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19 February 2016


Valued servant

BLESS her, she’s gone. After some 83 years of faithful service to our church and its comfort, she finally died. Cared for with infinite patience by generations of churchwardens, she had seen vicars come and vicars go. But I saw her out. We thought she would last one more winter with us; but, alas, it was not to be: her waterworks finally did for her when her system sprang a terminal leak.

I speak, of course, of our church boiler. Installed when St Andrew’s was built in 1933, she was originally coal-fired, and was modified once for oil, and later for gas; so I think we had had our money’s worth. About the size of a garden shed, she still squats in a room in the crypt (we cannot afford to remove her).

There had been, for some time, in the back of my mind, a question about whether she would come to life when I pressed the “On” button, and, right to the last she did, with a shudder and a roar like an elderly and annoyed lioness prodded with a stick.

At present, we are having our services in the church hall (on the first Sunday, my opening sentence was “Well, boys and girls, it’s the spirit of the Blitz!”), which is actually quite nice: we normally rattle round the church building a bit, but, in the hall, we are cosily cheek by jowl, and it feels fuller and more of a community.

The replacement project planned for May has been brought forward, and, as I write, two beautiful new compact boiler units are on the crypt wall, awaiting pipe-work, and I show my middle-agedness by gazing at them with fond joy. Bearing in mind that boiler breakdown is the sort of thing that terrifies vicars when they wake and worry in the early hours, it’s all going remarkably smoothly. I cross my fingers that it will continue to do so. I look forward to reduced utility bills with relish.


Break on a budget

I HAVE just had a week off in Woolwich. At the beginning of the year, I normally try to get away to somewhere warm (I hate January and February weather with a vengeance), but this year I could not afford to, as I’m saving for a sabbatical after Easter — hence Woolwich.

The flat I was staying in had a lovely view of the Thames, and a ferry-boat stop about two minutes away; so I invested in a week’s season ticket. This gave me the luxury of being able to stop on the way to central London, using the Clipper boat service almost like a Venetian vaporetto, and so I did something I had never done before and have always wanted to do: stop off and gawp at Canary Wharf.


Man of bronze

I DULY wandered into the glass, concrete, and steel canyons, like a sanitised version of New York (a city, incidentally, I adore), reflecting that this place, the focus of so much money, is pretty much the polar opposite of my parish, which is in the bottom five per cent of urban deprivation in the country.

As I wandered around, feeling slightly like a bag lady who’d got into a gated community by mistake, I noticed that there was so much public art. There was a wonderful sculpture of a couple on a bench, angular and isolated, by Lynn Chadwick; and a great cast-iron sphere, breaking up into a helix, by Charles Hadcock.

This “Art with Heart”, as the Canary Wharf website put it, is part of an art trail that weaves around the estate, making an impact on the faceless impenetrability of its surrounding architecture. But my favourite piece was a statue by Giles Penny, Man with Arms Open.

It stands in the central reservation of the main approach road: a life-sized man, earthbound, and swathed in a heavy suit, oblivious of his surroundings, he stands with his arms wide open and his face turned upwards to the sky in a rapturous communion. To me, it humanised the place, and was hugely moving.


Welcome encounter

AS I wandered around, I saw, in a collaged sign of local amenities, a notice for a Prayer Room. I located it off a little shopping mall in the foyer of a corporate building, next to the underground car park. I went in, and found a couple of people either setting up for, or clearing up after, an AA meeting.

Not wanting to intrude, I withdrew, and, as I did so, a man came in. He caught my eye, smiled, and said: “Good morning.” It was, I reflected, the first human contact I’d had for the two hours or so I’d been walking on the pavements, in the squares, and through the underground shopping centres.


The divine in London

I CARRIED on, and, in the West India Quay, by the Museum of London Docklands, came across another spiritual space, St Peter’s Barge, which describes itself as “London’s floating church”. The Administrator, Jing Gou, kindly showed me around, and told me about what they did.

A Dutch freight barge, which chugged over the Channel in 2003, the “floating church” is rather like a Tardis: small barge on the outside, big panelled meeting-space on the inside. It is church to the 93,000 workers on the estate, and offers Sunday worship, midweek activities, breakfasts, prayer groups, and Bible studies.

It struck me that, along with the Prayer Room, it was enacting in its community what the Penny sculpture has put in concrete — or, more accurately, bronze — form: it encourages people to open themselves up to God; and, in the middle of those gleaming canyons, it points them upwards to heaven and the divine.

I got back on my boat, and sailed away.


The Revd John Wall is Team Rector in the Moulsecoomb Team Ministry in Brighton.

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