29 September 2019
Revd Nicholas Mercer
It is interesting how some people keep turning up in your life
I first encountered George when I was a schoolboy at Uppingham School. Indeed, I met him in the Chapel every week
When I left School, I thought that was the last I would see of him, however, we next met, about six years later, when I was articled in London
This time I was in the High Courts of Justice where, as a very inexperienced young solicitor, I was marginally involved in the case of PvP.
A young Nicholas Mostyn was acting for the Respondent and I suppose he must have come across George too
After many more years I met him, again, at Cuddesdon where he had been involved for many years
Thinking that was the last time I would bump into him, but I was astounded to meet him yet again when I came to Bolton Priory
On and off, I have known him for forty five years
Arguably, he has played a very formative part in my life and may well have done so in many of yours
For those of you who have not already twigged, “George” is George Edmund Street who was a famous Church architect
He was born in 1824 and became a leading practitioner of the English Gothic revival
Although he was principally an ecclesiastical architect, his most famous secular building was the High Courts of Justice
Unbeknown to me however Street was made Diocesan Architect of Ripon in 1868.
This was in addition to similar posts which he already held in the dioceses of York and Oxford
He was also appointed Architect to York Minster at around the same time
Until I came to Bolton Abbey, I had no idea that he had also left his mark on Bolton Priory
Bolton Priory became a separate parish in 1866 when the 7th Duke of Devonshire began a major restoration supervised by George Street.
We enjoy the fruits today but, its “most pleasing” interior represents an ecclesiastical battle that was raging in the mid nineteenth century
The English Gothic revival was associated with Catholicism and the re-awakening of High Church and Anglo Catholic movements
Although the movement had arisen, in part, due to the concern over evangelicalism and non-conformity, it was also a battle for the heart and soul of Anglicanism
In essence, was this a Protestant Church or was it an English branch of Catholicism?
This battle was fought on many fronts, but one of the battle grounds was “ecclesiology” – which is concerned with Church building and decoration.
I do not have a particularly good eye for Church architecture but I was very struck by the drawings of Bolton Priory in Hanoverian England
In Hanoverian times, the Church was orientated towards the pulpit located on the South Wall
This reflected the word based fellowship of Edwardian and Elizabethan England
The Victorians, however, re- orientated the Church to face the altar to emphasise the centrality of the Eucharist
The raised altar and chancel were modelled on the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano in Rome.
The fact that a Roman model was chosen spoke volumes about the spiritual home of the architecture
But the “theology” underpinning all these architectural reforms is called “sacramentality”
The sacramentality of Church buildings means that “The outward and visible form of the Church signifies something inward and spiritual”
As the leading magazine at the time said
“The material fabric [of the Church] symbolizes, embodies, figures, represents, expresses, answers to some abstract meaning
This means for instance that that the nave and two side aisles represents the Holy Trinity and the tiles on the roof were the soldiers who preserve the church from her enemies”
If you look up to our own roof you won’t see tiles but you will see angels
Indeed angels adorn every principal rafter of our Church roof and more
And there could not be a more important adornment for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels today
Today is about Angels – it is their Feast day
The Bible has many references to angels, both great and small, which we take in our stride:
- Jacob wrestles with an angel in the book of Genesis
- Moses is told by an angel that he has to deliver the Israelites from slavery
- The Virgin Mary is visited by an angel who tells her that she is with child and
- The shepherds are told by an angel that they would find a babe lying in a manger.
- The shepherds join with the heavenly host in singing God’s praise
This morning, we heard about the Archangel Michael
He is not just an angel but an Archangel
He is referred to in the book of Daniel as “the great Prince who protects the (your) people”.
Michael is seen, first as being the protector of Israel, and later as a protector of the Christian Church
In the New Testament, St Michael proclaims the Resurrection of the dead in the first letter to the Thessalonians (4.16).
And, most strikingly, as we heard this morning, St Michael defeats the devil in a cosmic battle (Revelation 12:12)
But the reference to angels does cause us some problems in this scientific age
Do we believe in angels anymore? Do we believe in cosmic battles?
In medieval times, theologians would have had little difficulty in accepting the reality of angels
St Thomas Aquinas, for instance, asked himself, not whether angels existed but whether they can be in more than one place at once (locomotion)
Scholars, or schoolmen asked how many angels could dance on a pin head
The Pilgrim Fathers/on their journey down to Plymouth/ believed that those who looked after them on the way were in fact angels in disguise
This is the reason why may pubs/even today/ are called the “Angel Inn”
But how much credence do we give angels in the third millennia?
Fascinatingly, Time magazine in 1993 devoted its front cover to the subject of angels
- 69 per cent of those interviewed said they believed in angels
- 46 per cent said that they had a guardian angel
- 13 per cent had seen or sensed the presence of an angel
Although belief in God is declining, belief in angels is on the increase
But, whether you believe Angels or not, I think that there are some modern reflections we can take away from the feast of St Michael and All Angels this morning
First and foremost, whatever we think, angels and archangels form part of our Christian heritage
Eighty eight Schools and eleven Universities, including Oxford and Cambridge still have a Michaelmas term as does the legal profession.
The fact that, 2000 years after the birth of Christ, we still name terms after an Angel is quite remarkable in itself
But angels and archangels are also a living reality and not just an archaic part of our national life
They are part of our worship:
We say in the Eucharist today, as we do each and every week
“Therefore with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy holy name, saying Holy, Holy, Holy. Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory”
Part of our celebration of the Eucharist is joining together with both heaven and earth as we have a foretaste of God’s heavenly banquet
Similarly, like the shepherds in the fields, we join with the heavenly host singing our praises in Church
And finally, the cosmic battle.
Priests today speak of cosmic warfare. I have experienced it myself first hand
But whatever you think, St Michael battle over the devil and sin is something of which all need to be continually aware
We need to seek God’s help, and anyone who might be assisting him, in our own cosmic battles
But returning to “George”, it is George Edmund Street, and others, whom we have to thank for the “sacramentality” which forms part of our architecture and decoration in Bolton Priory
The Angels in our own Church are a visible presence of an inward and spiritual reality
Like the Archangel Michael
- They remind us that God protects our Church
- Like the letter to the Thessalonians, they “proclaim” the Resurrection of the dead.
- And they remind us of the battle we all need to fight against sin and the devil
So when you are next in Church, although you are unable to see them, remember that, you too, know George just like me
But remember you also know St Michael
Even though we might not see him he too is a living reality