13 May 2021

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
86, Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham

The Ascension (1885) … one of three windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in the chancel of Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Sunday (9 May 2021) was the Sixth Sunday of Easter and today is Ascension Day (13 May 2021). My photographs this week are selected from seven cathedrals throughout England. Earlier in these reflections, during Lent, I used images from Lichfield Cathedral (15 March 2021) and Coventry Cathedral (19 March). But these cathedrals, which I have visited in recent years, have been selected randomly.

This morning, my photographs are from Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, including the Ascension window, one of three Pre-Raphaelite chancel windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

I have been in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, for meetings of USPG volunteers from the Midlands dioceses. This has only been a diocesan cathedral since 1905, with the formation of a new Diocese of Birmingham, but it dates back to 1715, when it was built and consecrated as a parish church.

Saint Philip’s, built in the Baroque style by the architect Thomas Archer (1668-1743), is a Grade I listed building. It is the third smallest cathedral in England after Derby and Chelmsford.

Saint Philip’s Church was planned when the nearby mediaeval parish church of Saint Martin in the Bull Ring became too small for the growing population of Birmingham. The site was donated by Robert Philips in 1710. The site at Colmore Row is one of the highest points in Birmingham, and is said to be at the same level as the cross on Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (see 9 May 2021).

Work on building a new parish church began in 1709, and the church was consecrated on 4 October 1715, when it was dedicated Saint Philip the Apostle in a tribute to the benefactor Robert Philips. This was probably Archer’s first church. and his Baroque design was influenced by the churches of Bernini and Borromini in Italy.

The hall-style, rectangular interior has aisles separated from the nave by fluted pillars in classical form, with Tuscan capitals supporting an arcade surmounted by a heavily projecting cornice, and there are wooden galleries are stretched between the pillars. The tower was complete by 1725, and the urns on the parapet were added in 1756.

The original shallow east apse was extended in 1884-1888 into a much larger chancel, by JA Chatwin, who also refaced the exterior of the building.

The Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), who was born nearby in Bennett’s Hill and was baptised in the church in 1834, donated several windows, made by the William Morris studios in Birmingham. His three windows in the chancel depict the Ascension (1885), the Nativity (1887) and the Crucifixion (1887); his window at the west end depicts the Last Judgment (1897).

Saint Philip’s continued to serve as a parish church from 1715 until 1905. Birmingham was given city status in 1889, and the Birmingham-born statesman Joseph Chamberlain and Bishop Charles Gore of Worcester worked hard for a separate Diocese of Birmingham.

Saint Philip’s became the cathedral of the new Diocese of Birmingham in 1905, with Charles Gore (1853-1932) as the first Bishop of Birmingham (1905-1911). He was the editor of Lux Mundi, the founder of the Community of the Resurrection, and a leading Christian Socialist. He became Bishop of Oxford (1911-1919), and died in 1932.

During World War II, the cathedral was bombed and gutted on 7 November 1940. However, its most significant treasures, including the Burne-Jones windows, had been removed by Birmingham Civic Society. They were replaced, undamaged, when the cathedral was restored in 1948.

Thomas Stirling Lee’s statue of Bishop Charles Gore, vested in convocation robes with his right hand raised in blessing, stands in front of the West entrance. Other monument in the cathedral grounds include a memorial to the 21 victims of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, unveiled in 1995.

The Very Revd Matt Thompson has been the Dean of Birmingham since 2017.

Tomorrow, in this prayer diary, I am visiting Saint Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Birmingham.

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham … built in 1715 and a cathedral since 1905 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 24: 44-53 (NRSVA):

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Inside Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (13 May 2021, Ascension Day) invites us to pray:

Holy Father, as you raised your Son to heaven, may we embrace the knowledge that He will remain with us evermore.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Thomas Stirling Lee’s statue of Bishop Charles Gore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The south side of Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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