27 August 2021
As I listen to the commentators, analysts and newly-proclaimed experts deliberate and pronounce on events in Kabul, I am amazed how many of them see Afghanistan as a ‘place out there,’ remote and distant, rather than a place that is within our cultural orbit – a place that was within the reach of Alexander the Great and his dynastic expansions, a place that was part of Persian classical civilisation, an important link on the Silk Road, and later the birthplace of Rumi, one of the great mystical poets in the Persian language.
The region is often unknown among western commentators.
To the north of Afghanistan, modern Kazakhstan, which has been independent since 1990, represents the Khazar territory that once extended as far as the borders of Afghanistan. In size, it is as large as Western Europe, and it is the world’s largest landlocked country.
At some time in the ninth century, the central Asian Khazar royalty and nobility converted collectively to Judaism, in part, it is argued, perhaps to deflect competing pressures from Arabs and Byzantines to accept either Islam or Christianity.
The extent of this Jewish kingdom is often debated, if not exaggerated. But an interesting work of mediaeval Jewish literature is Sefer HaKuzari, or The Book of the Khazars, written by the Spanish-born Jewish philosopher Judah HaLevi (1075-1141). This Sephardic writer practised in medicine and was well-versed in Arabic, Hebrew and philosophy.
In The Book of the Khazars, Judah HaLevi imagines a lengthy series of dialogues in which the king of the Khazars questions an Aristotelean philosopher and scholars of Christianity and Islam about their belief systems. After listening to the Christian and Muslim scholars deride Judaism despite acknowledging their faiths are its offspring, he decides to speak with a rabbi.
The bulk of the book consists of that dialogue, and for my reflections this Friday evening, I am thinking about some excerpts from The Book of the Khazars and the words attributed to that rabbi:
‘An individual who prays but for himself is like one who retires alone and into his house, refusing to assist his fellow citizens in the repair of their walls. His expenditure is as great as his risk. But he who joins the majority spends little, yet remains in safety, because one replaces the defects of the other. The city is in the best possible condition, all its inhabitants enjoying its prosperity with but little expenditure, which all share alike.’
‘The blessing of one prayer lasts until the time of the next, just as the strength derived from the morning meal lasts until supper.’
‘When we have nothing of our own, God blesses us for the sake of his love, for he is good.’
‘Preparing for a pleasure doubles the enjoyment. This advantage has he who recites a benediction with devotion.’
Before the day gets busy, 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 this week is churches in Cambridge that are not college chapels. My photographs this morning (27 August 2021) are from Saint Michael’s Church (Michaelhouse), on Trinity Street, Cambridge.
Michaelhouse is an interesting café located in Saint Michael’s Church in Trinity Street in the oldest part of Cambridge. It is just a few steps from Sidney Sussex College, around the corner at the end of Green Street. It stands opposite Gonville and Caius College and is close to Great Saint Mary’s Church, Trinity College and King’s College Chapel.
The café is set within the 14th century church of Saint Michael’s, a parish and collegiate church. But, while it is an award-winning café and restaurant, Michaelhouse remains a church – you could say it offers refreshment for both body and soul. Church services are held in the chancel several days a week, and the mediaeval Hervey de Stanton Chapel offers a peaceful space that is also a setting at times for concerts.
Michaelhouse recalls the name of one of the earliest Cambridge colleges, which flourished from 1324 until 1546, when it was merged with King’s Hall to form Trinity College. Michaelhouse was the second residential college in Cambridge, following Peterhouse (1284) – although King’s Hall was established in 1317, it did not acquire premises until it was re-founded by King Edward III in 1336.
Michaelhouse was founded by Hervey de Stanton, Edward II’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Chief Justice, who had acquired the advowson (or right of presentation) to the parish of Saint Michael along with property on the High Street.
In May 1324, Edward II granted a royal charter to the new college for scholars in Holy Orders. Three months later, Bishop John Hotham of Ely granted his own charter. De Stanton suggested to the bishop that the master and fellows, who were all priests, could provide daily worship for the parish as they were using the church as their chapel. And so, the first Master of Michaelhouse, Walter de Buxton, was also Vicar of Saint Michael’s.
When de Stanton died on All Souls’ Day 1325, he was buried in the unfinished chancel.
The college continued to acquire more properties, including property between Saint Michael’s Lane (today’s Trinity Lane) and the river, an area now occupied by the south-west corner of the Great Court of Trinity College, New Court, Scholars’ Lawn and the Wren Library, property around Garret Hostel Lane leading down to the river, and a navigable stream.
Nothing much remains of the original Michaelhouse buildings, apart from Saint Michael’s Church. Until a chapel was completed at Gonville Hall in 1396, both Michaelhouse and Gonville shared the use of the two aisles, with Gonville using the north aisle and Michaelhouse the south.
John Fisher, who was Master of Michaelhouse in 1497-1501, was Chancellor of Cambridge University, and was instrumental in the foundation of Saint John’s College and Christ’s College. As Bishop of Rochester, Fisher took a conservative stance on the royal supremacy and the reformation in the reign of Henry VIII and was executed in 1535.
By the time of the dissolution of the monastic houses, Michaelhouse had an income greater than that of Westminster Abbey. The college was dissolved in 1546 and was merged with King’s Hall to form Trinity College, the largest and wealthiest college in Cambridge to this day.
Until the completion of Trinity College Chapel in 1565, Trinity used Saint Michael’s as its chapel. As the new chapel was being built, 36 scholars’ stalls from the former chapel of King’s Hall, some with carved misericords, were moved to Saint Michael’s, where they remain to this day.
Trinity College continued to hold the patronage of the living of Saint Michael’s and from the 16th to the 18th centuries, Trinity College fellows were chaplains of Saint Michael’s.
After a fire in 1849, the church was rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott and his son, George Gilbert Scott junior. Their work included a new stone porch, a new East Window, and a three-tiered new reredos.
The artists who worked with Scott included FR Leach, who also worked with GF Bodley on the ceiling and frescoes of All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane, the ceiling of Jesus College Chapel, the dining hall ceiling at Queens’ College, and at Saint Botolph’s Church on Trumpington Street. Leach painted the chancel ceiling and arches in Saint Michael’s to designs by Scott as a thank-offering, without accepting any payment. Parts of the north aisle had been painted previously to designs by Holman Hunt.
In time, the parish was too small to be sustainable, and it was finally united with Great Saint Mary’s Church, the university church, in 1908.
By the early 1990s, the church buildings were increasingly in need of significant repair, and an ambitious fundraising and building project began. The Michaelhouse Centre opened in 2002, and is a registered charity. Michaelhouse is now a key cultural and spiritual location in Cambridge, a unique community resource in the heart of the city, and a place of beauty and tranquillity.
Matthew 25: 1-13 (NRSVA):
[Jesus said:] 1 ‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” 9 But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” 12 But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.’
Trinity Street, Cambridge, with Michaelhouse café and Saint Michael’s Church on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (27 August 2021) invites us to pray:
We pray for young people in the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and across the Church in the Province of the West Indies. May they be respected and appreciated as part of the life of the church.
The Hervey de Stanton Chapel in Saint Michael’s (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