13 September 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
107, Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey

Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey … rebuilt by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Good morning from Crete, where I am staying on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon.

Before the day begins, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for these few weeks is Wren churches in London, and my photographs this morning (13 September 2021) are from Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.

Inside Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey, standing on what is now Queen Victoria Street, dates from at least the 12th century. When the church was destroyed in the Great Fire, it was rebuilt by the office of Sir Christopher Wren. The church suffered substantial bomb damage from German bombs during the London Blitz in World War II and was rebuilt by Arthur Bailey in 1961-1962.

The church is named after the fifth century Saint Nicholas of Myra, better known to children around the world as Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas of Myra is the patron saint of both children and fishermen, and the church has special ties with both.

However, this church was never an abbey. The name Cole Abbey is derived from ‘cold harbour,’ a mediaeval name for a travellers’ shelter or shelter from the cold. The earliest reference to the church is in a letter of Pope Lucius II in 1144-1145.

An inventory of the church’s possessions taken at the time of the Reformation includes vestments for children, suggesting that the church maintained the tradition of electing a boy bishop on Saint Nicholas Day, 6 December.

After the accession of Queen Mary I, this was the first church to celebrate Mass again, on 23 August 1553. In the 17th century, the living was owned by the regicide, Colonel Francis Hacker, a Puritan who commanded the execution detail of Charles I.

Over 90 of the 120 parishioners died in the Great Plague in 1665. A year later, the church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666. Charles II promised the site to the Lutheran community in London, but lobbying blocked this and the parish was combined with that of Saint Nicholas Olave, a nearby church that was also destroyed in the fire but not rebuilt.

The church was rebuilt by Wren in 1672-1678 at a cost of £5,042, becoming the first church of the 51 lost in the Great Fire to be rebuilt.

Included in the building accounts are the items: ‘Dinner for Dr Wren and other Company – £2.14s.0d,’ and ‘Half a pint of canary for Dr Wren’s coachmen – 6d.’

The post-Fire church was built with its façade to the north on what was then Fish Street and is now Distaff Lane, and the east on Old Fish Street Hill.

Inside the church, the east wall is dominated by three stained glass windows designed by Keith New, who also involved in designing the stained-glass windows of Coventry Cathedral. They are reminiscent of the work of Marc Chagall, and they replace windows by Edward Burne-Jones that were destroyed in 1941. Otherwise, the interior is plain, apart from gilt Corinthian pilasters.

On 10 May 1941, in worst air raid of World War II, 1,436 people killed in London and several major buildings destroyed or severely damaged, including Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey.

The church was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. The shell of Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey is the scene of the gold bullion heist in the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). The church also features in Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net (1954).

But the church remained a shell until it was restored under Arthur Bailey and re-consecrated in 1962. The parish was then combined with that of Saint Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe, and Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey served a number of uses, including the headquarters of the Diocesan Council for Mission and Unity, and a church of the Free Church of Scotland (1982-2003).

The Culham Institute planned to move into Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey in 2006. But the move never took place. Instead, after an extensive restoration programme was completed in 2014, the building reopened as the Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey Centre for Workplace Ministry, with a supporting café, ‘The Wren.’

Under the name St Nick’s Church, Sunday services re-started in November 2016, along with midweek meetings. Services are described as ‘contemporary in style,’ with Sunday clubs and a crèche for youth and children. But there is no mention on any of the leaflets or handouts of when the Eucharist is celebrated.

Like neighbouring Saint Benet Paul’s Wharf, the church has close links with Saint Helen’s Bishopsgate and the ‘conservative evangelical’ group Reform, and in none of the publicity is the Revd Chris Fishlock described as the vicar or as a priest. It is a long distance from the approach of the Revd Henry Shuttleworth over a century ago, who was the model for James Morrell, the Socialist preacher in George Bernard Shaw’s play Candida (1898).

The coat-of-arms of Charles II is among the few surviving original furnishings in Saint Nicholas Cole Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 7: 1-10 (NRSVA)

1 After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.’ 6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, ‘Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, “Go”, and he goes, and to another, “Come”, and he comes, and to my slave, “Do this”, and the slave does it.’ 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (13 September 2021) invites us to pray:

We give thanks for initiatives encouraging friendship and partnership between countries in the Global South.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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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