Thought for the Day : Wednesday 27 January

Thought for the Day by Kevin Ward (St Michael’s)

There was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The devil and his angels fought back but they were defeated.

Revelation 12:7

During lockdown, I have taken to wandering around Headingley and Far Headingley. Not far from Headingley town centre is Bennett Road. There’s a large ecclesiastical-looking building there. At the entrance is a stone sculptured panel depicting  Michael and the Dragon.  The building was originally called the St Michael’s Parochial Institute, and  was the brainchild of  Canon Frederick John  Wood,  vicar of St Michael’s  from  1881 to 1913. He intended the Institute to provide a social gathering for all who lived in the parish,  to ‘give opportunities in the evening for self-improvement and wholesome recreation to young men’. (Why not also young women, one may ask!) There was a large meeting room for public entertainment, and for gatherings of various political parties and  religious groups of all denominations, and there was a reading room which provided newspapers and periodicals; also a billiards room.  The Institute was opened in 1884, and for its first two years  served as the place of worship for St Michael’s parishioners, during the construction of our present parish church. The construction of the new church had earlier aroused heated debate because the larger footprint of the new building necessitated the disturbance, and the feared desecration,  of the surrounding graves:    

                                    A war in Headingley, if not in heaven.

One grave, dating from 1845, which still exists undisturbed outside the East window, has this poignant epitaph:         

Life is uncertain,            Death is sure
The wound is sin, and Christ the cure.

The stone frieze at the Institute shows St Michael as a  young man, somewhat encumbered by his wings, gingerly thrusting his lance into the dragon, a rather fierce and winged lion. Unfortunately for the angel, the shaft  has broken off. Some kind soul has  substituted a metal tube, but this too has become detached from the hilt, and  looks  ludicrously out of place. It somehow feels that  Michael is fighting a losing battle. Remember Geoffrey Howe’s famous resignation speech: “Its rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that the bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

The identification of the dragon with Satan, the Devil, figures strongly in Christian art and iconography down the ages. The Welsh red dragon, however, has positive connotations of struggle against invaders. In China and Japan, the dragon has always had a much more respected status: a heavenly being, representing majesty and authority, with strong connections to water – the dragon bestows rain and fertility on the earth, and protects seafarers during storms. There’s a famous painting by Hokusai depicting a dragon rising above Mt Fuji. Here the dragon is seen as a symbol of worldly success, the heavenly bestowal of good things   on the inhabitants of  earth.

One member  of St MIchael’s remembers using the building for Brownies when she was a girl. In 1957 it still had an active life as the home of the British Legion, a Badminton Club and for meetings of the Mothers’ Union. But at some time the Institute was sold off and was divided into office units. However,  in 2018 Leeds Vineyard, an evangelical Christian group, bought the building, and plans to use it for a variety of social activities to help the local community.  Definitely this will include lots of  activities involving women and children! It is good to see this building again being restored for Christian service to the people of Headingley.

For more information see the website of Leeds Vineyard and R.J. Wood, St Michael’s Headingley,  The Caxton Press, 1957

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