IT’S a risk going to church at this time of year, because the sermon will invariably refer to “what the Rector did on her holidays” — an ecclesiastical version of Show-and-Tell, sometimes with pictures, sometimes even with a dusting of theology sprinkled over the beach balls.
One year, after a trip to Cornwall during the school holidays, I subjected my then congregation to a meditation on the roadside signs I’d seen en route to Penzance, which repeatedly informed me “Eden is full”. Full of what I can’t now remember. Presumably, I said, serpents and apples rather than polytunnels and orchids. But, to be honest, I’m not sure it worked.
These days, I’m serving a church named for St James, whose patronal festival is right at the end of July, in the middle of the holiday season. So now summer breaks are timed so that vacation anecdotes can be woven into the thunderous stories of that son of thunder, who hoped — and dared to ask — for his privileged place in heaven.
THE symbol of James the Apostle is, of course, the scallop shell: the tool of pilgrimage which travellers to Santiago de Compostela used to take with them to wash themselves in roadside streams and use as a scoop for drinking water.
Nowadays, shells are attached to rucksacks, wooden staves, pannier bags, and horses’ bridles as modern-day pilgrims find their way through France and Spain to the north-west corner of Galicia. Every year, thousands travel along the pilgrimage route, arriving for the pilgrims’ mass at noon on the feast day itself.
On that same day, here in Piccadilly in central London, we hold our services outdoors in our courtyard, giving out scallop shells to passers-by and decorating the altar with them, focusing on the simplicity of this natural and beautiful shell, and trying not to think about the price charged for those same scallops, just down the road, at some of the best restaurants in the country.
MINISTRY in central London is varied and unpredictable, even in August, when London is emptied of its politicians, businesspeople, and A-list celebrities, filling up instead with tourists and Love Island graduates making personal appearances in Soho.
Joe, who sleeps in St James’s Park, tells me, just as a storm is about to break, that he thinks I smell of flea powder, and that he is worried about my dog in the thunder, before we both run into church (accompanied by the trembling dog) as the longed-for rain begins to pour down.
I miss the chance to ask him about the flea powder, but I hope that the woman from HSBC, who comes later on to discuss some team-building volunteering for her staff, doesn’t have a sensitive nose.
I’m quite straight with her: we’re grateful, of course, for the offer of volunteers, but we’d like to be sure that they are doing what we think is useful, not what they imagine is a help. Previous experience with Corporate Social Responsibility commitments has been mixed. Some individuals and firms have become faithful donors of time, energy, love, and, sometimes, money. But such offers can also be almost more trouble than they are worth, unless there is a genuine fit between the need and the offer.
Last winter, one kind local donated a pile of brand-new, brightly coloured hats “for homeless women” to “cheer them up”, when what our guests really wanted was to keep warm in an unobtrusive way, in muted colours. And what they wanted even more than that was a sanitary towel and two paracetamol. Which hardly anyone wants to donate.
BUT hats and gloves are far from our thoughts as London swelters in the stormy heatwave of late July and August. A small marquee is going up in our church garden for the staff and volunteers’ barbecue — a riotous affair each year, which involves beer donated from the local Red Lion pub, a raffle with the best prizes in the western hemisphere (we say, because we persuade the Ritz to give us tea for two), and usually some late-night bopping to ’80s classics, including the obligatory “Dancing Queen” as the sun sets over Piccadilly.
The market traders, from every nation on earth, who trade all year round in our courtyard, are a boisterous addition to the party, in contrast to the group of trainee counsellors who, every day, sit in our shepherd’s hut in the garden, running a drop-in counselling service for anyone who comes.
One group’s livelihood depends on their banter and energy; another group’s qualification depends on their ability to shut up altogether. Put them in a garden with a Quorn sausage, potato salad, and the PCC, and the evening is made.
Companions on the road
AND then, in the chaos and noise of the 24/7 city, when the gates are locked and the church bell falls silent, we know that our fox slopes across the courtyard in the early hours, and that our bats call to each other between the trees, and the shady garden breathes out oxygen that combats the fumes of the most polluted streets in England.
And tomorrow we’ll do it all again. With a scallop shell metaphorically tied to our stave, as a sign to anyone who wanders past — private-equity-firm partners and homeless alike — that, despite rumours of the death of the Church, we’re still here, flourishing and lively, and more than willing to walk the extra mile with them, and for them, if they want us to.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly.