Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Praying in Pentecost 2021:
98, Great Saint Mary’s, Cambridge

Inside Great Saint Mary’s, the University Church in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Seasons of Lent and Easter this year, I took 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 was the Day of Pentecost (23 May 2021), and I am continuing with photographs for the rest of this week from six churches in the ‘Major Churches Network,’ churches once known as the ‘Greater Churches’ in England.

The Major Churches Network was founded in 1991 as the Greater Churches Network. It is a group of Church of England parish churches with exceptional significance, that are physically very large, listed as Grade I, II* or exceptionally II, open to visitors daily, have a role or roles beyond those of a typical parish church, and make considerable civic, cultural, and economic contributions to their community.

These churches are often former monastic properties that became parish churches after the English Reformation, or civic parish churches built at a time of great wealth.

The entrance to the Tower in Great Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This morning (25 May 2021), my photographs are from the University Church or Great Saint Mary’s Church in Cambridge.

Saint Mary the Great stands on Senate House Hill, opposite the Senate House and close to both King’s College and Gonville Caius College. It is known locally as Great Saint Mary’s or simply GSM to distinguish it from Little Saint Mary’s on Trumpington Street.

Cambridge is part of the Diocese of Ely and has no cathedral. So, Great Saint Mary’s serves Cambridge not only as a parish church but also as the university church and has a role in the city similar to that of a cathedral.

Great Saint Mary’s, a Grade I listed building, was designed in the Late Perpendicular style and has been at the heart of Cambridge life for over 800 years.

The first mention of the church is in 1205, when King John presented Thomas de Chimeleye to the rectory, and the first church on the site was built that year. Four years later, Great Saint Mary’s was the first home of Cambridge University when scholars fled Oxford in 1209, and here lectures were given, degrees were conferred and celebrations took place.

The church was mostly destroyed by fire on 9 July 1290. At the time, the fire was blamed on the Jewish people of Cambridge. The synagogue was closed, all 5,000 Jews were expelled from England, and the old synagogue was given to the Franciscans, whose main house in Cambridge was on the site of Sidney Sussex College.

Great Saint Mary’s was rebuilt, and in 1303 the University ordered that a special sermon should be preached at Great Saint Mary’s four times a year. The tradition of the University Sermon continues to this day.

During its early years, Great Saint Mary’s was the property of the crown, but since 1342 the site has been owned by Trinity College.

A new church was consecrated in 1351, and the present church was built between 1478 and 1519, and the building costs were met largely by King Richard III and King Henry VII. King Henry VII donated 100 oak beams for the roof.

Great Saint Mary’s played a leading part in the English Reformation. Many leading figures of the day preached here, including Erasmus, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. Martin Bucer (1491-1551), who was Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge from 1549 and who influenced Cranmer’s writing of the Book of Common Prayer, was buried here when he died in 1551 as a reaction to the damp fen climate.

During the reign of Queen Mary I, Bucer’s corpse was burned publicly in the marketplace. Great Saint Mary’s was condemned for harbouring the body of a heretic, and the churchwardens had to buy frankincense, sweet perfumes and herbs for a ceremony of reconciliation before the church could be used for services again. However, in Elizabeth I’s reign, the dust from the place where Bucer was burned was replaced in the church in 1560 and now lie under a brass floor plate in the south chancel.

After the Reformation, Great Saint Mary’s was an important centre of preaching, and galleries were erected on all four sides to accommodate members of the university who were required to listen to formal sermons. The church tower was completed in 1608, and the font dates from 1632.

A Trinity don flew into a ‘greate rage’ when the Puritan churchwardens removed the altar steps in 1641. Royalist academics complained that Cromwell watched as his soldiers ripped up the Book of Common Prayer in the church, and Cromwell’s ‘multitudes of enraged soldiers’ vandalised the elaborate choir screen. For the next 200 years, the Puritan faction dominated at Great Saint Mary’s, and galleries turned the church into a hall for preaching, centred on an imposing triple-decker pulpit.

The University Organ, bought from Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, in 1698, was built by the renowned organ builder ‘Father’ Bernard Smith (ca 1630-1708). The bells were replaced in 1722.

The church continued as a venue for meetings and debates in Cambridge until 1730, when the Senate House was built.

During the 18th century, the whole church interior was transformed, and the church was restored by James Essex in 1766. The architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) carried out restoration work in 1850-1851, and soon after was involved in restoring Little Saint Mary’s on Trumpington Street. He was followed at Great Saint Mary’s in 1857 by Anthony Salvin (1799-1881).

From the 1860s, stained glass and a raised High Altar returned to Great Saint Mary’s, bringing colour and ritual back into the Anglican worship there. The interior was re-arranged with a new carved choir stalls and fixed pews, and the north and south galleries were removed, although the west gallery still stands.

The stained glass in the east window depicting the Nativity of Christ was installed in 1869 and is the work of the Chance Brothers in Birmingham. Other stained glass by Hardman was added in 1867-1869. The south porch was rebuilt in 1888, and there was further restoration work in the 20th century. Each window in the clerestory is based on a verse in Te Deum and they were inserted in 1902-1904.

The golden sculpture above the High Altar, the Majestas Christi, the Majesty of Christ, was made in gilded wood by Alan Durst in 1959 and was installed in 1960. Its imagery draws on the Book of Revelation.

Great Saint Mary’s continues to play a role in the life of the University of Cambridge. University officers must live within 20 miles of Great Saint Mary’s, undergraduates within three miles, and the church hosts the University Sermons and is home to the University Organ and the University Clock.

The University Clock chimes the ‘Cambridge Quarters,’ later used by Big Ben. The old ring of bells was replaced in 2009 with a new ring of 13 bells cast by Taylors Eayre and Smith. Some of the original bells have been retained to continue sounding the Cambridge Chimes.

Past Vicars of Great Saint Mary’s include Mervyn Stockwood, later Bishop of Southwark, Hugh Montefiore, later Bishop of Kingston and of Birmingham, Stanley Booth-Clibborn, later Bishop of Manchester; Michael Mayne, later Dean of Westminster Abbey; David Conner, later Bishop of Lynn and then Dean of Windsor; and John Binns (1994-2017), now a Research Associate at the Centre of World Christianity at SOAS in London. John Binns was a founding director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, where he remains a Visiting Professor, and has strong links with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Alan Durst created the scene of ‘Majesty of Christ’ in gilded wood for Great Saint Mary’s, and it was installed as a reredos in 1960 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 10: 28-31 (NRSVA):

28 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 29 Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’

Looking out from Great Saint Mary’s to the Senate House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (25 May 2021, Anniversary of George Floyd’s Death, Africa Day) invites us to pray:

Let us remember the life of George Floyd, whose death reminded us of others lost and cast a shadow over the world. May we work for justice and peace, to create fairer societies than the one in which he was killed.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Bicycles chained to the railings of Great Saint Mary’s in Cambridge (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

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