+ ‘Come to him, a living stone, chosen and precious in God’s sight and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.’ (1 Peter 2: 4-5)
It is easy to treat the great churches and cathedrals of England as museum pieces, to look and wonder at the magnificence of the architecture, admiring the craftsmanship of past eras. Yet, because we see in these buildings reflections of past – or rather, multi-layered palimpsests of the past, marking changing shifts in architectural style and ecclesiological fashion – we expect them to stay the same. There may be new vestments for the clergy, perhaps the odd new statue – there have been two in my time here, both made by Peter Eugene Ball. But the fabric that we see around us now, we tend to think of as constant, unchanging.
Churches are not, however, museums. They do not fossilise the past. They are built of the living stones whom Peter described: the body of Christ that gathers and worships here daily. The church is the people, not just the building. Over time successive congregations have created and adorned this building in styles and with images that speak to them of their particular understanding of God and reflect their preferred modes of worship. It may rightly be called a sermon in stone (and glass, and wood and metal). Yet like other churches, it is not a fixed, unchanging entity. While the sites made sacred by the worship of God over generations remain constant, the buildings deemed fitting and right for such devotions evolve and develop.
The first church built on this site for the use of our patron, St Frideswide and the 12 nuns who built a community around her was made of wood. The congregation of secular priests who after the nuns had gone maintained and tended the saint’s shrine were still housed in a wooden church in 1002, when it was burnt down (together with its ornaments and books) during the St Brice’s Day massacre. Æthelred the Unready gave a grant to rebuild the church and restore its possessions two years later. The edifice in which we now sit was built from the 1160s onwards to meet the needs of the Augustinian priory established here earlier in the twelfth century. Since then, the church has been substantially altered, most significantly by Cardinal Wolsey, who demolished the western bays of the nave to build Tom Quad, and George Gilbert Scott who reordered the building in the 1870s, and opened the West porch for the first time.
At different periods some of the most brilliant glass makers of their generations have been commissioned to design stained glass for the windows of this church, often deploying what were in their day highly innovative techniques. Among those that survive the most significant are the C14th representations of mostly female saints, including Frideswide, in the Latin Chapel; the Jonah window by the C17th Dutch glass painter, Abraham van Linge; and the various Burne Jones windows. EBJ was only 26 when he was commissioned to make the large window in the Latin chapel that tells in cartoon style the story of Frideswide’s life. Before today, the most recent glass in the building was in the light above the gallery over the South Transept, dedicated in 1891 in memory of Henry Parry Liddon, a former ChCh man and celebrated preacher, vice principal of Cuddesdon and later Dean of St Paul’s.
Chapter was thus delighted when Marilyn Kennedy-McGregor approached us to ask if we would consider commissioning a window in memory of her late husband, the much-missed Edward Burn. Edward was Law Tutor here from the 1950s until his retirement in 1990; his ashes are buried in the Cloister Garth. Marilyn wanted the window to depict St Francis and she chose John Reyntiens to make it. John is now best known for leading the team that restored the face of Big Ben, but his studio has completed many other stained glass commissions, including for Parliament and at Windsor Castle. In the 1950s, his father, Patrick, made some new glass for the Christ Church Hall, including the well known images from Alice in Wonderland.
Marilyn asked John to create a beautiful and joyful memorial to Edward Burn, one that would endure over time and be uplifting for all who see it. She wanted St Francis to be the central figure of her window, because he was a saint for whom her husband had enormous affection. He used to say that there were not many saints beside whom he would be happy to be seated at dinner, but St Francis was one of them. What Edward loved about Francis was his love for God’s creation, especially for birds and animals, for Edward shared that same love.
As you will see when we process round to the window for its dedication, John has chosen to place the saint amid a landscape depicting the exuberance of the natural world. St Francis is clearly visible, at the heart of the whole design, but the flowers, trees, birds and one very special animal dominate the scene, making the natural world the central subject, and Francis in some ways secondary.
St Francis’s lifestyle, particularly his commitment to personal poverty through the rejection of all worldly goods, and his choice of an itinerant lifestyle, brought him close to nature. The simple brown habit that he and his fellow preachers wore Francis modelled on the appearance of the lark, whose brown feathers, like the earth, he argued, should serve as example to religious to avoid gaudy clothing. The saint believed that nature itself was the mirror of God and called all creatures his ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. He used to pick up worms from the path and set them beside the track to prevent them from getting squashed; he loved lambs for their guilelessness and simplicity, longing to be their good shepherd. Famously, he once preached to a flock of birds.
John Reyntiens has captured all these themes in his beautiful window, which sets the saint in a riot of colour reflecting the miracle of God’s creation. Among the many birds in the window are a hoopoe; several kinds of tits; some mallards (representing the Tom Quad ducks) and goldfinches. The birds are surrounded by abundance of nature: flowers including dahlias, peonies, mimosa, and a large blue iris. The so-called Jabberwocky tree from the Pococke garden dominates the lower half of the window. And one or two other details are worth looking for: some bees (mindful of Cathedral hives near the Bethel) and also a small dog, called Piccola, who had belonged to Edward and still lives with Marilyn.
A new window cause us to see familiar parts of the building through fresh eyes, while noting that the new glass does not jar, but already looks almost timeless. Its design talks sensitively to the memorials to St Frideswide in the Latin chapel; some of the foliage deliberately echoes that on the saint’s shrine, and there are parallels with the Burne Jones window, in which, for example, you will also see mallards. The choice of plants and flowers local to Oxford reminds us of Frideswide’s role as patron of this city, her use of plants and herbs in healing. It roots the window in the landscape that Frideswide knew. Further, it charges us to follow the example of St Francis in caring for the created world that God gave us, reminding us of our obligations to cherish it, and to preserve it for those who will come after us.
As we rejoice in the example of Frideswide, Francis, and all the saints, we give thanks for the generosity and skill that has caused new glass to be made for the Cathedral. In design and execution, it further enriches and sanctifies this place, giving all who see it a glimpse of the heavenly beauty. May we, as living stones, ever pour forth our praises to the God of our Creation, praying that we may, as we unveil this window, at length be found worthy to behold Him, unveiled.