Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

St Mary Magdalen

I realise as I reflect on this feast of St Mary Magdalen that over the years several churches dedicated to her have marked my historical as well as my spiritual path.

One is the very fine historic parish church at Campsall in my native Yorkshire. Situated in that area dotted with fine churches alongside the Great North Road between Pontefract and Doncaster. It shows two phases of two phases of Norman work, the later work of extremely high quality, later medieval improvements, including what may have been a priest's room to enable him to be there for an early celebration of Mass, and amongst the furnishings a handsome fifteenth century rood-screen (a rare survival in the area) with an English inscription on it worthy of Eamon Duffy's interest I think - but more of that is another post, and an altar from Pugin's now destroyed Jesus Chapel at Ackworth - and again more on that to come in another post. Opposite the church the vicarage includes substantial medieval remains - again a rarety.

As a boy I remember being fascinated by reading accounts of the discovery in 1853 (I think) of the considerable remains in Doncaster Market Place of the church of St Mary Magdalen. Abandoned at the reformation it had been absorbed by houses and shops and was only revealed when they were being demolished to make way for the new market hall. it too, alas, was destroyed though a pillar was, I believe, preserved. It still shocks me to think of that destruction of such a fine historic survival - there are engravings of the remains of a very fine building.

To the west are the remains of Monk Bretton Priory, again dedicate dto teh magdalen, and founded as a daughter of the Cluniac Priory in Pontefract, but which in the thirteenth century declared,and secured, its independence from Pontefract, continuing until 1538 as Benedictine priory. It is not very well known, and situated on the edge of Barnsley, but well worth visiting - it is administered by English Heritage.

It was with fellow pilgrims from, amongst other parishes, St Mary Magdalen Altofts, a few miles west of Pontefract that I first went as an Anglican on pilgrimage to Walsingham. The church at Altofts was built in the late nineteenth century by Mrs Meynell-Ingram, sister to the great Lord Halifax of Church Union fame. Though not comparable to her great church at Hoar Cross in Staffordshire it is still a fine building.

It was in Magdalen College here in Oxford that I first discussed with a Oxford academic, Gerald Harriss, the possibilities of my coming to Oxford to study late-medieval history as a graduate student, and that discussion took place in what must be virtually the holy of holies to late medievalists - K.B.Macfarlane's library.

Once established in Oxford, like so many Anglo-Catholics over the years, I used to go to "Mary Mags". In those days the church could still be described to one as being " the highest in the Church of England" - not I think true at the time, but the remains of Colin Stephenson's work - again see a forthcoming post - were still visible in the outward forms of the liturgy. Over the years, as I found other Anglo-Catholic churches to which I gave my allegiance, I seemed to see the heritage of "Mary Mags" being whittled away, as Solemn Evensong and Benediction every Sunday was replaced by a said service in the Lady Chapel and then scrapped, the creeping influence of 'Affirming Catholicism' took its toll, and now, I gather, women clergy assisting. Very sad to see in my opinion.

Finally there is St Mary Magdalen's Brighton, now well known through Fr Blake's blog. I visited the church last year and it really is splendid. I gather from the blog that the restoration work is progressing in the church, and its parochial life seems very impressive. It is a real and positive example of what can be achieved in this day and age by a priest and a parish working to live out in its fullness the Catholic truth and vision. Long may it continue on that path.

So these various churches have marked my journey in faith and also provided me with much enjoyment as an historian. I am grateful for all that, and realise how lucky I am to have experienced so much of the Christian heritage of the country.

May St Mary Magdalen continue to pray for us, and for the churches entrusted to her patronage.

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