Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Liturgical Gem in Oxfordshire

St Birinus, DorchesterWilliam Wilkinson Wardell (1824-1899) was a friend and student of A.W.N. Pugin and a convert from Anglicanism in 1843. In 1858 he emigrated to Australia, where he built such notable churches as St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney and St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne. However, before he left for the Antipodes, he built some 30 churches in England.

This activity came shortly after the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829), which restored the Catholic Hierarchy of England and Wales and made possible the public worship of Catholics. This obviously led to a revival of Catholic England and a spate of church building. One such building - among the first Catholic churches to be built after the Reformation - was the church of St Birinus in Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. As with so many of these early churches, it was sited in a historically important town: in 634 Pope Honorius I had sent bishop Birinus to preach the Gospel in these parts and he evangelised King Cynegils of Wessex and established his see at Dorchester. After his canonisation, his shrine formed the centre of the Augustianian abbey of Ss Peter and Paul in Dorchester.

Waddell's church was begun in 1846 and completed three years later. It is a small chapel in a prominent position, a stone's throw from the abbey and by the bridge that fords the river Thames in which St Birinus had baptised thousands. The church is an almost exact replica of a 14th-century Gothic chapel. It is constructed of Littlemore stone with a Caen stone porch and the interior is just one rectangular nave with a smaller chancel in the east end.

Under it's current parish priest, Fr John Osman - who is a former chaplain to Cambridge University - the church has been splendidly restored and his conviction that beauty attracts people to Christ has led to a liturgical movement of sorts in his small parish. He has put in place an 'English altar' with four riddel posts surmounted by gilt angels and decked with beautiful altar falls. He has also replaced the piscina and sedilia, restored the confessional and installed a charming little Rood Screen. The Rood is currently being restored and then the screen will be polychromed and bedecked with heraldry and finally completed with a houseling cloth. Fr Osman also has plans to restore the chancel roof, install a Tester over the altar and a replica of a 14th-century statue of Our Lady is being carved in Spain for her shrine at the back of the church. He has also invited the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge to sing during the Easter Triduum and invited Professor Eamon Duffy to talk about the Rood screen when it is complete.

This beautiful church with its inspiring parish priest is a gem - it was first described as such by Bishop Ullathorne - and it may well be the seed of a new liturgical movement. If so, this is an amply fitting site, as it is in the vicinity of Newman's Oxford and the cradle of Christianity in this region.

For more photos of St Birinus', click here. Or to see the medieval splendours of Dorchester Abbey, click here.

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