29 August 2023

Saint Barnabas Jericho,
a Pre-Raphaelite church
in Oxford with literary and
Anglo-Catholic traditions

Saint Barnabas Church in Jericho, Oxford, has inspired writers from Thomas Hardy to John Betjeman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Barnabas Church is the Church of England parish church in Jericho, Oxford, close to the Oxford Canal and the old Jericho boatyard, and a 15-minute walk from the centre of Oxford. The church features in a wide range of literature, from Thomas Hardy and Gerald Manley Hopkins to PD James and AN Wilson. The poet John Betjeman wrote a poem about the church.

Saint Barnabas Jericho, which I visited last week, is affectionately known as ‘Jericho Basilica.’ I was struck by how vast, broad, tall and spacious the church is, with large arches, a majestic sanctuary and altar and a striking Venetian bell tower or campanile.

Saint Barnabas was built in the Victorian era to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of the workforce of the nearby Clarendon Press, later the Oxford University Press, on Great Clarendon Street, as well as the poor and working class people living in the growing west Oxford suburb of Jericho.

The new parish was carved out of Saint Paul’s parish in Oxford in 1869; Saint Paul’s, in turn, had been formed 30 years earlier from parts of the parishes of Saint Thomas and Saint Giles.

Saint Paul’s Church was renowned for its elaborate ritual and processions, and it was drawing so many worshippers in the 1850s that another church was needed for Jericho.

The campanile or bell tower of Saint Barnabas Church was completed in 1872 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Barnabas Church was founded by Thomas Combe (1796-1872), Superintendent of the Clarendon Press, and his wife Martha (1806-1893), who are now commemorated by a blue plaque installed by the Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board. They were supporters of the Oxford Movement and good friends of John Henry Newman, and he was a churchwarden at Saint Paul’s.

Combe was also a patron of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. William Holman Hunt came to live at his home, the Printer’s House in Jericho, where he painted ‘The Light of the World’ for the chapel in Keble College.

The church was built on land donated by George Ward, a local landowner and member of the Ward family of coal merchants and boatbuilders. George Ward’s brother William Ward was Mayor of Oxford on two occasions, 1851-1852 and 1861-1862.

Inside Saint Barnabas Church, Jericho, designed by Sir Arthur William Blomfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The new church reflected Tractarian values both in liturgy, by promoting ritual and the high doctrine of the Sacraments, and in mission, by promoting education, health reform and social justice.

The architect was Sir Arthur William Blomfield (1829-1899), a son of Charles James Blomfield, Bishop of London. He had previously designed Saint Luke’s Chapel for the Radcliffe Infirmary.

Blomfield decided on an Italian Romanesque basilica-style design but, in accordance with Thomas Combe’s wishes, built the walls out of cement-rendered builders’ rubble.

Blomfield possibly modelled Saint Barnabas on either the San Clemente in Rome or the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello in the Venetian lagoon. Saint Barnabas has a distinctive square tower, in the form of an Italianate campanile, that is visible from the surrounding area.

The church was consecrated by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and opened for worship on 19 October 1869.

The majestic mosaic of Christ the King rests above a dramatic gilded canopy or baldacchino over the High Altar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The campanile or bell tower was completed in 1872, and has a ring of ten, distinctive, tubular bells, and the hours and quarters are sounded on them. The bells and clock were installed in 1890 and are a remarkable example of Victorian engineering. However, the current appearance of the campanile, with a slightly flatter roof, is the result of a structural alteration in 1965.

On entering Saint Barnabas Church, one is struck at the breadth, and height of the interior space, by the majestic mosaic of Christ the King resting above a dramatic gilded canopy or baldacchino over the High Altar and by the great openwork iron cross suspended above the nave, based on Fr Montague Noel’s SSC cross and memorably borrowed by Thomas Hardy in Jude the Obscure.

The church has an ornate and gilded sanctuary, a High Altar, flanked with symbols of the four Gospel writers, and above the High Altar a canopy or gilt baldachino.

The choir is several feet above the main floor of the church, and the high altar is reached by five or more steps. The seven sanctuary lamps hanging before the altar lamps were donated in 1874-1875 by the then Duke of Newcastle and some of his undergraduate contemporaries from Christ Church Oxford. The Duke of Newcastle inherited by marriage Hope Castle, formerly Blayney Castle, a late 18th century house in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan.

The pulpit by Heaton, Butler and Bayne has panels depicting patristic figures painted by Charles Stephen Floyce (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The pulpit was added in 1887 by Heaton, Butler and Bayne with the panels depicting patristic figures painted by Charles Stephen Floyce (1857-1895).

This pulpit replaced an earlier, cylindrical timber pulpit with columns and a moulded cornice that is now at Saint Peter’s, London Docks, the parish church of Wapping established in 1856 as an Anglo-Catholic mission.

The mural by James Powell and Sons on the north wall illustrates the canticle Te Deum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The beautiful cut-glass or opus secule mural by James Powell and Sons on the north side of the nave was installed in stages between 1905 and 1911. It depicts apostles, saints, martyrs and angels, with the words of the canticle Te Deum Laudamus below.

However, when funds ran dry, it was impossible to complete the project, and this fine work only exists on one side of the church.

The reredos and altar in the Lady Chapel were commissioned by Martha Combe in memory of Thomas Combe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Lady Chapel on the north-east side of the church was completed in 1888. The reredos and altar are earlier, dating from 1873. They were commissioned by Martha Combe in memory of her husband Thomas Combe, who died in 1872, were designed by Blomfield, and are the work of Heaton, Butler and Bayne. The reredos was extended in 1906 with 11 additional panels by Heaton, Butler and Bayne in memory of Martha Combe. The figures painted by may have been the artist Henry George Alexander Holiday (1839-1927).

The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in Saint George’s Chapel, designed by the architects Bodley and Hare in 1919-1920.

The church’s first permanent organ was installed in 1872 and the present organ was installed in 1975.

The memorial in the choir to Father Montague Henry Noel, the first parish priest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The first Parish Priest, Father Montague Henry Noel, SSC (1840-1929), was the Vicar of Jericho in 1869-1899. He was a first cousin of Charles Noel (1818-1881), second Earl of Gainsborough, whose family weddings are discussed in my chapterer ‘Four Victorian weddings and a funeral’ in Marriage and the Irish: A miscellany, edited by Salvador Ryan (Wordwell: Dublin, 2019, 283 pp), pp 163-165.

When the church opened in 1869, Lord Gainsborough donated a rare silver Russian chalice and paten dating from 1639, from Pryluky, now in north-central Ukraine.

Subsequent vicars were CH Bickerton-Hudson (1899-1901), C Hallett (1902-1911), HC Frith (1911-1916), AG Bisdee (1917-1947), D Nicholson (1947-1955), LG Janes (1956-1960), HN Nash (1960-1967), JE Overton (1967-1980), EM Wright (1980-2007), JW Beswick (2008-2018) and CM Woods (since 2019).

Saint Barnabas maintains the Anglo-Catholic liturgical traditions dating from its foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church maintains the Anglo-Catholic liturgical traditions dating from its foundation. The parish says the mission at Saint Barnabas is to be place of timeless beauty, encouragement and compassion.

The parish was united with the neighbouring parish of Saint Thomas the Martyr in 2015 to form the new parish of Saint Barnabas and Saint Paul, with Saint Thomas the Martyr, Oxford. The first vicar of the new parish was Father Jonathan Beswick SSC.

The present Vicar of Saint Barnabas is the Revd Christopher Woods, one of my former students and a former Chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge, a former chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge, and a former Vicar of Saint Anne’s, Hoxton, in the Diocese of London.

The Revd Canon Prof Sue Gillingham is the Permanent Deacon of Saint Barnabas. She recently retired as Professor of the Hebrew Bible in the University of Oxford. She is Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College and Canon Theologian of Exeter Cathedral.

Father Matthew Salisbury, a self-supporting curate, lectures in music in the University of Oxford and is Assistant Chaplain at Worcester College. He is also National Liturgical Adviser of the Church of England.

The honorary assistant priests include Father Robin Ward, Principal of Saint Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Father Zachary Guiliano, chaplain of Saint Edmund’s Hall, Oxford, a Research Fellow in Early Mediaeval History, and recently Acting Precentor of Christ Church Cathedral.

The Revd Professor Sarah Coakley, who now lives in retirement in Washington DC, is an Honorary Assistant Priest during the summer months. She lived in Jericho when she was a Lecturer and Fellow in Oriel College in the 1990s. She has been a professor in both Cambridge, where she was the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity (2007-2018), and Harvard, where she was the Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity (1995-2007). She presided at the Sunday High Mass this week (27 August 2023).

Earlier this year (January 2023), the parish voted to welcome the ministry of women priests and bishops. The Revd Dr Melanie Marshall, acting chaplain in Balliol College, was the first woman to preside at the Parish Mass (14 May 2023).

The liturgy at the Sunday High Mass in Saint Barnabas is formal but the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The main act of worship is on Sundays at 10:30 am, when the Sunday High Mass is marked by traditional ceremonial, beautiful ritual, uplifting music and preaching and teaching that is engaged and powerful. The liturgy is formal but the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly.

The Daily Office and Mass are throughout the week, although the Daily Mass times vary from day to day. The church is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm.

The church and parish celebrated the 150th anniversary in 2019-2020 with a series of services, concerts and events. The church hosts many events throughout the year, including concerts, lectures and exhibitions.

Saint Barnabas Church features in Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The church was chosen by Thomas Hardy, who had worked as an assistant to Blomfield, for a scene in Jude the Obscure (1895), where he describes the church’s levitating cross – seemingly suspended in mid-air by barely visible wires and swaying gently – beneath which lay the crumpled, prostrate figure of Sue Bridehead, forlornly covered in a pile of black clothes.

Robert Martin, the biographer of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, records a university friend of Hopkins as saying ‘When I want a spiritual fling I go to St Barnabas.’ It was here too that PD James imagined the bodies in A Taste for Death, although she transposes the church to London in the book.

Saint Barnabas’s lofty Byzantine tower was described by AN Wilson in his novel The Healing Art as ‘the most impressive architectural monument in sight.’ The first Morse novel, The Dead of Jericho, is set by the canal and boatyard and the railway shunting yards close to the church.

The church was acclaimed by John Betjeman in his poem ‘St Barnabas, Oxford.’

Mary Trevelyan was the organist and choir trainer at Saint Barnabas Church for many years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Mary Trevelyan (1897-1983), who was born in Stony Stratford, was the organist and choir trainer at Saint Barnabas Church for many years. She was the eldest child of the Revd George Philip Trevelyan (1858-1937), Vicar of Saint Mary’s, Wolverton (1885-1897).

Mary Trevelyan is remembered for her work as the warden of Student Movement House in London. But two recent books also discuss how for many years she was the close companion and long-time friend of the poet TS Eliot. She believed they were romantically committed to one another and she had expected to marry him after the death of his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

The icons and Baptistry in the west apse of Saint Barnabas, Jericho (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

‘St Barnabas, Oxford’ by John Betjeman

How long was the peril, how breathless the day,
In topaz and beryl, the sun dies away,
His rays lying static at quarter to six
On polychromatical lacing of bricks.
Good Lord, as the angelus floats down the road
Byzantine St Barnabas, be Thine Abode.

Where once the fritillaries hung in the grass
A baldachin pillar is guarding the Mass.
Farewell to blue meadows we loved not enough,
And elms in whose shadows were Glanville and Clough
Not poets but clergymen hastened to meet
Thy redden’d remorselessness, Cardigan Street.

The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in Saint George’s Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (93) 29 August 2023

Saint Mary’s Priory and Cathedral in Coventry was founded in the 12th century with the transformation of a former monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XII, 27 August 2023). Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist with a lesser festival.

Before the day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

In recent weeks, I have been reflecting on the churches in Tamworth and Lichfield. This week, I am reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a church in Coventry;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Bishop Robert de Limesey of Lichfield transferred his see to Coventry in 1095, and the monastery of Saint Mary became the new cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Saint Mary’s Priory and Cathedral, Coventry:

Sir Basil Spence’s Cathedral in Coventry, which opened over 60 years ago in 1962, was not the first, or even the second cathedral in city, but the third.

Saint Mary’s Priory and Cathedral in Coventry was founded in the 12th century with the transformation of the former monastery of Saint Mary, and it destroyed at the Dissolution of the Monastic Houses during the Tudor Reformation in the mid-16th century.

The priory and cathedral stood on a site north of Holy Trinity Church and the former Saint Michael’s Church in the centre of the city. The site was bordered by Priory Row to the south, Trinity Street to the west, and the River Sherbourne to the north. Excavated remains from the west end of the cathedral are open to the public.

Saint Osburg founded a nunnery by the River Sherbourne, on the edge of the Forest of Arden, around 700 CE. A settlement grew up around the nunnery, and in time this became Coventry.

King Canute and his army of laid waste to many towns and villages in Warwickshire in 1016 in his bid to take control of England. When they reached Coventry, they destroyed the Saxon nunnery founded by Saint Osburg.

Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva rebuilt on the remains of the nunnery in 1043 and founded a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saint Mary for an abbot and 24 monks.

John of Worcester recalls that Leofric and ‘his wife, the noble Countess Godgifu, a worshipper of God and devout lover of Saint Mary ever-virgin, built the monastery there from the foundations out of their own patrimony, and endowed it adequately with lands and made it so rich in various ornaments that in no monastery in England might be found the abundance of gold, silver, gems and precious stones that was at that time in its possession.’

The abbey church of Saint Mary’s was consecrated in 1043, and Earl Leofric was buried there in 1057.

Bishop Robert de Limesey of Lichfield transferred his see to Coventry ca 1095. The papal authorisation for this move in 1102 turned the monastery of Saint Mary into a priory and cathedral. The priory was rebuilt on an opulent scale to reflect its new importance as a cathedral. The rebuilding and expansion of Saint Mary’s was completed about 125 years later.

Robert Marmion fortified the partially-built cathedral in 1143 and fortified it in an attempt to capture Coventry Castle. Part of his alterations include a defensive trench around the church.

The main cathedral building was cruciform in shape, 130 metres (425 ft) long and 44 metres (145 ft) wide at the west front. It was built in two stages, up to 1143 and from ca 1150 to ca 1250. The cathedral had a central tower and two towers at the west end, the remains of which are still visible. It is believed there were three spires similar to, though pre-dating, those at Lichfield Cathedral.

When the monastery was founded, Leofric gave the northern half of his estates in Coventry, known as the Prior’s half, to support the monks. The other half of his estates in Coventry was called the Earl’s-half and later passed to the Earls of Chester.

Roger de Mold, or Roger de Montalt, Earl of Chester, sold the south side of Coventry to the Prior in 1250, and in theory, for the next 95 years, the town was controlled by a single landlord. In practice, however, disputes arose between the monastic tenants and those previously of the Earl, and the Prior never gained complete control of the entire city.

Coventry remained divided in two parts until 1345, the two parts were incorporated by royal charter into what became the city of Coventry, with its council house in Saint Mary’s Guildhall, a short stroll from the Priory.

According to the mediaeval writer William of Malmesbury, the monastery was so wealthy that its walls were too narrow to contain all the gold and silver.

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century, the seat of the diocese returned to Lichfield Cathedral in 1539. Henry VIII offered the cathedral buildings to the people of Coventry. However, the city was unable to raise sufficient funding, and the king ordered the buildings destroyed.

It was the only English cathedral to be destroyed during the Reformation. Masonry and other items were removed and used for other purposes, leaving only parts of the cathedral standing. The only major part of the monastic buildings to be spared was the north-west tower, which was used as a dwelling until 1714, when Coventry’s Blue Coat School was founded there.

The Blue Coat School was rebuilt on the site in 1856. During rebuilding, the remains of the cathedral’s west wall were discovered, including the foot of the south-west tower and its spiral staircase.

Coventry remained without a cathedral until 1918, when Saint Michael’s Church, built in the 14th and 15th centuries, became the cathedral of the new Diocese of Coventry was elevated to this status. Saint Michael’s was severely damaged during the Coventry Blitz on 14 November 1940, and replaced after World War by the present cathedral.

The Bluecoat School moved to a new location on Terry Road in 1964. An excavation in the 1960s discovered the original doorway to the chapter house.

Coventry City Council decided to redevelop part of the cathedral site in the late 1990s as a public park as part of its Phoenix Initiative. The Channel 4 programme Time Team was invited to perform an archaeological dig on the site in 1999. The dig consisted of four main trenches: one in the site of the chapter house, one to reach the original floor, four metres below the current ground level, and two to identify the locations of the two crossing piers that would have borne the weight of the tower and roof.

A stone-lined grave was found at the bottom of the trench. Work revealed the remains of a body in the grave just inside the chapter house door. Forensic evidence suggested that the person died in late-middle age and was overweight and diabetic, and it was suggested it was likely the man had been a prior, given to living a relatively sedate life with too much good food and drink.

A later discovery in 2000 was an ‘Apocalypse Mural’, a 14th-century masonry painted with the likeness of four figures, three of them wearing gilded crowns. Further digs were carried out by Time Team in 2001, Coventry Archaeology and Northampton Archaeology.

Parts of the site are open to the public as the Priory Garden and can be walked through or above on wooden walkways. The site of the cloisters has also become a park with a visitor centre containing some of the artefacts excavated.

What was once believed to be the remains of the east end of Saint Mary’s, can be seen beside the current cathedral. Other parts of the priory and cathedral were built over with the 18th century houses on Priory Row.

The priory site is in two parts. A series of pedestrian walkways cross over the priory church, so the site can be viewed from above, giving a good idea of the priory layout. The west wall is exposed, and the foundation walls can be seen.

The second part of the site is the priory cloisters, which have been transformed into a small park, with seating around a square of trees where the monks once strolled. Beside the cloister park is a modern visitor centre, installed as part of a Millennium project to promote Coventry’s history and act as a focal point for encouraging tourism. Volunteers offer tours of the ruins as well as the undercroft.

Coventry Cathedral was the only English cathedral to be destroyed during the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 14: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; 2 and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 3 For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ 5 Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7 so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ 9 The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10 he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12 His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

Our Lady of Coventry by Sister Concordia Scott, installed in the ruins of Saint Mary’s Priory, Coventry, in 2001 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is the ‘Rep├║blica de Jovens Home in Brazil.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (29 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the Rep├║blica de Jovens (Young People’s Community House) project. That it will provide a safe place to call home for all who walk through its doors.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
who called your servant John the Baptist
to be the forerunner of your Son in birth and death:
strengthen us by your grace
that, as he suffered for the truth,
so we may boldly resist corruption and vice
and receive with him the unfading crown of glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful Lord,
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament
have known your forgiveness and your life-giving love
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Parts of the priory and cathedral were built over with the 18th century houses on Priory Row (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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

The Execution of Saint John the Baptist … an early 18th century icon from the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian in Anopolis, in the Museum of Christian Art, in the Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai, Iraklion, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)