03 September 2023

Saint Mary Magdalen, Oxford,
‘has a central position in
the minds and hearts of
Catholic Anglicans worldwide’

Saint Mary Magdalen Church is a familiar sight in Oxford in a traffic island at the south end of Saint Giles and close to the Martyrs’ Memorial (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

When I was in Oxford on Friday, I attended the mid-day Eucharist in Saint Mary Magdalen Church, It was Saint Giles Day, and Mass was celebrated by the Revd Professor Martin Henig, an archaeologist who has recently been in the news for his comments on the recent crisis in the British Museum.

Saint Mary Magdalen Church or ‘Mary Mags’ in Magdalen Street is a familiar sight to many people in Oxford because it faces a row of bus stops opposite the former Debenham’s, in a traffic island at the south end of Saint Giles and close to the Martyrs’ Memorial, Broad Street and Cornmarket.

Archbishop Rowan Williams once said, ‘Saint Mary Magdalen’s has a central position not only physically in Oxford, but spiritually in the minds and hearts of Catholic Anglicans worldwide. Its open door has been for countless people a door into renewed faith and profound joy in believing.’

Inside Saint Mary Magdalen, known as a centre of Anglo-Catholic worship, ministry, teaching and preaching (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Mary Magdalen is known as the Apostle to the Apostles, because she was chosen to witness and to spread the news of Christ’s resurrection. ‘Mary Mags’ has practised and preached the Christian faith for over 1,000 years. For the last 100 years or so, it has celebrated that faith within the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism, and it is a well-known centre of Anglo-Catholic worship, ministry, teaching and preaching.

The first church on the site was built in the Saxon period and stood outside the city walls, just beyond the North Gate. That timber church was destroyed when Vikings attacked and burned most of Oxford in 1010 and 1013.

The Norman Constable of Oxford, Robert d’Oyly, founded a new single-aisle, stone chapel on the site in 1074 as a daughter house of Saint George’s Chapel in Oxford Castle.

The Abbey of Saint Frideswide, which had acted as the patron of the Saxon church, tried but failed on several occasions to assert its right to the new church. When Oseney Abbey was founded in 1129 it took over both chapels and provided vicars for Saint Mary Magdalen until the Dissolution of the Monasteries four centuries later.

Saint Mary Magdalen’s Church has practised and preached the Christian faith for over 1,000 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church was replaced in 1194, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart, and the new building dedicated by Saint Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln.

The new church had links to both King John and Richard I, both born at nearby Beaumont Palace. Richard granted the parishioners the right to use a common seal bearing the crescent and star device that he used during the Third Crusade.

Part of Saint Hugh’s 12th-century building survives in the south aisle, east chancel wall, and the altar dedicated to Saint Thomas Becket. By 1235, the church had an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary. In the late 13th century, Devorguilla de Balliol built an oratory dedicated to Saint Catherine in the present north aisle to serve her new foundation, Balliol College.

In 1320, the Carmelites founded a chapel in the south aisle, which survives as the present Lady Chapel and has Elizabethan glass in the middle window. The Lady Chapel and the richly-decorated font, dating from ca 1350, are the most visible parts of the mediaeval church today.

The richly-decorated font in Saint Mary Magdalen dates from ca 1350 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

A 14th-century wooden chest in the south aisle was damaged in the Civil War by Parliamentarian soldiers held prisoner in the church after the Battle of Cirencester. The damage was repaired on the orders of Charles I, who had his Civil War headquarters in Oxford.

The Revd John Felton or Haresfelde, who was vicar in 1397-1434, was such a popular preacher that after his death his grave at Saint Mary Magdalen became a minor place of pilgrimage.

The west tower was rebuilt between 1511 and 1531 with stones from Rewley Abbey in Oxford. The south porch, with a room above it, was added around that time. There is a 16th-century holy water stoup near the south door.

The theologian William Tresham, who was vicar in 1534-1537, acted as a commissioner for the trial of the Oxford Martyrs, Latimer, Cranmer and Ridley.

After the Reformation, the patronage of Saint Mary Magdalen passed Christ Church College, although it maintained close ties to the three colleges in the parish: Balliol, Saint John’s and Trinity.

An interesting 16th century burial is that of Amy Robsart, first wife of Robert Dudley. She died in a mysterious accident in 1560. Although it was said she had fallen down a flight of stairs, it was widely rumoured that Dudley had her killed to further his chances of marrying Elizabeth I. The queen was alarmed by the scandal and distanced herself from Dudley.

A portrait of King Charles I hangs to the side of Saint Thomas’s altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church was openly royalist, even during the Commonwealth. It was the first church to resume using the Book of Common Prayer, a month before the restoration of the monarchy. A reminder of these royalist ties is a portrait of Charles I to the side of Saint Thomas’s altar.

The church was restored and rebuilt in 1841-1842. The architects for the north or ‘Martyrs’ Aisle’ were Sir George Gilbert Scott, then young and unknown, and his partner William Bonython Moffatt. It was the first Gothic Revival interior in Oxford.

Scott and Moffatt also removed the Norman arch to the chancel. The north aisle complemented Scott’s Martyrs’ Memorial just north of the church. The architect for the restoration of the south aisle was Edward Blore.

The 13th-century chancel was altered in 1874-1875 by raising the floor before the altar and adding a screen, the windows of the west tower were opened into the church and the bells were re-hung. The architect for these works was William Wilkinson. The ornate reredos was added in 1894.

The west tower and the west window designed by Elizabeth Wigram (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The striking west window was designed by Elizabeth Wigram in 1898 to depict Oxford’s mediaeval history. It uses notably more muted colours than the vivid Victorian glass elsewhere in the church.

The west tower has a ring of 10 bells, all cast or re-cast by Taylors of Loughborough. The Oxford University Society of Change Ringers has rung the bells since the 1930s.

The altar and reredos in the Lady Chapel after the weekday mid-day Mass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Revd Richard St John Tyrwhitt (1827-1895), who was vicar in 1858-1872, was sympathetic to the teachings of the Oxford Movement, but not to its ritual. He was an admirer of John Ruskin and assisted William Morris in painting the roof of the Oxford Union Society.

The Revd Cecil Deedes (1843-1920), vicar in 1872-1876, was popular among the poor, but caused controversy in 1876 over a sermon advocating the occasional practice of confession.

With the vicars who followed, the number of services increased and in 1898 as many as a fifth of the adult population of the parish were said to be communicants.

When the Revd Bartle Starmer Hack was vicar in 1922-1947, the church moved closer to the Anglo-Catholic tradition for which it is known today. He introduced full vestments and a sung Eucharist on Sundays. His vicarage at 53 Broad Street, between Trinity College and Blackwells, was the last private residence in the Broad until it was bought by Trinity.

The Revd JC Stephenson, vicar in 1948-1959, made the church the centre of Anglo-Catholicism in Oxford in the 1950s, which hastened the decline of Saint Paul’s Church on Walton Road.

A statue of Saint Mary Magdalen in Saint Mary Magdalen Church, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today, Saint Mary Magdalen Church is a thriving, diverse, and inclusive community, offering witness in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England through the celebration of the Eucharist and the preaching of the Gospel.

The Revd Canon Dr Peter Groves has been the parish priest of Saint Mary Magdalen’s since 2005. He completed a BA and then a DPhil in theology at New College Oxford and trained for the ministry at Westcott House, Cambridge. He has been Chaplain and Fellow of Brasenose College, and continues to be a member of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Oxford.

The associate priests include the Revd Dr Melanie Marshall Mel, currently Acting Chaplain at Balliol College. She studied classics in Oxford and was sent from Mary Mags to train for ordination at Westcott House and Emmanuel College Cambridge. She was Chaplain of Lincoln College for five years.

The Revd Esther Brazil, assistant curate was brought up in Beijing, Singapore, and Sydney. She read philosophy and theology at the Queen’s College, Oxford, and later trained as a classical singer Shen trained for ministry at Ripon College Cuddesdon. She is the first female curate of Saint Mary Magdalen’s.

The Revd Professor Judith M Brown, an associate priest, is an Emeritus Fellow of Balliol College, where she assists in the chapel. She was Beit Professor of Commonwealth History at Oxford from 1990 to 2011, and her academic speciality is modern India. She trained at Cuddesdon and was ordained in 2009. She was interim chaplain at Brasenose College in 2017.

The Sunday Masses at Saint Mary Magdalen are: 8 am, Said Mass; 10.30 am, High Mass; 5:30 pm: Said Mass. During the week, there is a Said Mass at 12: 15 and 6 pm, Monday to Saturday, and Morning Prayer (8:15) and Evening Prayer (5:40), Monday to Friday.

Saint Mary Magdalen Church is a thriving, diverse, and inclusive community in the centre of Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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