Our church is called St Michael le Belfrey. We’re proud of that name, but to some it’s a bit of a mouthful, which might explain why over the years it’s been shortened to a number of different names. These days we commonly call our church fellowship The Belfrey. Here’s why. St Michael le Belfrey is an ancient and historic parish and church building, standing in the heart of York, next to York Minster. Like The Belfrey, York Minster is not York Minster's proper or full name of the church; it’s their commonly-known name, being easier to say and more memorable than the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York! There’s a long history of churches doing this for many years.
When I arrived in York in 2009 the people of our church, as well as those outside it, called our church by four names: 1) St Michael le Belfrey, 2) St Mike’s, 3) St Michael’s and 4) The Belfrey. I was confused! What should I call us? I soon discovered other newcomers were unclear too. I couldn’t imagine another organisation having four slightly different names for itself! As we spent time looking at our church’s vision and why we existed so I talked with various church members, leaders, Wardens and PCC about our name. Names are important. They relate to purpose and identity. Clearly we weren’t going to change our full name - St Michael le Belfrey. But was there a shorter, commonly-known name we might begin to use more consistently? We looked at the options.
We thought that St Michael’s was a fine name although it sounded a bit traditional, and that it didn’t really reflect our history and heritage of contemporary worship, evangelism and renewal which we’d been pioneering for the last 40+ years since David Watson. There was also another church in the centre of York called St Michael’s - in Spurriergate. We didn’t want to confuse or get mixed up with this church, especially as many in the city wrongly thought the two were now one church, after we’d been asked by the Diocese of York in the 1980s to turn St Michael’s Spurriergate into what is now The Spurriergate Centre.
St Mike’s was another option but many felt it was rather colloquial and some said it felt a little irreverent, and even disrespectful to the great Archangel.
So we then considered The Belfrey. This was the name that many in the Diocese already called the church community. It was also the tag-line that had been used in recent years for some of the church’s ministries, like Belfrey Music, Belfrey Trust and the Belfrey Hall. The Belfrey was short, unique and memorable. It was also not new. It was already imbedded in our full name and also a name that the church had sometimes been called in the past, as seen in John Speed’s famous 1610 map of York. Interestingly, as we looked at the word Belfrey and an etymological search was undertaken, so it seemed to fit well with our calling to be a church serving God’s transformation of the North. A Belfrey originally was not a bell-tower but more of a strong tower. A watch tower. A place of protection. And sometimes even of proclamation.
That’s why we settled on The Belfrey. Our full name is and always will be St Michael le Belfrey, although that name is now used mainly for the church building (eg. ‘the people of The Belfrey were worshipping in St Michael le Belfrey Church’). People will still use other names, and our PCC, when we discussed this a number of years ago, rightly agreed not to jump on anyone who continues to use some other name, although staff and leaders are urged to use The Belfrey for the church community, to encourage consistency. All this we’ve been doing for a number of years now and it seems to work well.
One final thought. This work on our name may possibly help shed a bit of further light on why our church was called St Michael le Belfrey in the first place. An 11th Century passage about the life of St John of Beverley describes him using the church of St Michael around the beginning of the 8th Century, and so it’s likely that there’s been a church on the site since at least then. We know it was called after St Michael in memory of the Archangel Michael. Being the chief of the angels, Michael protects God’s people and, along with all angels, plays a key role in the worship and mission of Almighty God. But why le Belfrey is also part of the name is not clear. It’s been suggested it refers to a bell-tower on the church, or that it points to York Minster’s nearby bell-tower. However what if le Belfrey relates to St Michael? What if it has nothing to do with the building and everything to do with the patron-saint, rather like the Less of St James the Less or The Great of St Peter the Great are all adjectives describing the saint? This makes even more sense after the background word-search of the word le Belfrey shows it comes, unsurprisingly, from an old French word ‘belfroi’ meaning, as noted above, a fortified watch-tower, providing peace and protection. This, according to Scripture is the role of Michael the Archangel: he is chief and strongest of all angels, working for the peace and protection for God’s people. What a calling - to be a strong tower like our name-sake, St Michael. St Michael The Belfrey!
A Belfrey originally was not a bell-tower but more of a strong tower. A watch tower. A place of protection. And sometimes even of proclamation.
... what if le Belfrey relates to St Michael? What if it has nothing to do with the building and everything to do with the patron-saint, rather like the Less of St James the Less or The Great of St Peter the Great are all adjectives describing the saint?
Our full name is and always will be St Michael le Belfrey, although that name is now used mainly for the church building (eg. ‘the people of The Belfrey were worshipping in St Michael le Belfrey Church’).
What a calling - to be a strong tower like our name-sake, St Michael. St Michael The Belfrey!