Out of the deep
THE day after 27 men, women, and children drowned in the English Channel, I found myself at the altar in the early morning, reading Luke’s Gospel. As I got to the words of Christ, I found my jaw tightening and my eyes pricking as I read aloud for the congregation the prophecy that “on the earth [there will be] distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Not that confused, I thought — more convicted.
In the Advent of 2015, in collaboration with the war artist Arabella Dorman, we salvaged a boat from the Aegean Sea in which 67 people had been found floating. In a cry of despair and in a mark of solidarity, we suspended the boat, capsizing, in the roof of the nave, with life-jackets salvaged from the shoreline of Lesvos, surrounding the nativity figures.
Now, six years later, with the tragedy still unfolding but closer to our own shores, the rage that I felt as Jesus’s words of prophecy rang around the church was fuel to our prayers that “with all God’s people we cry, yes, we cry, for justice and for peace.”
Si monumentum requiris
THE reason that we suspended the boat for Advent and Christmas was to make connections with the liturgical season and the historical tradition that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled to Egypt, escaping the tyranny of Herod, in a boat.
This year again, tragically, if we’re looking for examples of the traditional themes of Advent and Christmas — not least, Herodian exploitation of people, and hubristic power games; or the desperation of those who, like us, have only one life, but lose it in the dark and cold, no doubt wondering why their God has forsaken them — then all we have to do is to look around us.
BUT, sometimes, satire is the thing. On his death in 1815, the so-called “father of the political cartoon”, James Gillray, was buried in our courtyard. The memorial stone needed re-cutting. And so, on a chilly November day, we gathered around the stone to dedicate it afresh.
Many of the great contemporary political cartoonists were there, including one of my heroes, Steve Bell. We unveiled the stone on the 70th anniversary of the last dedication, in 1951. On that occasion, speeches were given by the greatest cartoonist of the 20th century, David Lowe, and the presiding cleric was the Archbishop of Canterbury. In acknowledging this, I suggested that, in 2021, perhaps we were more the “B” team. The former Chancellor George Osborne, who unveiled the gravestone itself, didn’t seem to mind. . .
At the reception afterwards, much was made — not least by those politicians who were present — of the need for political cartoonists to temper and challenge the hubris of politicians. I felt grateful for the both bracing and agile presence of caricature in our culture: permanent throwers of stones and prickers of bubbles, often able to carve out the space to say what has to be said and can be said in no other way.
I wondered whether much had been written on Jesus the political caricaturist, creator as he was of such brilliant thumbnail sketches as the unjust judge, the sanctimonious Pharisee, the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, and so many others.
A NEW virtual tour has been made of the church, with some of the historical figures given prominence for the first time on a refreshed website. The clarity and strength of the abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, baptised here, comes alive in the words of his memoir Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, published in 1787 and still in print today.
He was trafficked from Ghana; so our plan is to work with a commissioning process for a fitting memorial to him, and to include panel members from our own church who have themselves escaped violence and danger in modern-day Ghana because they are gay.
The story of the botanical artist Mary Delany is also told here in a more significant way. She was a seminal presence in accurate botanical drawing in the first half of the 18th century, but her contribution to the accumulation of detailed knowledge of the flora and fauna that she drew is not often acknowledged.
Her artistry enables us once again to fall in love with the natural world, and — as faith leaders have been saying around COP26 — be motivated by love to help save the world rather than overheat it.
Time for a re-boot
ALL of this reminds me that we are custodians of public sacred space in which there should be no story that cannot be told, no shame that cannot be shared, no injustice that cannot be faced, and no beauty that cannot be delighted in.
The traditional themes of Advent are death, judgement, heaven, and hell. With its emphasis on truth-telling, not sparing us the searing realities of injustices exposed by the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, I hope that we can let Advent be Advent, and not rush towards the tinsel too soon. It’s a season that can sharpen our gaze and strengthen our resolve to see the world as it is, at the same time injecting us with energy to imagine the future as it could be.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.