02 February 2023

The Candlemas hymnwriter
who died in Tamworth

Clifton Campville and Comberford ... two neighbouring parishes named on a hassock in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas [2 February 2023], and celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known popularly as Candlemas.

This feast falls 40 days after Christmas when, according to traditional religious law, the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Christ-Child, presents her first-born to the priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. Because the Holy Family was poor, they offered a turtle dove and two pigeons as a submission and a sacrifice.

This is a feast rich in meaning, with several related themes running through it – presentation, purification, meeting, and light for the world. The several names by which this day has been known throughout Christian history illustrate just how much this feast has to teach and to celebrate. These names include the Presentation, and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, although today we talk more commonly of the Feast of Candlemas.

The true meaning of Candlemas is found in its ‘bitter-sweet’ nature. It is a feast day, and the revelation of the Christ Child in the Temple, greeted by Simeon and Anna, calls for rejoicing. Nevertheless, the prophetic words of Simeon, which speak of the falling and rising of many and the sword that will piece Mary’s heart, lead on to the Passion and Easter, as the Gospel according to Saint Luke makes clear:

‘… This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

Candlemas is the climax of the Christmas and Epiphany season, the last great festival of the Christmas cycle. It beings Christmas celebrations to a close, and is a real pivotal day in the Christian year. The focus shifts from the cradle to the cross, from Christmas to Passiontide – Ash Wednesday and Lent are less than three weeks away.

A well-known hymn that is often sung on this day is ‘In his temple now behold him’, by Canon Henry John Pye (1827-1903), who was the Rector of Clifton Campville, Staffordshire, where he was also Lord of the Manor, and a canon of Lichfield Cathedral.

Henry John Pye was born Henry James Pye in Chacombe Banbury Priory, Northamptonshire, on 31 January 1827. His father, Henry John Pye (1802-1884), lived at Clifton Hall, Staffordshire, 10 miles east of Lichfield and seven miles north of Tamworth, and was the lord of the manor and the patron of the local living; his grandfather, Henry James Pye (1745-1813), was Poet Laureate (1790-1813).

The Pye family was also related to the Willington family of Colehill, which I was writing about yesterday (1 February 2023): the hymnwriter’s aunt, his father’s sister, Jane Anne, married Francis Willington of Tamworth.

Canon Henry John Pye Pye (1827-1903), Rector of Clifton Campville and hymnwriter

The younger Henry John Pye was educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge (BA, 1848; MA 1852), and was ordained deacon in 1850, and priest in 1851. He first served as Curate of Cuddesdon, outside Oxford (1850-1851), where Bishop Samuel Wilbeforce lived. He married the bishop’s daughter, Emily Charlotte Wilberforce, on 21 October 1851.

Pye’s father appointed him the Rector of Clifton Campville in the Diocese of Lichfield in 1851, and he remained rector until 1868. Pye also became the Prebendary of Handsacre (1865-1868) in Lichfield Cathedral.

While he was the Rector of Clifton Campville, Pye compiled a collection of hymns for use in the parish, including the hymn ‘In his temple now behold him,’ intended for use on the feast of the Presentation or Candlemas today.

Pye also commissioned George Edmund Street, the Gothic Revival architect, to restore Saint Andrew’s, the parish church in Clifton Campville. Street, who is known in Ireland for the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral and in England for the Law Courts in London, had also designed Wilbeforce’s new theological college in Cuddesdon.

In 1868, Henry, his wife Emily, and his brother and sister joined the Roman Catholic Church. Pye later turned to the law: he was admitted at the Inner Temple in 1873 and was called to the bar in 1876.

Pye died in Tamworth on 3 January 1903, and the Manor of Clifton Campville and Clifton Hall, which had been in the Pye family since 1700, were sold in 1906.

In his temple now behold him;
See the long-expected Lord!
Ancient prophets had foretold him;
God hath now fulfilled his word.
Now to praise him, his redeem├Ęd
Shall break forth with one accord.

In the arms of her who bore him,
Virgin pure, behold him lie,
While his aged saints adore him,
Ere in perfect faith they die:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Lo, the incarnate God most high!
Jesus, by thy Presentation,
Thou, who didst for us endure,
Make us see thy great salvation,
Seal us with thy promise sure;
And present us in thy glory
To thy Father cleansed and pure.

Prince and author of salvation,
Be thy boundless love our theme!
Jesus, praise to thee be given
By the world thou didst redeem,
With the Father and the Spirit,
Lord of majesty supreme!

‘Candlemas 2012’ (York Minster) by Susan Hufton … from the exhibition ‘Holy Writ’ at Lichfield Cathedral in 2014 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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