JUST across the road from St James’s is the Royal Academy of Arts, on Piccadilly. The unique invitation to any member of the public to submit art or architecture for an annual summer exhibition has been issued, to a huge response, since 1769. This year, the exhibition has faced the inevitable challenges, but — rather than skip a year — they have simply (in a very beautiful and curated way, of course) crossed out the word “Summer” and written “Winter” instead.
Every time I see it, I think it says something about resilience that I like: not trying to pretend the season hasn’t changed, but not letting that change defeat the deeper purpose, either. Without getting too fanciful, a society whose faultlines have been exposed — and not only the fissure between sickness and health — needs its artists to help it make meaning.
This year’s exhibition is a mixture of pre-Covid submissions, and pandemic art by Academicians themselves. In blessing the exhibition, I found it moving to bear witness to the creativity that, even with restrictions, seemed to erupt from the walls.
Abide with me
TO A tiny flat on the eighth floor. I’m out of breath because the lift has broken, but my breath is further taken away by the view of London from the large south-facing window.
A newly installed hospital bed means the shielding occupant can, in her words, watch the “stunning” colours as the evening sun lights up the buildings, one by one, from the west as the day ends. My mask feels uncomfortable, but her stories are unmissable, and her beautiful prayer, spoken for the church she has belonged to for decades, brings me to tears; both she and I suspect that she may not sit in the pews again.
Resilience and creativity abound as much in that small room as in the high-ceilinged galleries uptown.
Renewal and reform
THIS month, the Daily Bread project of growing wheat draws to a close. From March to Easter, to Lammas, to Harvest, wheat has been grown in the church courtyard, harvested, milled, and made into bread: a story that has run alongside the pandemic months of 2020 — a parable for our time, encouraging the church this month to acknowledge the whole strange harvest of this year, with all its loss, anger, and injustice, as well as the creativity and kindness that have been so evident.
Reconnecting with the natural world and finding the renewable energy to keep changing our behaviour require, we learn from Pope Francis, a deeper commitment to contemplation — to seeing God’s world as God is creating and recreating it.
Through a lens, clearly
THE visual activist Zanele Muholi, featured on our church website as part of Black History Month, takes seeing and being seen to another level. Stunning photographs — beautiful, provoking, instructive, compelling — will feature in Muholi’s first retrospective at Tate Modern next month. Their commitment to photographing Black queer lives as a way of documenting this history means that the people in the pictures are not “subjects” but “participants”. And those of us who look are invited “to see, to be in that space even though you were not there”.
Meanwhile, this month, our church will mark the moment 80 years ago, in the autumn of 1940, when the building was destroyed by a bomb. We weren’t there either, but the photographs, showing a familiar place reduced to rubble, still move the contemporary congregation, who inevitably wonder what they would have done if they’d been part of the church then. The daughter of the then-rector has filmed her own eye-witness memories of that time; and, although war parallels don’t really fit, there is a sense that we, like them, are trying to find ways to begin again.
HEADING into autumn and winter, parish life has become a more intense version of the mixture it usually is: the prose of detailed HR — understanding the difference between Job Retention and Job Support, as we join schemes that are keeping our staff team afloat — combined with the poetry of liturgy, memory, visual arts, and a new kind of place-making in a vastly changed central London. Sometimes, though, not quite so changed.
Sent out of the restaurant in Soho at 10 p.m., my masked friends and I make our way through streets that are crowded as the drizzle starts again. I suddenly realise that the person approaching us to offer The Big Issue is one of the guys who for years have been sleeping in our pews. I hardly recognise him: he looks healthy, alert, and is, he says, making a documentary for which he would like to film an interview with me. We greet each other like long-lost friends, and I will look forward to hearing how, in this time of sickness, he has got himself well.
Language of the heart
AND, soon, the remembrance season will be here, and the candles, requiem masses, and impending purple of Advent start to impinge on the liturgical planning we must do, even though we have no idea what Christmas will be like this year.
One thing we do know, of course, is that Christmas is not cancelled. It will be more necessary than ever to contemplate again the transforming hope of Christ, sanctifying our humanity, and calling us to love our neighbour from every background. Especially in the bleak pandemic midwinter.
Or, to put it another way, the images captured by Muholi teach me afresh, in their words, that “in my world, every human is beautiful. It’s the kindness that comes from within, not the outer layer.”
The Revd Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.