25 October 2023

‘Look for Jesus in the ragged,
… in the oppressed and …
wash their feet’: a notice on
Stony Stratford church door

‘Whosoever thou art that enterest this Chapel’ … the greeting at the church door in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

There is no choir practice in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford because of the half-term break. But there are two challenging notices on the church door that catch my full attention each time I go in or out of the church.

The notice greeting all who push open the door to enter the church tells parishioners and visitors alike: ‘Whosoever thou art that enterest this Chapel know that the Lord Jesus is here present in his Holy Sacrament, kneel then and adore him and pray for thyself, for those who minister and worship here – , nor forget the Souls of the faithful departed.’

The notice that greets everyone who leaves the church and who cares to read it, says: ‘You have adored Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament. Come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets … and find the same Jesus in the people (you meet). after Bishop Frank Weston of Zanzibar, Second Anglo-Catholic Congress, 1923.’

It is good to reminded constantly that the parish church has a vital role in empowering parishioners and visitors alike for Christian service and discipleship in the world outside. There must be a direct connect between liturgy and service of the people.

But the original words of Bishop Frank Weston (1871-1924) in his concluding address at the Anglo-Catholic Congress 100 years ago are more compelling and more demanding than anything that fit into a small notice on a church door.

Bishop Frank Weston’s words on the door out of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Many years ago [30 June 2011], I was the speaker at a conference organised by Affirming Catholicism on the theme: ‘Thy Kingdom Come! Prayer and Mission in the building of The Kingdom.’ The one-day conference was held in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Church House, and I stayed in the Clergy House beside the church, gently conscious of the chimes of Big Ben throughout that night.

Saint Matthew’s was built as a memorial to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott’s son, John Oldrid Scott. The church is in one of the poorer districts of the Borough of Westminster, surrounded by social housing funded by the Peabody Trust, and from its earliest days the church has been closely associated with the recovery of the Catholic heritage of the Church of England.

In the mid-19th century, the people in the area around Great Peter Street lived in abject conditions, and Charles Dickens once described the area notoriously as the ‘Devil’s Acre.’ It is said a house in Old Pye Street was used to teach and train pickpockets, and In 1855 a lodging house in the area was said to have been home to 120 people. It is most likely that this is the area that inspired Dickens as he wrote about Fagin and Oliver Twist.

One description of the area noted: ‘It is in these narrow streets, and in these close and insalubrious lanes, courts and alleys, where squalid misery and poverty struggles with filth and wretchedness, where vice reigns unchecked and in the atmosphere of which diseases are generated and diffused.’

The Church responded to these squalid problems by building four new churches in this part of Westminster, and in 1844 the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey gave £1,000 towards building Saint Matthew’s, Westminster. The foundation stone was laid on 8 November 1849, and the church was consecrated on 30 June 1851.

The Clergy House and Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster ... an integral part of mission in this inner-city area for more than 170 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The first vicar of Saint Matthew’s, the Revd Richard Malone, faced a major challenge in his missionary work. It is indicative of his work that the first person he baptised was not a child, but William Brown, a mature 27-year-old and the adult son of a harness maker.

Gonville ffrench-Beytagh – who has been one of my inspirations in ministry and mission since I first encountered his story in 1971 when he was Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg – was a curate in Saint Matthew’s for a short period 50 years ago, from 1973 to 1974, after he was forced into exile from South Africa.

Another former curate there, from 1896 to 1898, was Frank Weston, whose quote faces me each time as I open the door to leave Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford. Frank Weston was of the foremost leaders of the Anglo-Catholic movement and a model ‘slum priest’. He taught daily in the Church School and in Catechism classes on Sunday afternoons. In March 1898, he wrote: ‘I have in tow about twenty young ruffians, mostly immoral little pagans, only four communicants.’

Despite the poor social conditions in the parish, according to his biographer, Frank Weston reported that this was ‘a parish where all was at peace and everything went on as if by clockwork. The services in the church and meals in the Clergy House could alike be depended on, but the first were elaborate and the others were not!’

After two years at Saint Matthew’s, Frank Weston was called to missionary work in Africa. Eventually, he became the Bishop of Zanzibar in 1908. His combination of incarnational and sacramental theology with radical social concerns formed the keynote of his concluding address to the second Anglo-Catholic Congress in 1923. He believed that the sacramental focus gave a reality to Christ’s presence and power that nothing else could. ‘The one thing England needs to learn is that Christ is in and amid matter, God in flesh, God in sacrament.’

And so he concluded: ‘But I say to you, and I say it with all the earnestness that I have, if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in His Blessed Sacrament, then, when you come out from before your tabernacles, you must walk with Christ, mystically present in you through the streets of this country, and find the same Christ in the peoples of your cities and villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum … It is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children.’

And he concluded: ‘You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.’

My friend and colleague, the Revd Canon Professor Mark Chapman, is Vice-Principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon and Professor of the History of Modern Theology in the University of Oxford. He was speaking at the same conference and told me these words were written by Bishop Frank Weston as he stayed once again in Saint Matthew’s as he prepared for that conference in 1923. He died a year later, on All Souls’ Day, 2 November 1924.

They were appropriate words to recall as I spoke at that Affirming Catholicism conference in Saint Matthew’s on: ‘Prayer, mission and building the kingdom: the work of USPG.’ And they are appropriate words to be reminded of each time I go in and out of Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church in Stony Stratford.

The memorial in Saint Matthew’s Church, Westminster, to the former curate, Bishop Frank Weston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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