17 September 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
111, Christ Church, Greyfriars, London

The tower and some walls remain on the site of Christ Church Greyfriars, near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Good morning from Crete, where I am on my last day on this holiday on the eastern fringes of Rethymnon.

I am planning to catch a flight from Chania to Dublin later this evening. But, 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 (17 September 2021) are from Christ Church, Greyfriars.

The Monastery of Christ Church Greyfriars was dissolved at the Reformation in 1538 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Christ Church Greyfriars, within walking distance of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, was also known as Christ Church Newgate Street, and stood in Newgate Street, opposite Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The church began as the conventual church of a Franciscan friary, and the name Greyfriars refers to the grey habits worn by the Franciscan friars.

The first church on the site was built in the 13th century, but this was soon replaced by a bigger building, begun in 1306 and consecrated in 1326. This new church was the second largest in mediaeval London, measuring 91 metres (300 ft) long and 27 metres (89 ft) wide, with at least 11 altars. It was built partly at the expense of Margaret of France, the second wife of King Edward I.

Queen Margaret was buried at the church, as was Queen Isabella, the widow of Edward II who was complicit in her husband’s murder. The heart of Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, was also buried here.

Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London, more often associated with Saint Mary-le-Bow and its bells, founded a library in connection with the church in 1429.

Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy Maid of Kent,’ was buried on the site after she was hanged at Tyburn in 1534 for preaching against Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. But her head was put on a spike on London Bridge, the only woman ever accorded that dishonour.

In 1546, Henry VIII gave the priory and its church, along with the churches of Saint Nicholas Shambles and Saint Ewin, Newgate Market, to the City Corporation.

A new parish of Christ Church was created, incorporating those of Saint Nicholas and Saint Ewin, and part of that of Saint Sepulchre. The priory buildings later housed Christ’s Hospital, a school founded by Edward VI, and the church became the principal place of worship for the schoolchildren.

In the 1640s, Christ Church was associated with the Presbyterian polemicist Thomas Edwards, and in 1647 it became a centre of operations for attempts to disband and pay arrears to members of the New Model Army.

When the mediaeval church was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666, Wren was commissioned to rebuild the church.

The church was an important centre in the political and cultural life of London. The Lord Mayor attended an annual service to hear the Ancient Spital Sermon on the second Wednesday after Easter, placing his ceremonial sword in a special holder. Felix Mendelssohn played Bach’s Fugue in A minor and other works on the organ in 1837. Samuel Wesley also performed at the church.

Christ’s Hospital moved out of London to Horsham in West Sussex in 1902, reducing the Sunday attendances considerably, and the school building was sold to the GPO. In the years that followed, attendance figures continued to decline, and by 1937 had dropped to 77.

The church was severely damaged in the Blitz on 29 December 1940. During one of the fiercest air raids of World War II, a firebomb struck the roof and tore into the nave. Much of the surrounding neighbourhood was also set alight, and eight Wren churches burned that night alone. The roof and vaulting of Christ Church collapsed into the nave. The tower and four main walls remained standing but were smoke-scarred and gravely weakened.

When the parishes in London were being reorganised in 1949, it was decided not to rebuild Christ Church. The remains of the church were designated a Grade I listed building in 1950, and in 1954, the parish of Christ Church was merged with nearby Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate.

The steeple was dismantled in 1960 and reassembled. The surviving lower part of the south wall and the entire east wall were demolished in 1962 for the widening of King Edward Street. In 1981, neo-Georgian brick offices were built against the south-west corner of the ruins, in imitation of the 1760 vestry house that once stood there.

The former nave area became a public garden and memorial in 1989. The paths follow the lines of the former aisles, the pergolas represent the piers, the box hedging represents the pews, and the plants represent the former congregation.

The US investment bank Merrill Lynch completed a regional headquarters complex on land to the north and west in 2002. Along with this project, the site of Christ Church underwent a major renovation and archaeological examination, King Edward Street was returned to its former course, and the site of the church has regained its pre-war footprint.

The tower, once used as commercial space, was converted into a private residence in 2006.
The north and south walls had large round-arched windows of clear glass, which allowed for a brightly lit interior (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 8: 1-3 (NRSVA)

1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described the steeple of Christ Church Greyfriars as one of Wren’s finest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (17 September 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Church of the Province of Myanmar, as they continue to serve Christians across Myanmar during political upheaval and social unrest.

The parish of the former Christ Church Greyfriars was merged with nearby Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate in 1954 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

The flowers and plants in the garden represent the former congregation of Christ Church Greyfriars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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