WHATEVER the weather, the view from my bedroom was endlessly compelling. There, before me, were the ruins of the once proud and wealthy Glastonbury Abbey, and I found myself thinking of St Paul’s.
I was leading a retreat recently in Abbey House, which overlooks the remains of Glastonbury Abbey. It was one of 800 abbeys in England that were “dissolved” in the reign of Henry VIII. In 1539, the King’s men came to strip the assets of this well-endowed institution. When the abbot, Richard Whiting, resisted, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered on Glastonbury Tor.
But I have known St Paul’s for longer than I have known the Abbey. I was ordained priest there in 1985. I have preached there a couple of times; I have been a tourist in the Whispering Gallery; and, for a couple of years, I was on the pastoral rota, explaining to enquirers that there were no lavatories on the premises (times have changed, I believe), and calling for quiet, on the hour, to lead the assembled sightseers in prayer.
In their different times, both institutions have symbolised great wealth. The Abbey capitalised on the fortuitous “discovery” of the bones of King Arthur in 1191, which made it an essential destination for pilgrims; and the beautiful St Paul’s seems very much at home amid the financial institutions that surround and support it, prompting one of the protesters, dressed as Jesus, to carry the sign “I threw out the money lenders for a reason.”
But now the Abbey is a ruin. After the dissolution, it was stripped of lead, and its dressed stones carried away to be used in other buildings. St Paul’s, cut off momentarily from the cash-cow of tourism, is at least briefly reminded of its own mortality.
Virginia Woolf was in favour of suffering. “I like people to be unhappy,” she said, “because I like them to have souls. We all have, doubtless, but I like the suffering soul which confesses itself. I distrust this hard, this shiny, this enamelled content.”
She believed that suffering made people more human, less hard — that it reminded them who they were; and the same can be true of institutions. The Abbey remains a Grade I listed building, but its grandeur lies not in its pomp but in its brokenness and dismantlement. One glory has been exchanged for another, and, although it is humiliating to lose your roof, it does reveal the big sky, which is a greater wonder.
The old St Paul’s died in the Great Fire of London in 1666, but the new St Paul’s, touched by the genius of Wren, famously survived the Blitz in the Second World War, and, although hurt by resignations and legal wrangle, it will survive protesters as well. If it lives to point the broken and dismantled to a brighter and kinder sky, we can be glad.
Solitude: Recovering the power of alone by Simon Parke is published by White Crow.