Yesterday [back in 2016 now] I was blessed indeed to celebrate for the first time the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St Basil at the Abbey of St Mary in Glastonbury. I had arrived in Glastonbury for the Feast of the Transfiguration, and in our Liturgy we already looked forward to the Feast of the Virgin St Mary, the Theotokos, on Monday. Glastonbury has always been associated with the Virgin St Mary. It was one of the most important monasteries in Britain until the 16th century when it was sadly destroyed by the Protestant revolution that swept away more than 1000 years of Christian history.
The origins of the monastery are so far distant in time that it appeared almost as though it had no human beginning. It seems likely that, as in other places in Britain and in Europe, the first place of worship had been established in a Roman villa, either during the Roman period, or in those centuries after the Imperial Government abandoned Britain, and while Romanised British in the area continued to live as civilised a life as possible. What we do know is that there was, in ancient times, a wooden church here, known as the ‘Old Church’, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and represented certainly one of the oldest Christian places of worship that had continuity of use. In 725 AD, the records of King Ine of Wessex speak already of the old Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and describe it as ‘foremost Church in Britain, the fount and source of all religion’. By 1000 AD it was so highly thought of as a shrine that the biographer of St Dunstan, one of the great saints of the British Isles and himself a novice, monk and Abbot of Glastonbury, wrote…
…they found a Church, not built by art of man, but prepared by God Himself for the salvation of mankind, which Church the Heavenly Builder declared by many miracles and many mysteries of healing, He had consecrated to Himself and to Holy Mary Mother of God.
For 1500 years, until the Protestant revolution, the people of Britain venerated and honoured the Virgin St Mary, the Theotokos, and the special feast day of Glastonbury, its patronal day, was on the Feast of the Virgin Mary. In the West this was celebrated on August 16th, a few days ago, and in our own Coptic Orthodox community we keep it on the 16th Mesra, which is tomorrow. The veneration of the Virgin St Mary is not alien to Britain at all. It has simply been lost under a veneer of secularity.
Here in Glastonbury I celebrated at an altar, rebuilt in modern times, that stands in the place where that old wooden church, already ancient when it comes into historical view, dedicated to the Virgin St Mary had once stood, one of the spiritual treasures of Britain until the 16th century. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us and for the people of these British Isles, that we might be renewed in faith by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, your son and Saviour of all.