05 June 2022
I spent some time last week in the home studio in Milton Keynes of Stephen Fletcher, the Diocesan Communications Officer in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe, and a reader in both Ennis Parish, Co Clare, and the Cross and Stable Church, Downs Barn, and Saint Mary Magdalene Church, Willen, both in the Stantonbury Ecumenical Partnership, Milton Keynes.
We were recording some Sunday readings for Clare FM for the coming weeks in this season of Pentecost, and Stephen also recorded this reflection for the Day of Pentecost:
The ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes is marking a key anniversary this year. It is 30 years since an order was signed in June 1992, officially dissolving Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) and handing over the place to Buckinghamshire County Council and Milton Keynes Borough Council.
At the time, MKDC was congratulated for having achieved what it set out to do – create a ‘new city’ from scratch. MKDC was formed in 1967, and had built 44,000 houses, planted 14 million trees and shrubs, provided more than 100 km of new grid roads and built 230 km of unique cycling and walking routes known as Redways.
At its peak, it employed 1,700 people, including the most visionary architects in Britain. Their master plan had a vision for a ‘city in the trees,’ where no building should be higher than the tallest tree. Although things have changed since, it was radical thinking at a time when multi-storey flats and tower blocks were dominating other large towns, and it offered a model for solving the housing crisis in Britain.
A ‘soulless suburb’ in
a green and pleasant land
Milton Keynes, with a population of 260,000, is perfectly placed between London and Birmingham, between Oxford and Cambridge. It has been described as ‘an urban Eden’, with 22 million trees and shrubs, more waterfront than the island of Jersey, 200 public works of art, three ancient woodlands and a shopping centre praised widely as the most beautiful in Britain.
This is a low-density, low-rise city of trees, a place of light industry, high technology and ultra-convenience. It is home to Britain’s first multiplex cinema, first peace pagoda, and the Open University.
The Open University suggested the name of MK Dons, chaired by property developer Peter Winkelman, although football fans in parts of London still refuse to forgive him for relocating Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes.
The architects were influenced not only by Los Angeles and Chicago, but also by the grid cities of ancient Greece and China and the rebuilding of Paris in the 19th century by Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), with new boulevards, parks and public works.
As Milton Keynes developed, press coverage claimed London was being ‘hollowed out’ by Milton Keynes, which was ‘engulfing’ a green and pleasant land.
Milton Keynes was said to be ‘lost between designers’ dreams and the creation of a liveable city.’ For more than half a century, it has been derided as a soulless suburb, a centrally-planned city in the heart of ‘olde worlde’ middle England, between the Home Counties and the South Midlands.
Finding the soul of
suburban Milton Keynes
It is unfair, however, to say Milton Keynes is a suburb without a soul. The surrounding towns and villages have become virtual suburbs, but all have churches that date back to Anglo-Saxon churches or to mediaeval monastic foundations.
Watling Street was the old Roman road that crossed England from London to Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter) and the north-west, crossing the Great Ouse River between Old Stratford and Stony Stratford.
The Romans defeated Boudica at Watling Street. Later it marked the border of the Danelaw with Wessex and Mercia, and it became one of the major highways of mediaeval England.
Early Saxon hoards were unearthed in Old Stratford in the 18th century, and the ‘Stratford’ part of the village name is Anglo-Saxon in origin, meaning the ‘ford on the Roman road.’ The ford was later replaced by a causeway and stone bridge, marking the border between Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.
Old Stratford had no church of its own, and the nearest one was in Passenham, where the dedication to Saint Guthlac (674-715) is rare.
About 1,000 years after Saint Guthlac, Francis Hutchinson was the Rector of Passenham in 1706-1727, and was also Bishop of Down and Connor from 1720 until his death in 1739. He was a key figure in the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and was obsessed with witchcraft and with trying to convert Irish-speaking population of Rathlin Island.
Another Anglo-Saxon church foundation survives in Old Wolverton, where the Church of the Holy Trinity incorporates Saxon and mediaeval elements. The old mediaeval church was rebuilt in 1809-1815, but the new church incorporates a 14th-century central tower.
Bradwell Abbey is a large commercial and industrial estate in Milton Keynes. But Bradwell Abbey or Bradwell Priory is also an urban studies centre and an historical monument with the remains of a mediaeval Benedictine priory, founded ca 1154.
Bradwell Abbey contains the greater part of the mediaeval precinct of a priory. The small 14th century chapel of Saint Mary – a dedicated pilgrimage chapel – is the only complete building of the original priory still standing and it contains unique mediaeval wall paintings.
Today, Bradwell Abbey is an urban studies centre, providing a workspace, library and guidance for visiting international town planners and students studying Milton Keynes. It also hosts school visits to see its mediaeval buildings, the chapel, the surviving farmhouse, its fish ponds and its physic garden, and how they have changed over time.
An Irish rector and
his benevolent sister
All Saints’ Church in Calverton, close to Stony Stratford and Passenham, is another early foundation near Milton Keynes. Saint Birinus came to this area as a missionary and became known as the ‘Apostle to the West Saxons.’ He lived in the area before becoming the first Bishop of Dorchester, and organised the parish system in the area before he died in 649.
Richard the clerk of Calverton is the first recorded priest or rector, and witnessed a deed with Robert de Whitfield, Sheriff of Oxfordshire, in 1182-1185.
The right to nominate the Rector of Calverton was sold with the manor in 1806 to Charles George Perceval (1756-1840), 2nd Lord Arden and an elder brother of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval (1762-1812). Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.
Lord Arden commissioned had All Saints’ Church rebuilt between 1818 and 1824, on the foundations of the earlier All Hallows’ Church.
Lord Arden’s son, the Revd the Hon Charles George Perceval (1796-1858), came to Calverton as Rector in 1821, at the age of 24. He was a devout High Churchman and a supporter of the Tractarians, and some of the Tracts for the Times were planned if not written at his rectory in Calverton.
Perceval’s daughter, Lady Mary Perceval (1830-1891), married the Revd Richard Norris Russell, Rector of Beachampton, near Calverton. She was generous to the Church in Stony Stratford, donating towards building Saint Mary the Virgin Church, now the Greek Orthodox Church on London Road, and funding a new school.
Perceval’s eldest surviving son, Charles George Perceval (1845-1897), was born at Calverton Rectory. He succeeded as 7th Earl of Egmont, an Irish peerage title, in 1874 and inherited the family’s vast estates in Co Cork. However, Lord Egmont sold off many of his Irish estates, including Liscarroll Castle, near Buttevant, in 1889. Kanturk Castle was donated to the National Trust by his widow in 1900.
Newport Pagnell has two ancient church sites: the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is cathedral-like in its location and dimensions, while Tickford Abbey, a residential and dementia care home, stands on the site of Tickford Priory established for the Cluniac Order.
shared by architects
When the architects were designing the centre of Milton Keynes in the early 1970s, they realised the planned main street almost followed Stonehenge in framing the rising sun on Midsummer Day.
They consulted Greenwich Observatory to obtain the exact angle required at their latitude in Buckinghamshire. The idealistic young architects then persuaded the engineers to shift the grid of roads a few degrees, to relate the new city to the cosmos.
One solstice, the architects lit an all-night bonfire and played Pink Floyd on the green fields they would soon pave with a paradise of parking lots, roundabouts and concrete cows. The midsummer sun would shine along the 2 km length of Midsummer Boulevard.
The Master Plan for Milton Keynes hoped for a town centred around a grid of streets and boulevards about 2 km long by 1 km wide, and in their futuristic vision they imagined light-weight electric cars would become the mode of local traffic.
When the Development Corporation was wound up in 1992, the Parks Trust was created to look after the open spaces. By then, Milton Keynes had become an economic and popular success.
The bid by Milton Keynes to become European Capital of Culture in 2023 collapsed in the aftermath of Brexit. And, ironically, the one thing the ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes did not achieve was the right to actually call itself a city.
Buckinghamshire is an English county without a city. Now, 30 years after becoming a borough, Milton Keynes is hoping its fourth bid for city status will be successful during Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee celebrations.
This two-page feature was first published in the June 2022 edition of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough)
Note: Between writing this feature and its publication, Milton Keynees received city status to mark Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee
This is Pentecost Day (5 June 2022), and later this morning I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford. This morning I am also reading the lessons for a broadcast Pentecost service on Clare FM at 7.45, recorded by Stephen Fletcher in his studio in Milton Keynes a few days ago.
But before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning to continue my reflections in the seasons of Lent and Easter, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.
In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:
1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;
2, reading the psalm or psalms;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
Psalm 102 is sometimes known by its Latin name Domine exaudi orationem meam. In the slightly different numbering system in the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate, this psalm is counted as Psalm 101.
This is one of the psalms not included in the Revised Common Lectionary.
This is one of the seven penitential psalms. It begins the final section of the three traditional divisions of the Latin psalms, and so the first words (‘Domine exaudi orationem meam et clamor meus ad te veniat ...’) and above all the initial ‘D’ are often enlarged in illuminated manuscript psalters, following the pattern of the Beatus initials at the start of Psalm 1.
In the original Hebrew, the first verse introduces the psalm as ‘A prayer of the poor man’ or ‘A prayer of the afflicted.’
In Midrash Tehillim, Rabbi Pinchas notes that in some psalms David calls himself by name, as in ‘A prayer of David’ (see Psalm 17 and Psalm 86), but here he calls himself ‘the afflicted,’ as in ‘A prayer of one afflicted.’
Rabbi Pinchas says that when David foresaw the righteous men who would descend from him he called himself David. But when he perceived the wicked men who would be his descendants he called himself ‘the afflicted.’
David calls this Psalm the prayer of an afflicted person who has been weakened by his troubles and calls out to God. He asks God to heed this prayer and not turn away from him on his day of trouble. Rather, he hopes that God will quickly answer his plea.
The afflicted person says that his days are insubstantial, like smoke, and that his bones are destroyed within him as if they were burned. His heart is like dry, withered grass and he no longer knows how to enjoy the fruits of his own labours. He is physically depleted from the strength of his own sighs. He feels like a bird in the wilderness, away from human settlements. He endures alone, while his enemies mock him. His sustenance is ashes and tears, the stuff of mourning.
Our days are like a growing shadow – eventually darkness comes. But God goes on forever and every generation will acknowledge him.
When the time comes, God will have mercy on the people. Those in exile long to return home. When God brings them home, the nations of the world will be in awe of him. God will rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, where he will reveal himself in all his glory.
God answers the prayer of the people, who are destroyed and reviled by their enemies. But God looks down, sees their suffering, and frees them. The restored exiles will praise God and the nations of the world will join in his service.
In Jewish tradition, Psalm 102 is one of 15 psalms recited by Sephardi Jews as additional hymns during the Yom Kippur service. Sephardi Jews recite verse 14 after the prayer of Ein Keloheinu in the morning service. This verse is also used as a popular Jewish song called Atah Takum or Atah Sakum, with its popular refrain .
Psalm 102 is said in times of community crisis. It is also recited as a prayer for a childless woman to give birth. In the Siddur Sfas Emes, this psalm is said as a prayer ‘for the well-being of an ill person.’
TS Eliot’s poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ has been described as ‘the greatest achievement of Eliot’s poetry.’ It was published in its complete form in 1930, three years after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, and it appears in his Selected Poems. The poem ends with a prayer from Psalm 102: ‘And let my cry come unto thee’ (see Psalm 102: 1).
Psalm 102 (NRSVA):
A prayer of one afflicted, when faint and pleading before the Lord
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
2 Do not hide your face from me
on the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily on the day when I call.
3 For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
4 My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
5 Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
6 I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
7 I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
8 All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
9 For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
10 because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
12 But you, O Lord, are enthroned for ever;
your name endures to all generations.
13 You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favour it;
the appointed time has come.
14 For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
15 The nations will fear the name of the Lord,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
16 For the Lord will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
17 He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer.
18 Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
19 that he looked down from his holy height,
from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die;
21 so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion,
and his praise in Jerusalem,
22 when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.
23 He has broken my strength in mid-course;
he has shortened my days.
24 ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away
at the mid-point of my life,
you whose years endure
throughout all generations.’
25 Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
27 but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28 The children of your servants shall live secure;
their offspring shall be established in your presence.
The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Time to Act is Now!’ This theme is introduced this morning by Linet Musasa, of the Anglican Council of Zimbabwe, who writes:
Every year, World Environment Day is celebrated on 5 June. This is an important day worldwide and the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe will join the rest of the world in commemorating the day. The impact of climate change in Zimbabwe is likely to stall the country’s development and pose a serious risk to supplies of food and water. The time to act is now!
The theme for this World Environment Day is ‘Only One Earth’. This theme reminds us of the responsibility we have as the Church to protect our world.
As Christians, God has given us a mandate to look after the earth as shown in scripture.
Genesis 1, v26: ‘Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
God has given us a mandate that we should have dominion over the earth. So, it is our responsibility to preserve that which God has made and given us.
The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (Sunday 5 June 2022, Pentecost) invites us to pray:
May we be guided by the Holy Spirit in all we do.
Help us to live out our faith,
seeing diversity as a gift, not a barrier.
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