Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 5th February 2012
5 February 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Imagine the scene, if you will:
The year is 1857. Father Joseph doesn’t yet know it, but he is on the brink of one of the greatest archaeological finds of the century; in fact, one of the most extraordinary finds of all time. Digging away at the floor of his church, he notices something unusual: a hollowness, perhaps; a persistent draught? A recollection passed down through generations of monks about something lying beneath the church.
So he sets to work, removing first the layers of floor tiles before reaching the rubble infill beneath. There is definitely a cavity below him, he can hear it as the shovel pounds away and suddenly finds himself looking down at darkness: thick, black, complete, and utter darkness – but one so deep that his meagre candle-light won’t let him gaze to the bottom. Yet of one thing he is sure: he has found what he has been looking for.
If this sounds like an ecclesiastical version of 'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark', then please forgive my dramatic interpretation! But the gist is real enough: Father Joseph Mullooly was an Irish Dominican priest in the nineteenth century and superior of Saint Clement, San Clemente, in Rome.
He did indeed carry out excavations on his church, which is a stone’s-throw distance from the Coliseum, and unearthed both a third-century Christian basilica under the present church, and also beneath that a first-century street-level temple to the Persian god Mithras, one of the imported religions popular in contemporary Rome.
But first let me explain why I was there in the summer and what the connection with Westminster Abbey is.
The Abbey that you now see around you is the ‘new Abbey’. If you’re visiting England for the first time, we have a tendency to understatement. For ‘new’ read 1268.
When Richard de Ware became the Abbot of Westminster a decade earlier he travelled to Rome to receive confirmation of his appointment from the Pope, staying in Anagni Cathedral to the southeast of the city.
Throughout the nave and the crypt of Anagni he would have seen the most fabulously decorated pavements, newly constructed when Richard visited; the work of a Roman family, the Cosmati.
So impressed was Richard by what he saw that he decided to replicate them in the new Abbey, and when this building was nearing completion a team of craftsmen from Rome arrived, under the direction of one Odoricus. What you see in front of you before the high altar is their work, with Abbot Richard buried on the north side. Please take a look at the end of the service.
Work by the same Cosmati family adorns many of the churches of Rome, including the church of San Clemente, and that was what attracted me there. But then the story of Father Joseph gripped me. You see, the archaeology is interesting enough, but the faith story of the Saint and his Church needs to be told.
Let me borrow your imagination once again, and this time I would like you to picture in your mind street-level at around fourteen metres, or forty-five feet, above where you are sitting – approximately the height of the triforium.
This is today’s street level in Rome, fourteen metres above ancient Roman times, where San Clemente now stands with its beautiful Cosmati pavement, and where Father Joseph began to dig.
In his first break-through he unearthed a complete church underneath the one he could see. Itself a fine third or fourth-century basilica, the walls of the church were decorated with astonishing frescos and contained two important tombs, one of St Clement, the second of St Cyril.
St Clement had been the fourth bishop of Rome and was said to have been consecrated by St Paul himself. Clement’s life takes us back to the earliest church, but like so many of the first Christians he was persecuted under the Emperor Trajan and sent to the Crimea, where he was martyred by being thrown into the sea, tied to an anchor.
Centuries later Saints Cyril and Methodius were sent on their great missionary journey to the Slavic peoples, where Cyril created the script of Russia we now call ‘Cyrillic’. On their journey they found the relics of Saint Clement and brought them to Rome to be buried in the church that bears his name. St Cyril himself died just a year later and is buried there as well.
If your imagination is still working overtime, that basilica is the first floor underground, roughly half-way down the pillar.
But beneath that early church Father Mullooly discovered another level, roughly where you are sitting, that of street-level ancient Rome. And here we find not only houses and courtyards, perhaps even the Roman mint, but also a temple shrine to Mithras, a deity imported from Persia and popular in the early Christian centuries.
If you have the opportunity to visit, it’s astonishing to be forty-five feet underground and to realise that you are walking along the alleys of ancient Rome with two complete churches above you.
This might seem like a gripping romp through an archaeological masterpiece, but is that all? Let me share a reflection by way of conclusion.
To a remarkable extent the archaeological development of San Clemente parallels the spiritual one of European Christianity. It would be quite possible to argue that the pre-existing and exotic religion of Mithras was superseded by the new Christian faith. To begin with a house-church, but then with growing confidence by the third century a fine basilica, and eventually the church we see today – literally superimposing the Christian faith over the site of an earlier religion.
And what’s more, we could talk about the seemingly insoluble link between Eastern and Western Christianity which was so alive in the ninth century when Cyril and Methodius visited, only to be rent apart by the Great Schism which divided Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians in 1054, and has been Christianity’s fault-line ever since.
But while the edifice now at street-level is the culmination of 2000 years of development, it begs the question, Has that process come to an end or is it a continuing and constant dynamic in which religions compete for supremacy, building on, or over, the foundations laid by others?
This language may be distasteful to many of us who live with a post-Colonial squeamishness about overly-confident expressions of religion. But this is nonetheless a process we can see at work around us every day: it may be the assault of an atheist or secular agenda; it may be the vibrancy of a community newly-arrived on our shores who define themselves through their faith; it may be the apathetic acceptance of the silent majority.
But we, for our part, must ensure that our faith is not consigned to be a fossilised archaeological specimen, buried beneath the foundations of newer faith, ready for another generation to pick over as an interesting artefact; the rubble detritus of a glorious Christendom.
In the words of 1 St Peter 2: 4-5:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.