ASCENDING into the pulpit of Lincoln’s Inn Chapel on Wednesday of last week, Professor Peter McCullough, Sohmer Fellow in English Renaissance Literature at Lincoln College, Oxford, faced a congregation celebrating the building that was sheltering them from torrential rain. The pews were packed with Members of the Inn, and others, present to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the chapel’s consecration.
In 1619, the Council at Lincoln’s Inn agreed that a new chapel, replacing a smaller one, should be built. Designed by Inigo Jones, its foundation stone was laid by John Donne in 1620, a year before he resigned to become Dean of St Paul’s.
Professor McCullough noted that Donne, preaching at the chapel’s consecration, approached the task with some caution. There was, the Professor explained “deep anxiety in the Jacobean Church of England about how, and indeed whether, to consecrate churches. . . Ritually consecrating material things looked to 17th-century Protestants far too much like Roman Catholic superstition.”
With no mention of, let alone liturgy for, such an occasion in the Book of Common Prayer, and no new parish churches built during Elizabeth I’s long reign, it was left to later bishops to “feel their way”. The “litmus test” faced by preachers was “scriptural authority”, Professor McCullough said.
Donne drew on two passages to meet this test: that of Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis 28 (“This is none other but the house of God”), and Christ walking in the Temple during the feast of Dedication (John 10). But evident in his preaching was a “clear desire not to say very much about the material building itself, but instead to address the individuals who would build and worship in it”, Professor McCullough observed.
In his opening words at the consecration (which Professor McCullough repeated to open his address), Donne expressed the hope that each person in attendance had first “consecrated himself” to God’s service. Donne went on: “Whensoever we present our prayers and devotions deliberately and advisedly to God, there we consecrate that place, there we build a church.”
The address given by Professor McCullough, an editor of The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne, was not the only tribute to the former Dean of St Paul’s in the service. The first reading was his prayer before the sermon at the 1623 service. The anthem was a setting of his Holy Sonnet XIV (“Batter my heart”) by Joanna Marsh, commissioned for the occasion. On display in the library were items including the Bible that Donne donated to the Inn on his departure.
The service also included the dedication of the new stained glass of past treasurers’ shields by the Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, an honorary bencher. The collect was read by Prebendary Sandra McCalla, Chaplain to the Bishop of London. Prebendary McCalla is a Member of the Inn, having served as a barrister before ordination.
While observing that the ecclesial context had changed in 400 years, Professor McCullough suggested that Donne’s core message — his desire to focus on the consecration of the individual — “would and surely should be the same.
“May we glimpse what Donne could see: that there is, even in the story of Jacob’s Ladder, not only a vision of rungs with angels going up and down between heaven and earth, but also steps on a ladder set out for us that stretches from our own hearts and souls then to those in need around us, and only then to this glorious building; steps which, when followed, consecrate both us and it to God’s service.”