust laws.

Silence stars Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano and Ciarán Hinds. This is an historical drama based on the 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō. The story is set in Nagasaki, and tells the story of two 17th century Jesuits who travel from Portugal to Japan to search for their missing mentor and to work as missionaries.

I do not want to spoil the plot for those of you who want to see this movie. But it tells how an Italian Jesuit, Father Alessandro Valignano, receives news in Macau that Father Cristóvão Ferreira, a Portuguese Jesuit in Japan, has renounced his faith after being tortured. Two of Ferreira’s Portuguese students, Father Sebastião Rodrigues and Father Francisco Garupe, set off in disbelief to find him. Their guide is Kichijiro, an alcoholic fisherman who fled Japan and who turns out to be a Christian who renounced his faith to save himself.

In the village of Tomogi, the two priests find a local Christian community that has been driven underground. They welcome the priests, who administer the sacraments to them. Some of the villagers are caught, strapped to wooden crosses on the beach and placed in the ocean, where the tide drowns them. They are then cremated on a funeral pyre so that they cannot receive Christian burials.

In his search, Father Sebastião struggles with the dilemma whether it is self-centred and unmerciful to refuse to recant when doing so will end the suffering of others. He is captured and taken to Nakasaki, and is told other Christians will suffer unless he renounces his faith.

Kichijiro, who had betrayed him, reveals he is a secret Christian and asks to be jailed, to be absolved of his betrayal in a confession, and is given absolution. He is released after agreeing again to step on a crucifix, symbolising his rejection of the faith. Father Sebastião is brought to see his lost companion, Father Francisco, who is drowned trying to rescue another prisoner.

Later, Father Sebastião is taken to a Buddhist temple where he meets the missing Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson), now known as Sawano Chūan. He says he committed apostasy while being tortured. He declares that after 15 years in Japan and a year in the temple, he believes Christianity is a lost cause in Japan.

To cut a long story short, Rodrigues too turns his back on Christianity, settles down to live a Japanese life and marries. When he dies, he is placed in a large round wooden coffin and his body is cremated. In his hand is a tiny crudely-made crucifix that was given to him when he first came to Japan.

Scorsese’s central theme about the conflict between adhering to one’s sacred vows and traditional beliefs and doing the right thing, the prudent thing, the moral thing, on a very pragmatic level.

It asks questions about mission and whether we made Christianity captive to European culture, it asks questions about interfaith relations and the values of other faiths, and it should make us reflect on what risks we would take and what lengths we would go to for our faith.

What is martyrdom, and what is it worth?

There are asides too that I find engaging, such as Father Sebastião’s fascination with the face of Christ, which he visualises in the form seen in El Greco’s painting, La Verónica, in turn based on a traditional Greek icon. The painting is in the Ajuda National Palace, Lisbon, Portugal, and is the only painting by El Greco in Portugal.

Writing in Rolling Stone, Peter Travers says Silence offers frustratingly few answers but all the right questions,’ and that it is among Scorsese’s ‘most spiritually moving films to date.’

Although it was filmed in Taiwan, I was interested its Japanese setting, because I heard many stories like this when I was a student on a fellowship in Japan back in 1979.

I knew a journalist from Thailand who was a fellow student in Japan at the time. He displayed such a great familiarity with the Bible that I asked him about it. Was he a Christian? Had he read the Bible thoroughly? Was he a daily Bible reader? I knew he had never studied theology.

‘No,’ he told me. ‘Everything I know I learned from movies.’

Which movies, I asked.

‘Oh, The Ten Commandments, The Robe, The Greatest Story ever Told, Ben Hur, and Spartacus.’

How many of you have seen Exodus, the epic movie that was launched before Christmas two years ago with the hope of taking the place of Cecil B De Mille’s Ten Commandments in our collective, cultural consciousness?

Perhaps more of us by now have seen Noah, the American epic biblically-inspired film directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, and based – or supposedly based – on the story of Noah and the Ark.

One reviewer called the flood scenes in that movie ‘a bit too Cecil B Demented for me’ and wondered at the sophistication of antediluvian orthodontists given there are so many white-toothed characters. I find it very peculiar that production was put on hold in 2012 while Hurricane Sandy hit New York with heavy rain and flooding.

This movie had mixed receptions after its release three years ago (2014).

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called Noah ‘interesting and thought-provoking’ and ‘impressive’ after Russell Crowe visited him at Lambeth Palace to discuss ‘faith and spirituality’ (Church Times, 4 April 2014).

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a leading Orthodox rabbi, described Noah as ‘a valuable film, especially for our times.’ Indeed, Darren Aronofsky said he had worked in ‘the tradition of Jewish Midrash’ in order to create ‘a story that tries to explicate Noah’s relationship with God and God’s relationship with the world as it has become.’ The name of Noah’s wife, Naamah, does not appear in the Bible, and Aronofsky derives it from the traditions of the Midrash.

Yet this movie makes no specific mention of God. Then, of course, neither does the Book of Esther. However, the director of the Damaris Trust, Nick Pollard, described it as a ‘wonderful gift for the Church.’ Tom Price of the Oxford Centre for Apologetics, said Noah asks perceptive questions: ‘Is there a God? Has God spoken? What is with human nature – are we good deep down, or is there something broken about us?’

Tom Price made a very valid observation about movies in a comment in the Church Times: ‘Ten years ago, most Christians’ reaction to cinema was generally much more negative and cynical. They were either asking for censorship, or judging the film project for having too much sex. Now I’m seeing audiences all over the UK wanting to engage with the stories, the characters, and the question.’

Another recent movie was Calvary (2014), an Irish-made black comedy drama starring Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aidan Gillen, and Isaach de Bankolé.

Brendan Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle. A good priest intent on making the world a better place, he is continually shocked and saddened by the spiteful and confrontational inhabitants of his small country town. One day, his life is threatened during confession, and the forces of darkness begin to close in around him.

The recent movie Gravity (2013), starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney was a story about two astronauts involved in the mid-orbit destruction of a space shuttle and their attempt to return to Earth.

Some commentators have noted religious themes in this movie, suggesting there is ‘a dimension of reality that lies beyond what technology can master or access, the reality of God.’

‘The Passion of the Christ’ … released during Lent 2004, became the highest-grossing non-English language film ever

Many years ago, I brought my two sons to see The Passion of the Christ (2004), Mel Gibson’s movie that dramatises the passion narrative in the Four Gospels.

The Passion of the Christ is an appropriate movie to consider as we prepare for Lent. It largely tells the story of the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, from the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to (briefly, albeit very briefly) his Resurrection, with flashbacks to his childhood, the Sermon on the Mount, the saving of the women about to be stoned, and the Last Supper, with a constructed dialogue entirely in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew.

When the movie was released on Ash Wednesday (25 February) 2004, it stirred considerable controversy, with allegations of anti-Semitism, the amount of graphic, if not exacerbated or gratuitous, violence, particularly during the scourging and crucifixion scenes, and serious questions about its interpretation of the Biblical text, narrative and message.

On the other hand, there were many claims of miraculous savings, forgiveness, new-found faith, and even one report of a man who confessed to murdering his girlfriend although police had decided previously she had died by suicide.

The Passion of the Christ was a box-office success – it grossed more than $370 million in the US, and became the highest-grossing non-English language film ever.

As we left the cinema, my then-teenage sons were not so much shocked as stunned. They noticed too how everyone left the cinema in silence.

The success and attention of the movie, apart from the media controversies, raises many questions for us:

● How do we convey and proclaim the message of Christ?

● Are we using means that are out-dated, not speaking to people, who are truly willing to listen and to learn?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church after confirmation age?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church and sit in the dark in uncomfortable chairs?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would hear the Gospel story and still come out wanting to tell others and to share the experience?

Sometimes when movies ridicule the Church, I wonder: do we deserve it?

How many of you have bad experiences of weakly-thought out ideas at school assembly?

The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies are probably important for conveying spiritual truths to many we never reach because they tell us:

● The importance of protecting the innocence of children.

● That those who possess power and authority (including parent-figures and religious leaders) are not always right, and don’t always possess a monopoly on truth and wisdom.

● That religious power and authority can be misused.

● That beauty and goodness are not always to be equated.

● That the ugly are not bad because we see them as ugly.

● That simple people can be wise.

● That life is a journey, and a pilgrimage.

● That we must continue to hope and believe that, in the end, good will triumph over evil.

The Mission was the No 1 movie on the Church Times Top 50 Religious Films list

The Mission (1986), starring Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons, was chosen as the No 1 movie on the Church Times Top 50 Religious Films list. This movie provides us with:

● Challenging images of the church,

● Questions about the role of the Church in political issues,

● different models of the Church,

● a variety of models of ministry,

● different models of mission,

● a way of discussing the Church’s engagement with social justice issues,

● an introduction to the relevance of liberation theology today.

Some other movies you could use in your ministry include:

Amadeus (1984):

This movie gives an important background to the life of an important composer for Church music (Mozart’s Requiem, Coronation Mass, &c.). It can be used to discuss:

● Why is jealousy a sin?

● Why does God bestow genius on apparent fools?

● What happens when art becomes competition?

● How do we make peace with the gifts we are given instead of letting envy of others destroy our souls?

● What happens when we reduce prayer to bargaining with God, as in Salieri’s case?

● How do we cope when it appears God does not answer our prayers?

● The dangers of binge drinking among young people.

● Parental discipline.

Scripture passages that can help in the discussion group:

● Acts 7: 9-10, The Patriarchs are jealous of Joseph;

● James 4: 1-3, Jealousy and raving lead to conflict;

● I Corinthians 2: 12, Different gifts;

● I Corinthians 7: 7, God’s gifts vary;

● Luke 13: 30, Jesus warns the disciples about competition.

American Beauty (1999):

This could hardly be described as an overtly religious film. Yet it resonates with deep questions about the human condition:

● Who am I?

● Why am I here?

● Where am I going?

● What is the meaning of beauty?

● What is the meaning of work?

The Awakening (1990):

This movie is about a doctor working in the Bronx in the 1960s working with people with chronic mental illness. We can use to discuss:

● Great moments of awakening.

● When did you glimpse the transcendent and experience fullness of life?

Bladerunner (1982):

This is based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and set in the year 2019.

It is a story of the alienated and the marginalised, the androids, with a limited lifespan, who seek to know the meaning of life, who question their place in society, want to have life and have it to the full, and question their ‘maker’, Dr Eldon Tyrell.

● Is it a grim story?

● Is it a story of life and death, self-sacrifice, and of giving, emptying love?

● What is the meaning of life?

● How do we plan for the future?

Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001):

● Look at her desire for lasting relationship.

● Her search for her identity and self-worth.

Dead Man Walking (1995):

● Discuss the role of chaplains (prisons, and schools, hospitals &c.)

● Discuss the death penalty.

● The role of the church and pastoral figures in influencing public policy and morality.

● The value of individual life.

● Ethics in crime and punishment.

● Could be used to introduce a group to more serious, “high art” literature, such as Dostoevsky’s ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ in The Brothers Karamazov.

ET (1982):

● The incarnation,

● God’s intervention in our lives,

● Self-giving (see also Schindler’s List).

The Exorcist (1973):

There was strong criticism of The Exorcist at the time it was first released in 1973 from conservative Christians, and cinemas were picketed. Some scenes are shocking, even today, almost 40 years later. But the author and the director were Roman Catholics seeking to open people’s eyes to the reality of God and to highlight the awful nature of evil that distorts God’s creation. This movie could be used to discuss:

● The reality of evil, and the objectivity of God.

● Coping with psychiatric cases presented during pastoral work.

● Bad images in movies of the “other”: e.g., the opening scene conveys the impression that Islam inhabits a world of evil; there are similar portrayals of Islam as evil in Aladdin (Disney) at the introduction of Jaffar.

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994):

● The relevance of the church and ministry (the character of Rowan Atkinson).

● The funeral scene in terms of coping with death, grief and funerals in the course of pastoral ministry.

● Talking about sexuality and church membership, or the pastoral responses to HIV/AIDS.

● Talking about faithfulness in marriage and relationships.

Gladiator (2000):

● A strong theme of belief in the afterlife.

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian (1979):

Be careful of who you choose to use it with, if you use it, and their sense of humour. But this movie may be used with some groups to discuss:

● Making the Gospel relative rather than relevant.

● Hermeneutics and Biblical literalism: ‘Blessed are the cheese makers’.

● What difference does the incarnation/cross make?

● What role has the church in criticising political life?

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) or Bend it Like Beckham (2002):

● The place of ethnic minorities within our community.

● Inter-church and inter-faith marriages.

● Love as the basic ingredient of long-term commitment and relationship.

A River Runs Through It (1992):

● Can we love without completely understanding?

● How do we cope with others rejecting our offers of help/friendship/love?

● How is faith passed on in families?

● How will you convey faith to your own children?

● How can painful memories be healed? Can we come to terms with them?

● How does remembering the past weaken/strengthen relationships with God?

● Do all things lead to God?

● This movie can be used too in ministerial formation and preaching programmes.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998):

● The horrors of war.

● Sacrifice and what we owe each other

● Compare Private Ryan with the story of the Good Shepherd and the Lost Sheep.

● Pastoral responsibility for the weak and the lost

Scream (1996):

This cult movie is about a teenage murderer in Paris in April 2000 dressed in the cape and mask that was the hallmark of this movie.

● Discuss the role of movies and the media in upholding or destroying societal values.

Shadowlands (1987):

● A good one because it is relatively short (89 minutes).

● There is the obvious Christian interest in the writings of CS Lewis.

● A story of love and death and of Christian hope.

● Suffering and how we understand pain.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962):

This is an obvious movie to use with mid-teens because it is on the reading list for the Junior Certificate. It can be used to discuss Christian values applied to:

● Compassion;

● Compassion for outcasts;

● The value of truth;

● The misuse of power;

● Understanding human weakness;

● Racism;

● Truth;

● Innocence and childhood;

● Ethics and crime and punishment.

Trainspotting (1995) and Traffic (2000):

A useful way with a youth group to discuss the dangers of drug misuse and the consequences of the narcotics trade.

The Passion of the Christ (2004):

● How do we convey and proclaim the message of Christ?

● Are we using means that are out-dated, not speaking to people, who are truly willing to listen and to learn?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church after confirmation age?
● Where did we get the idea that no-one would come to church and sit in the dark in uncomfortable chairs?

● Where did we get the idea that no-one would hear the Gospel story and still come out wanting to tell others and to share the experience?


If you find yourself using movies in pastoral, parochial, youth or spiritually-focussed groups, do not leave your humour outside the Church door. Reinhold Neibuhr once observed, ‘Humour is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.’

Or, as Conrad Hynes says in The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith: ‘If humour without faith is in danger of dissolving into cynicism and despair, faith without humour is in danger of dissolving into arrogance and intolerance.’ And Psalm 2: 4 notes: ‘Who sits in the heavens laughs.’

Closing Prayer (Collect of the Day):

Almighty God,
you have created the heavens and the earth
and made us in your own image:
Teach us to discern your hand in all your works
and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit
reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

Some reading and resources:

Corley, Kathleen E, and Webb, Robert L, Jesus and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (London/New York: Continuum, 2004).
Denizen, Norman K, Images of Postmodern Society: Social theory and contemporary cinema (London: SAGE Publications, 1991).
Dickerson, Matthew, Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in the Lord of the Rings (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003).
Egan, Joe, Brave Heart of Jesus: Mel Gibson’s Postmodern Way of the Cross (Dublin: Columba, 2004).
Johnston, Robert K, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000).
Leonard, Richard, Movies that Matter: Reading Film through the Lens of Faith (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2006).
Maher, Ian, Faith and Film: Close Encounters of an Evangelistic Kind (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2002, Grove Evangelism Series Ev 59).
Marsh, Clive, and Ortiz, Gary (eds), Explorations in Theology and Film (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).
McLaren, Brian D, The Church on the Other Side: Doing ministry in the Postmodern Matrix (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000 ed).
McMillan, Barry, in Michael Breen, ‘The Future Is Now: The Matrix as Cultural Mirror’, in Eamonn Conway and Barry McMillan (eds), Technology and Transcendence (Dublin: Columba, 2003, pp 22-35).
Mraz, Barbara, Finding Faith at the Movies (Harrisburg: Continuum/Morehouse, 2004).
Neal, Connie, The Gospel According to Harry Potter, spirituality in the stories of the world’s most famous seeker (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).
Pecklers, Keith (ed), Liturgy in a Postmodern World (London and New York: Continuum, 2003).
Wright, Alex, Why bother with theology? (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002).

Regular film reviews in the Church Times, &c.

Web resources:

www.hollywoodjesus.com – ‘Visual movies, reviews, with explorations into the deeper more profound meaning behind film, music and pop culture.’
www.damaris.org.uk – ‘Helps people relate Christian faith and contemporary culture.’
www.word-on-the-web.co.uk – Includes monthly film reviews.


For reflection:

● What would your three favourite films of all time be, and why?

● If you could be one character from a film, who would it be and why?

● Which film has had the most powerful impact upon you, and why?

● Can you recall a film that has challenged, disturbed, or strengthened your faith in God in any way?

● If you have seen any film portrayals of Christ, how realistic do you think they were?

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes and handouts were used in a presentation in the series of Monday morning reflections on Spirituality with MTh students on 20 February 2017.