Glasgow: Archbishop Conti gives first Molendinar lecture


Archbishop Mario Conti delivered the following lecture in Glasgow City Chambers, on  12 January 2012,  the Vigil of the Feast of St Mungo.

I have been honoured by being invited to give the first in what is intended to become  a series of lectures on the eve of St Mungo’s Feast. The series is to carry the name: 'The Molendinar Lectures'.  The Molendinar, of course, as every Glaswegian knows, or ought to know, is the stream or burn, now for the most part culverted, on the north west grassy banks of which a Christian settlement was established before the sixth century, having the typical topography of an ecclesiastical site - a hillock by running water.  This burn continues to make its hidden journey into the Clyde by Glasgow Green.

I have entitled this lecture, put together at rather short notice, as the 'Tale of two Cathedrals'.  What I have to offer is a pot-pourri of information which has this Christian settlement, particularly the Church that for more than 700 years is built upon it, as a sort of visual aid.  Of course I don’t need to illustrate it here with an overhead projector, since St Mungo’s Cathedral is well known to all of us and is one of the great ornaments of our city.

I may tease you with the mention of a second Cathedral and you wouldn’t have to try terribly hard to guess that it is St Andrew’s on the Clyde, because I don’t want to limit myself to an architectural or historical survey of one building only, but rather to broaden my canvas so that theological and sociological colours merge even into etymological ones, and all can be added to this pot-pourri to give it the sort of description that so often one finds on a bottle of wine with reference to taste. Though with a pot-pourri my metaphor has to do with the nose and not the tongue!  Mind you etymology would suggest that the tongue is likely to be the instrument more interested than the nose in what I have to say!

Of course, I am teasing you, and I will tease you further by saying that really my title should be: “Two Cathedrals and one Church” - though not three buildings; the bright ones among you will already have got my meaning even before I look at the etymology of these words.  

Let me come to the point:  The word “church,” is from old English.  It has its etymological root in the Greek word “kyrios” which means Lord.  We are familiar of course with that word from the Kyrie Eleison which survived even within the Latin Mass, when, not for the last time, the Church, taking into account the language of the people, changed its liturgical tongue in this case from Greek to Latin.  Our word “church” survives from the Greek “kuriakon” the Lord’s House, rather as the Italian word “duomo” survives from the Latin “Domus Dei,” the House of God.

It is very clear, therefore, etymologically that our word “church” refers to a building.  However it is the same word which is used in English to translate from the New Testament, the Greek word ecclesia which provides for romance languages their word for “church” - chiesa in Italian and eglise in French, with traces elsewhere as in Egilsay the church island of Orkney where Magnus was put to death - a martyr’s shrine.

It is in the 16th chapter of St Matthew’s gospel that we find a record of Our Lord’s querying the apostles as to whom people say he is, following it up with the direct question to them: “And who do you say I am?”  

Jesus in his response promises that his church will be built on Peter, whose faith he commends as coming “not from flesh and blood but from my Father in Heaven” adding, “I say to you: you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.” The very verb to build suggests a building, but the word in Greek means an assembly, a gathering of people, in our context a community of faith which is Peter’s.

When we use the word “church” therefore, we can mean either “an assembly” or the building which gives it cover.  

There is of course a figure of speech in which we associate a place with the activity which goes on there and so in common parlance, when we speak of Westminster or Whitehall we mean the Government, as now we do with Holyrood for the devolved government of Scotland, or the City Chambers for the local authority.  

So the word “church” refers first to the people whom Jesus identified as sharing the faith of Peter and gathered under his Apostolic authority, described by Jesus as binding and loosing in his name – the so-called power of the keys: “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.”

As I approached step by step ordination to the priesthood, I received what were called the “minor orders” one of which was doorman. The liturgical rite in being instituted as a doorman was in the handing over of the keys of the church.  I was under no illusions that that meant I could bind and loose! – only that I could act as a sort of janitor and perhaps by acting well in that role be promoted eventually to sharing something of what the keys meant in spiritual terms.

In classical times, of course, the words “temple” and “synagogue” denoted where sacred rites were conducted or where people gathered for instruction and prayer.  The early Christians gathered in the homes of believers, though from the Acts of the Apostles it is clear that worshippers gathered also in open places as by a river, or spoke of religious matters in the squares or market places as did St Paul in the Areopagus in Athens.  Of course as their numbers increased, they needed more spacious and better defined spaces. The Roman Basilica became the model of our earliest churches.

This is not a lecture on the development of church architecture by way of an introduction to the history of two church buildings which at different times have served the same ecclesial community.

However it is of interest in passing to note how aptly the Basilican form served the early Christian community.  A temple housed a statue or, as in the temple of Jerusalem, the accoutrements of the deity, the inner cell of which - the Holy of Holies - was not a place occupied by the followers of the divine cult but rather reserved for the exclusive use of the ministering priests.

The people were outside in an open space or colonnaded court where sacrifices were offered facing the deity or what represented the divine. The loaves placed within the temple were for the deity, not for the people of God.

In the Christian dispensation, however, the loaves were for the faithful, consecrated by priests for their spiritual nourishment; the consecrated chalice of wine replacing the blood of the sacrifice. At the last supper, Jesus said clearly to his apostles in handing them the bread which he had blessed: “This is my body given for you” and with reference to the chalice: “This is the chalice of my blood poured out for you. Do this in memory of me.”

When the faithful assembled they surrounded the altar as a table from which the sacramental gifts were dispensed, which they had themselves placed there as offerings for consecration. The consecrating priest stood at this altar, either facing the Lord to whom the gifts were offered, or the people to whom they were dispensed.  Facing the Lord was symbolically expressed by facing Jerusalem where the Lord was crucified and rose again, or the east, where as the sun of justice he rose to shed his light upon a world darkened by sin.

The Roman Basilica met their liturgical needs.  It was spacious, having the colonnades which supported its roof within its peripheral walls, and not outside them supporting the overhanging roofs as in temples. Its apse provided the natural place for the presiding priest as it had previously accommodated the Roman magistrate.

We can trace the development of this architecture through Romanesque and Gothic forms, though stone vaults rather than timbered ceilings necessarily limited the width of such buildings.  Later Gothic developments, with the construction of flying buttresses and the ever more daring refinement of ribbed vaulting, allowed for greater space in the main body of the building, the nave.     

Neither of the Cathedral churches of which I speak has flying buttresses; neither needed them since neither has stone vaulting. St Mungo’s has a barrel vault to its chancel, while in the nave the wooden beams which support the roof are exposed to view.  

St Andrew’s vault-like construction is of timber and plaster, something not unknown in later medieval buildings, as one discovered when lightning set on fire the north transept of York Minster some decades ago.  

Both of our Cathedrals are in the Gothic style, St Mungo’s demonstrating an authentic and in part innovative development of a medieval church of large proportions, stressing the soaring upward thrust of pure Gothic.

St Andrew’s is an early essay in neo-Gothic, constructed at the beginning of the revival of this style by an architect whose name and genius in the deployment of early architectural forms is known to us, namely James Gillespie Graham.  

When you learn that he is the architect of a building such as St Andrew’s and at the same time of the palladian grandeur of the Moray Place buildings in Edinburgh’s New Town, you can appreciate his competence and versatility as an architect.

As with most medieval buildings we do not know the names of the architects of St Mungo’s Cathedral. We use the words in the plural of course since what we have in that magnificent building is a work which proceeded over a period of some 300 years, and in all probability was the work of master builders, the later ones sensitively ensuring that their work, certainly at St Mungo’s, fitted in with what an earlier generation had built.

It is fair to conclude that St Mungo’s was not the first building on the site above the Molendinar Burn, which had been identified as a Christian place of burial and associated with St Ninian, the first named of our Scottish missionaries.  St Mungo in placing his seat there, would have found or constructed a building perhaps of clay and wattle sufficient to provide accommodation for himself and the community which he gathered there to celebrate the liturgy of the Church.  What we have today on that site has no trace of anything earlier than the episcopate of John Achaius which extended from 1115 to 1147, a small piece of transitional work in the southwest corner of the lower church may possibly be part of a church erected by this Bishop.

His successor, Bishop Jocelin, is credited with further work but most of what we see today commences with the work undertaken by Bishop William De Bondington, who, in 1233, resolved to build a new choir apparently incorporating some of the earlier work.

In its conception and completion, Glasgow Cathedral is, in architectural terms, one of Scotland’s finest buildings and remarkable indeed for its survival, being the only one of the great medieval cathedrals and monastic churches to survive intact on Scotland’s mainland at the time of the reformation – that is at least until Victorian times when, with the overwhelming confidence which characterised that period of our history, those who believed that they had the authority to do so, pulled down its two western towers on account of their being uneven! Ironically, they obtained plans from James Gillespie Graham for twin replacements which happily, in my opinion, were not constructed despite leaving the west front of St Mungo’s architecturally weak.  Every other angle of the building is more majestic, with a well proportioned tower, magnificent tapering spire, and the marvellous chancel rising above the small valley created by the Molendinar burn, gaining its soaring height from the lower church built to cover the tomb of St Mungo.  

That lower church is sometimes referred to as a crypt, though architecturally it is more fittingly described as the lower or inferior church, as was pointed out by my distinguished predecessor, Archbishop Eyre, whose contributions to the contemporary publication, The Book of Glasgow Cathedral, are hugely impressive.

Incidentally the only Cathedral to remain fully intact in Scotland is not in fact on its mainland but on the island of Orkney where Kirkwall’s sturdy Norman church provides what every Cathedral ideally sets out to do – namely to provide a spiritual heart to its city and a monument to the Christian faith.

In one of its main piers in more recent times was discovered the severed head of St Magnus – giving new meaning to the expression: “a pillar of the church”!

The two Cathedrals which I compare are St Mungo’s and St Andrew’s and you might think there was no comparison.  It surprised me, however, to find that in pacing out the two buildings, St Andrew’s is some feet broader than St Mungo’s. However, if we were to reduce the comparison simply to the chancel of St Mungo’s you would discover that the number of bays at St Andrew’s is the same, namely five, and the columns dividing them too similar not to have been copied by James Gillespie Graham from St Mungo’s.  I wonder whether the Rev Andrew Scott had directed him there for inspiration when giving him the commission to build a chapel for the Catholic community which since the late 16th century had not had a permanent place of worship nor had needed one until the beginning of the 19th.

St Andrew’s was built in 3 years between 1814 and 1816.  James Gillespie Graham was proud enough of his building to have chiselled on the inner face of the archway of the main door his name and the date, 1814.

I sometimes speculate as to whether, with the ambition that was already evident in the building of this church, it was conceived simply as the nave of a larger church which might in favourable circumstances be increased in size as the need might arise.

It has of course arisen and one of my motivations in embarking upon the work which over the last few years we have undertaken at St Andrew’s was the need to increase its space so that on larger occasions there would be sufficient room for the numbers that would be expected.  

At a certain stage in the development of plans a decision had to be made whether to proceed with a new chancel to the building or with the cloister which as an idea had emerged in the meantime as a way of ensuring both additional space for worship and a space suited also for social, educational and pastoral gatherings of the faithful or indeed for exhibition purposes.

We have in fact laid the foundations for that and it is likely to be the way in which future work at St Andrew’s will be undertaken.

Looking at St Mungo’s we recognise how over the years similar decisions were made, though as far as I know, no plans were ever laid for a cloister which in so many Cathedrals, particularly south of the border, are a regular feature of their complexes.  

Of course we need to take into account that in many instances the chapters of the Cathedrals, in other words the body of priests and other ministers required for the Cathedral liturgy, were provided by members of the Benedictine Order which would also likely account for the way in which developments took place with chancels set up for responsorial singing as in monastic choirs, with the Bishop having his own stall in choir, distinguished by a more elaborate canopy over it but, nevertheless, part of the choir set up.

This is far removed in style from the old Roman Basilican churches where the seat of the Bishop or presiding priest was in the apse with the supporting ministers in an arc to his right and left.  Following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the encouragement for the priest to face the congregation in the liturgy of the Mass, it became possible for that pattern to be restored and any visitors to St Andrew’s Cathedral will see how it works in practice.

Of course the very word, Cathedral, by which the Bishop’s church is identified, makes reference to his chair.  The word Cathedral exists as a noun, but it is basically an adjective defining a building by reference to the Bishop’s cathedra, a Greek word for chair.  In other words a Cathedral, by its very essence, for the function that it fulfils, contains the chair of a Bishop from which he exercises his role as teacher and presider of the Church’s liturgy.

The set up of the chancel or choir of St Mungo’s Cathedral and the place of the Bishop’s chair must be a matter of speculation. While the merchants and tradesmen of the city are credited with protecting the Cathedral from structural damage, they clearly did not prevent the stripping of the altars and the removal of all objects of piety and presumably all other ornaments of the Cathedral which in their ascendancy the reformers with the support of the Lords of the Congregation required should be implemented, all to be taken out apparently and burnt.  

There is no report to the best of my knowledge of whether that was done with great public spectacle, though there must have been many who were both shocked and saddened at such great destruction.  All this happened in the wake of the Reformation Parliament of 1560 when the Catholic Mass was banned, a reformed profession of faith introduced, and recourse to the Holy See prohibited.

The last of the medieval bishops in communion with the Holy See, James Beaton, made his prudently swift departure, taking with him the chartularies of the lands of the Archbishopbric, other historic papers and precious items including the mace of the University of which he was Chancellor.

In the safety of Paris, however, he continued to act as an Ambassador of the Scottish Crown until his death in 1603, the year when James VI of Scotland became First of England – a convenient concurrence of events. He was restored to some of the temporalities of the See towards the end of the century in recognition of his services to the crown. He had a modest fortune to leave to the Scottish students studying for the priesthood at the University of Paris from which in due course came men to serve the needs of the now ostracised remnant of the Church which remained in communion with the Apostolic See in Rome.

The Cathedral was put to reformed use with three congregations occupying different parts of the building, divided from one another by high stone walls.

The restoration of the Stuart monarchy, after the civil war, gave hopes to those whose allegiances were still with the “auld kirk” particularly with the conversion of James II to the Catholic faith and his marriage to Mary of Modena.  It was the birth of their son James, the old pretender, which precipitated the events which led to the Royal family fleeing to the continent and the so-called glorious revolution effected with the arrival in Britain of William and Mary. In the wake of this a Presbyterian order triumphed in Scotland and those who still held to episcopacy had to vacate the places which they occupied and find others wherein they could continue to worship in that form.  St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Great Western Road is heir to that tradition.

The attempts of the Stuarts to reclaim their throne which ended so tragically at Culloden resulted in the vigour of the penal laws being refuelled and the 18th century was a difficult time for both Catholics and Episcopalians.

By the end of the 18th century, however, relief acts first of all gave Episcopalians and then, in 1793, Catholics, freedom to worship, own property and transfer it without hindrance to their heirs.  Full Catholic emancipation came in 1829.  

Not since Archbishop James Beaton had there been a resident Catholic Bishop in Glasgow.  Bishop Andrew Scott took up his residence in the city in 1827 having previously (since 1808) served a small but growing Catholic community with a chapel in the Calton.  

Foreseeing the need of a permanent chapel for this congregation as immigration steadily increased the Catholic population, he obtained a virgin site, then on the edge of the City next to the Poorhouse and Infirmary, and had James Gillespie Graham build St Andrew’s Chapel between 1814 and 1816.

I recall an occasion in Aberdeen when the choir of St Machar’s Cathedral visited us at St Mary’s.  When a younger member of it asked about our cathedral’s age, I replied 1860.  She responded with surprise: “I thought Catholics would have had a Cathedral earlier than that!”.

This reply drew from an older member, with a slightly embarrassed smile, the sentence: “Yes – they did but we now have it!”.

In fact neither St Mary’s in Aberdeen, nor St Andrew’s were built as Cathedrals – though there may have been the hope that some day they might have that dignity.  They were constructed as parish churches, or chapels as was the parlance in Scotland, parlance which may not have disappeared entirely.  Do we not still call many of the homes of priests “chapel houses”?

Indeed the story goes around of the wee Glasgow wifie, telling my predecessor after a visit to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome that she had left her umbrella behind in the chapel!

St Andrew’s and St Mary’s became Cathedrals with the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy by Pope Leo XIII in 1878.

As an aside, the first Catholic Cathedral to have been built as such in the post reformation period in Britain was St Chad’s in Birmingham between 1839 and 1841.  Designed by Augustus Welby Pugin, a contemporary and subsequently a friend of James Gillespie Graham to whom his recent biography records he sent drawings - but not as far as I know for St Andrew’s, which was finished in 1816, the year after the Battle of Waterloo. As such it is older than St Chad’s but the English and Welsh Catholic hierarchy was restored 28 years earlier than in Scotland, in 1850.

When built, St Andrew’s was regarded by commentators as the “most commodious Catholic Church in Britain”.

It is interesting to note that while the growth of the Catholic communities in the cities of the industrial revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries warranted both the restoration of the traditional structures of the Catholic Church and the building of Cathedrals, the obverse may be said to have been the case in the early centuries of our country’s history.  

When, from a largely rural society, urban areas started to form, often as in Glasgow at river fords - a natural hub of commerce, or, after the cessation of Norse incursions, at coastal ports, ecclesiastical centres provided a natural focus for these urban developments.  Many of them after all had the right to hold fairs on feast days.  

At least three of these ecclesiastical centres, namely St Andrews in Fife, Glasgow and Aberdeen became also the centres for universities, established by Bishops with royal patronage and papal authority.  It has often been pointed out that Govan or Partick or even Dumbarton might have developed to carry its name as the city on the Clyde, but for the presence in Glasgow of its important ecclesiastical centre and its cathedral.

It was David I, son of Queen Margaret of Scotland and King Malcolm Canmore,who did much to continue the ecclesiastical reforms prompted by his saintly mother.  It was he who re-established the bishopbric at old Aberdeen at the mouth of the Don which formerly had its centre at Mortlach in Upper Banffshire.  

Even earlier, while still Earl and Lord of Strathclyde, David had instituted an enquiry into the lands belonging to the Church of Glasgow and having confirmed them, refounded the bishopbric of Strathclyde which historically owed its existence to the missionary activities of St Kentigern in the late 6th and early 7th centuries, contemporary therefore with St Columba who died at Iona in 597, the same year as Pope Gregory the Great, sent St Augustine and his monks to Britain for the conversion of the English (the Angles and Saxons).

There is little “authentic information” about Kentigern other than the likelihood of his being born in Culross, Fife, around 540, but certainly he exercised a ministry in the British kingdom of Strathclyde, that is, “in lands from the River Forth in the north to what is now Cumbria in northwest England”, not perhaps the first Bishop missionary in this territory but the first to be chosen by the King and clergy as Bishop, as stated in Abbot Jocelin’s life of St Kentigern. This life was commissioned by the Bishop of the same name whose building work was therefore not only in the physical church but also in a sense in the spiritual.

According to that life and supported by archaeological as well as literary evidences, St Kentigern established also, or made his centre for a time, at Hoddom in Dumfriesshire and also founded the church in North Wales at St Asaph, whose Anglican bishop addressed us at the ecumenical service held in St Mungo’s Cathedral earlier this week to mark the feast.

Kentigern died and was buried in Glasgow around 612/614 meaning that this year could mark the 1400th anniversary of his death.  He was recognised as a saint and confessor in lists of saints (martyrologies) dating from the 9th century, and his tomb was venerated as a goal of pilgrimage, King Edward I of England making an offering at his shrine in 1301 of seven shillings!  A later Bishop, Bishop Wishart, at the time when Scots were struggling for their independence, supported first of all William Wallace and then Bruce, and any further offering from an English king would hardly thereafter have been made or welcomed!

The Cathedral we see today and in which the city glories, contains no remnant of the church or churches it replaced earlier in the restoration of the see. Much more could be said of its architectural magnificence, with recollection of its rich furnishings from the late medieval period, and its use thereafter as the site of no less than three congregations of the citizens of Glasgow, but time does not allow it.  

It remains a place of worship for Christians, and developments over recent years have seen an increasing number of ecumenical services taking place within it, so that it is not simply an architectural ornament of the city and, as a building, a great reminder of our history, it is also, still, the mother church of Glasgow’s Christians, and the place where its citizens can gather together under the mantle of St Mungo and pray together for the unity of the Church and the well being of their city ...  

Let Glasgow Flourish!


Source: SCMO


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