07 November 2023

Famous weddings
that did, or did not,
take place in
Camden Town Hall

Camden Town Hall on Judd Street, off Euston Road, London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

I suppose I am like most historians when I wonder – even briefly – at different momentous occasions in my life about who in the past has done the same thing I am doing and in the same place.

Last Friday afternoon, I was told that the writers Adeline Virginia Stephen (1882-1941), better known as Viriginia Woolf, and Leonard Woolf (1880-1969) were married in 1912 in Saint Pancras Town Hall.

Half a century later, the photographer David Bailey and the Frech actor Catherine Deneuve were married there in 1965, the year it became known as Camden Town Hall.

In the film Shadowlands, CS Lewis and Joy Gresham are shown being married in Camden Town Hall, on Judd Street off Euston Road. In fact, they were married not once but twice, and not in Camden Town Hall: the civil marriage took place at the Oxford Registry Office at 42 St Giles (now a dental practice), on 23 April 1956, and they were married once again almost year later in a church wedding on her hospital bed on 21 March 1957.

Indeed, the story of those two weddings is far more interesting than the detail of whether they were married in Camden Town Hall or the Registry Office in Oxford.

Helen Joy Davidman Gresham (1915-1960) was an American poet and writer. She first met the Belfast-born CS Lewis (1898-1963) in August 1952, who taught as a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, for nearly 30 years, from 1925 to 1954. He moved to Cambridge in 1954 as the first Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance English and a fellow of Magdalene College, Cambridge. However, he never had the same impact on Cambridge as he had on Oxford, and at weekends he returned to his home in Oxford.

Meanwhile, the British Government refused to renew Joy’s work visa in 1956, and she faced deportation. CS Lewis came to her rescue by agreeing to marry her in a civil ceremony, not in Camden Town Hall, not in Cambridge, but in Oxford on 23 April 1956; he was then 58 and she was 41.

Neither of them regarded it as a ‘real’ marriage; it was merely a legal arrangement to enable her to become a British citizen. He continued to live in Oxford and Cambridge as a bachelor and she in London as a single mother.

Later in 1956, however, Joy fell ill with what was to be diagnosed as bone cancer, and she was coming to the end of her life.

Lewis had never acknowledged their civil marriage was in fact a valid marriage at all. After all, it was a mere expediency to prevent Joy from being deported. But faced with Joy’s now critical health he asked his friend Father Peter Bide to visit them in Oxford.

Father Peter had been taught English literature by Lewis at Magdalen College from 1936 to 1939 and they had stayed in touch after World War II. He had been the Parish Priest of Saint Helen’s Church, Hangleton, near Hove, since 1955, the first parish priest appointed there in over 400 years.

Lewis had heard the stories that Father Peter had once healed a dying child in Hove – Michael Gallagher, a young boy in an Irfish family. Now Lewis wanted him to anoint Joy. After the Service of Extreme Unction, Lewis immediately asked Father Peter to marry them as it was Joy’s dying wish to be married in church.

Lewis had previously asked several Oxford college chaplains to do this, but Harry Carpenter, Bishop of Oxford, had decreed that the Church’s prohibition of remarriage for divorcees should be upheld in his diocese.

Father Peter carefully considered the request and, since he was not under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Oxford, went ahead and administered the Sacraments of Holy Matrimony and Holy Communion in the hospital ward the following day, 21 March 1957.

Father Peter later reflected: ‘I had no jurisdiction in the Diocese of Oxford. The example of my fellow priests showed that I should be guilty of a grave breach of Church law. I asked Jack (CS Lewis) to leave me alone for a while and I considered the matter. In the end there seemed only one Court of Appeal. I asked myself what He would have done – and that somehow finished the argument …’

The Bishop of Oxford was furious and severely reprimanded Father Peter for performing the marriage, and reported the matter to the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, who gently rebuked the priest and immediately removed him from Hangleton. He then followed this action by appointing Father Peter as Vicar of the larger parish of Goring by Sea.

After Extreme Unction and her marriage, Joy made an apparently miraculous recovery. Although she was essentially released from the hospital in order to die at home, the cancer went in to remission, much to everyone’s surprise. Lewis, in his late 50s, was experiencing the bliss of married love that he had long assumed had bypassed him for good.

Joy’s cancer returned in 1959. In the end, Lewis’s heart’s desire was to have a ‘real’ marriage to Joy, one blessed by the church, so that the two of them could live together as man and wife. She and Lewis had three years of idyllic happiness until her death on 13 July 1960. From then on, Lewis took care of her sons, Douglas and David Gresham.

Joy’s death led to one of his most remarkable writings, A Grief Observed, in 1960. He died three years later on the 22 November 1963.

As for Father Peter, he later became Vicar of Saint Luke, Battersea, where he was immersed in "South Bank religion" associated with Southwark Cathedral and the Diocese of Southwark. He subsequently returned to Oxford as as chaplain and tutor in Theology at Lady Margaret Hall for 13 years, including the last two years as a fellow. He also spent two years as Canon Precentor of Christ Church Cathedral.

He said many years later: ‘I’ve known some wonderful people in my life, and Jack Lewis and George Bell were two of the greatest.’ He was 90 when he died in 2003.

The late Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who died earlier this year, once spoke in a lecture in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, of how CS Lewis liked to make things clear, with sharp contrasts.

In that lecture in 2009 at the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Metropolitan Kallistos looked at Lewis and his writings on love. His book The Four Loves (1960) is a late book, written in his last days at Cambridge. He identifies the four loves as: affection (storge, στοργή), which he calls the humblest love and is unmerited; friendship (philia, φιλία); eros (ἔρως); and caritas (agape, ἀγάπη).

‘Love is a fundamental stance or attitude, which, with every level of our human nature, we affirm the other as the centre of our own personhood,’ Metropolitan Kallistos said. ‘We are to love with our emotions, will and imagination, our rational and visionary intellect. We are not imaginative enough.’

He told us that you cannot love others unless you have some sense of your own value as a person. We exist not just for the self, but for the other. To love is to be eccentric – we displace ourselves from the centre. Love implies freedom. To love is to allow the other to be, and to be other.

The staircase in Camden Town Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (3) 7 November 2023

The Cattedrale di San Zeno, or Cathedral of Saint John, in Pistoia with its Pisan-Romanesque façade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England, and the week began with the Fourth Sunday before Advent (5 November 2023).

The Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (7 November) remembers Saint Willibrord of York (739), Bishop, Apostle of Frisia.

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

In recent prayer diaries on this blog, my reflections have already looked at a number of Italian cathedrals, including the cathedrals in Amalfi, Florence, Lucca, Noto, Pisa, Ravenna, Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint John Lateran, Rome, Siena, Sorrento, Syracuse, Taormina, Torcello and Venice.

So, this week, my reflections look at some more Italian cathedrals, basilicas and churches in Bologna, San Marino, Pistoia, San Gimignano, Mestre, Sorrento and Ravello.

Throughout this week, my reflections each morning are following this pattern:

1, A reflection on an Italian cathedral or basilica;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Piazza del Duomo or Cathedral Square in Pistoia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Cattedrale di San Zeno or Cathedral of Saint John, Pistoia:

One day, when I insisted in using my poor and limited Italian to buy train tickets in Tuscany, I ended up in Pistoia instead of Viareggio. But for this mistake, I might not have visited Pistoia and the Cattedrale di San Zeno, or Cathedral of Saint John, with its beautiful Pisan-Romanesque façade that is crowned with a lunette by Andrea della Robbia.

Pistoia is about 30 km west and north of Florence. In the centre of the city, the Duomo di Pistoia in the Piazza del Duomo is dedicated to Saint Zeno of Verona and is the seat of the Bishop of Pistoia.

There may have been a smaller cathedral in Pistoia as early as the fifth century, when Pistoia already had a bishop. A cathedral is first mentioned in the year 923. A document in the reign of Emperor Otto III refers in 998 to an old Christian building, so the cathedral was probably first built in the 10th century. The Pisan-Romanesque façade was inspired by other churches in Pistoia, including San Bartolomeo and San Jacopo.

The cathedral was damaged by fire in 1108 and was probably rebuilt over the next few decades, as an altar in the cathedral was dedicated to Saint James the Great by the bishop, Saint Atto, in 1145.

Another fire damaged the cathedral again in 1202. The aisles were covered with vaults in 1274-1275 and a new altar was begun in 1287. An earthquake in 1298 caused further damage. A statue of Saint Zeno by Jacopo di Mazzeo was placed in the west front in 1336.

The façade was rebuilt in 1379-1440 with the addition of three tiers of loggias and a portico. Andrea della Robbia, who was commissioned in 1504 to decorate the archivolt of the portico, created a festoon with plant themes and the coat of arms of the Opera di San Jacopo, as well as of the lunette with bas-reliefs over the central portal, depicting the Madonna with the Christ Child and Angels. He finished the works in 1505.

Inside, the cathedral has a nave and two side aisles, with a presbytery and crypt. Restoration work in 1952-1999 returned the church to its original lines. The mediaeval choir was demolished in 1598-1614, the side chapels were modified and the original apse was replaced by a Baroque tribune surmounted by a dome designed by Jacopo Lafri, while the main aisle was covered by new cross vaults. The ceiling was also decorated, and paintings were added there and in the main chapel.

A statue of Saint James the Great by Andrea Vaccà was added to the façade in 1721. The mediaeval mullioned windows, replaced by Baroque windows, were restored in 1952-1966, and the vaults over the aisle were removed.

The nave and the aisles are separated by columns, and have vaults and wooden truss covers respectively. The right aisle was once occupied by the Chapel of Saint James (San Jacopo), built by Bishop Atto in the mid-12th century to house the relics of Saint James brought from Santiago de Compostela.

The Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is also known as the Chapel of San Donato from a painting of the Madonna enthroned between Saint John the Baptist and Saint Donatus (ca 1475-1486). The painting was commissioned from Andrea del Verrocchio by the heirs of Donato de’ Medici, but was completed by Lorenzo di Credi. The bishop next to the Madonna has been identified as Saint Zeno. In the middle is the Assumption of the Virgin by Giovan Battista Paggi (1590-1600). The tomb of Donato de’ Medici (1475), Bishop of Pistoia, is attributed to Antonio Rossellino.

The Crucifix Chapel has the silver altarpiece of Saint James. It was begun in 1287, took two centuries to erect, was completed by Brunelleschi, and was moved to its present place in 1953. Pace di Valentino, a Sienese goldsmith, created some of the figures surrounding Saint James. Giglio Pisano executed the large silver statue depicting Saint James Enthroned (1349-1353), commissioned as a thanksgiving after the Black Death in 1348.

The two side antependia, made by Leonardo di Ser Giovanni and Francesco Niccolai in 1361-1371, depict Old Testament stories and stories of Saint James,. Other works include the Apostles, Saint Eulalia, Bishop Atto, Saint John the Baptist and Salome by Piero d’Arrigo Tedesco (1380-1390), another Christ in Majesty with Saint Anthony the Abbot, Saint Stephen and the cusp by Nofri di Buto and Atto di Piero Braccini (1394-1398).

There are innumerable important works of art in the south and north aisles, the presbytery, apse and nave. The pulpit was designed by Giorgio Vasari (1560). The Chapel of the Last Judgment houses fragments of a fresco by Giovanni da Ponte (1420-1425), recently identified as a depiction of Dante’s Inferno. The counter-façade houses the Arch of Saint Atto. The baptismal font was designed by Benedetto da Maiano (1497).

The crypt holds the tombs of many past Bishops of Pistoia, and the side walls are decorated with monuments to many more past bishops, including Alessandro di Medici who became Pope Leo XI but had a short reign of only 26 days.

The former bishops’ palace beside the cathedral is now a museum. The 14th century octagonal Baptistry, facing the west door of the cathedral, has distinctive green-and-white marble stripes.

The 14th century octagonal Baptistry in Pistoia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 28: 16-20 (NRSVA):

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

The bell tower beside the west front of the cathedral in Pistoia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Tuesday 7 November 2023):

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 ‘Community Health Programmes’. This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (7 November 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Let us pray for the Church of Bangladesh, comprised of the Dioceses of Dhaka, Kushtia and Barisal.

The Palazzo dei Vescovi or Bishops’ Palace in Pistoia is now a museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

God, the Saviour of all,
you sent your bishop Willibrord from this land
to proclaim the good news to many peoples
and confirm them in their faith:
help us also to witness to your steadfast love
by word and deed
so that your Church may increase
and grow strong in holiness;
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:

Holy Father,
who gathered us here around the table of your Son
to share this meal with the whole household of God:
in that new world where you reveal
the fullness of your peace,
gather people of every race and language
to share with Willibrord and all your saints
in the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

The façade of the cathedral was rebuilt in 1379-1440 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 Church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas or San Giovanni Evangelista Fuorcivitas in Pistoia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)