THERE are three lions in our courtyard. Nothing to do with the football, but — as part of the Tusk Trust trail, which has placed artist-illustrated, life-size lions across the capital — we have three outside the church, prowling towards the gates and imagined freedom in Green Park.
As the streets become busier, now that we are more mobile, central London is still much quieter than it used to be, and, for retailers and hospitality businesses, there is a certain amount of holding of breath as they wait to see who will return to sit at their desks, and for how many days at a time.
The lions have proved a hit for the few UK-based tourists who have made their way into the centre of town. It’s been moving to see children playing every day through the summer, roaring back at the lions’ imaginary growl.
Songs of expectation
A SIGN of hope maybe, even as Extinction Rebellion placards are discarded in the same courtyard after a series of protests and gatherings. One of our congregation members — herself from Glasgow — reduces a group of COP26 pilgrims to tears as she sings “Wild Mountain Thyme”, inviting all — young, old, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jew — to sing in the church “Will ye go, lassie, go?” before they walk north.
On the same day, the brilliant spoken-word artist Zena Edwards recites her poetry by the outdoor pulpit as part of a soul-music extravaganza on the theme of Earth, inviting all comers to the space between the church and the street to consider our lives in the light of eternity and the presence of the climate crisis.
ALL this may sound as if we’re too woke for our own good. But listening, as a parish priest, to the congregation, as well as to our physical neighbours here in town, I think it is clear that attitudes towards the future and how we should live in the city are very mixed.
I am aware of the fine line between the desire to regroup, to come in to work, get on the bus, and meet friends, and what many are calling “unlocking anxiety”; of the need to navigate the delicate balance between the still-blinking-into-the-light, emerging congregation who — tired of screen-based religion — want to return in person; and the persistent reticence about moving around again in the same way as before.
Add in the tectonic-sized fault-lines of climate change, persistent inequality, worries about money, the return of rough-sleepers to the streets, or simply a sense that we should by now be “getting back on our feet”, and there is an undercurrent of fretfulness which is hard to shake off. September has always felt more like a new year than January, or even the Church’s version in December, but, this year, the starting-again feels more fragile than most.
I MET a priest friend in the street during August. We hadn’t seen each other in person for two years or so. “How are you?” we both asked, and each paused as we decided whether we would tell the truth. He started bravely, just a little too cheerful, but, in among the “amazing opportunities”, I also heard him say with a break in his voice: “I don’t know if some of them will come back — have yours come back?”
Without wading unthinkingly into the broader debate about declining church attendance, I’ve always wanted to try to find a way between knowing that “numbers” are not nothing, of course, and knowing that they aren’t everything. Nor are they an indication of a successful church, if that success is properly defined as faithfulness to Christ.
One of the (many) things that I’ve learned is how much the physicality of church matters to me. The muscle memory of the eucharist, physically gathering to eat and drink, centres and stills us even while we know it is a broken-hearted celebration of love at the heart of all things. As the theologian Gustavo Gutierrez memorably commented, it matters where we put our bodies, because it mattered where God put God’s body: on a cross.
Gifts in kind
AND so, back to bodily basics. The church lavatories need decorating, and the leak in the gents’ has returned. The old carpet has been taken up in the church, and there is glue — everywhere. The photo exhibition of Ugandan refugees outside needs more weights on each photo to ensure that the monumental and impressive pictures don’t topple over on to an unsuspecting member of the public; and a neighbour’s scaffolding poles have crushed a precious plant in the garden.
Last week, a man who was homeless smashed a window into the basement and slept in a chasuble that he found there. He said that he had had a good night’s sleep — on the sofa rather than the street, wrapped in green silk and gold thread. Even though the dry-cleaning bill was higher than usual, I can’t think of a better use for it. And he doesn’t know that his gift to me is that he’ll always be with me at the altar, when I wear that same chasuble to break, for the people, the body of God.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.