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Sacramental eavesdropping

22 July 2022

Fergus Butler-Gallie practises prayer on the move


A Circle line train emerges from a tunnel near Notting Hill Gate

A Circle line train emerges from a tunnel near Notting Hill Gate

I SPEND a great deal of time on trains; or, at least, I have done of late. Some journeys I have taken only once — like the beautiful sweep into unexcelled Durham on the East Coast Main Line, prince-bishops and Normans and miners and students appearing in my mind’s eye like a vanguard before me.

Then there was the thrill of the stopping train to Basingstoke, which is a tour through an England that I thought existed only in the imagination: Grazeley Green, Stratfield Mortimer, and, of course, the Woof World Dog Park. Like most sentimental Church of England people, I crave the rootedness and regularity of a particular place, but the evolution of an itinerant ministry has meant preaching and lecturing around the country, rendering me a nomad who gets to intrude, for a moment, on other people’s Barsetshires.

I do have my own regular places of solace, but they tend to be trains, too. There’s the 07.15 from Charing Cross to Tonbridge (38 minutes) — a liberating bursting-out of London into the lavender fields and distant oasts of Kent; the Bakerloo line from Queens Park to Piccadilly Circus (approximately 17 minutes, every four minutes or so — but the dear old Bakerloo is 50 this year, and beginning to show her age on the speed front); then the 20.33 from Euston to Liverpool Lime Street (two hours 12 minutes) — the final train back to Merseyside on Saturday after a match, and rather like a Hogarth print that travels at 103 miles per hour. I think that might be my favourite.


WHEN they pray, many clergy shuffle into one of the churches where they have some share in the cure of souls, and then read through the daily office; or they retreat to a quiet corner of the parsonage house and spend time alone with God; or, increasingly, they snatch a moment for prayer in the midst of feeding a child, or doing the school run.

As different as they all seem, each has a certain rootedness, an incarnational solidity that I now lack. Such has been the frequency of travel recently that a different pattern of prayer has emerged — one quite different from what I had been used to.

It is one, I have to confess, born largely of necessity. Every time I tried to pray conventionally — whether on a train or at home — I found that pain overwhelmed me. My head was filled with images of abusive incumbents and mendacious managers, with texts of emails, and with scripts of those taunting, imagined conversations that might have been. Ironically, I found that it was not travelling, but the Church, that had made prayer nigh on impossible.

It struck me that Jesus most often prayed for the benefit of those immediately around him. We will all be familiar with intercessions that sound like a BBC World Service report, or a list of targeted minutiae of government policy, or Synod motions, or local planning law; and yet Christ’s prayers are most regularly not for the abstract or far off, but for those in his actual presence.

So, one morning — inevitably on a train — I simply closed my eyes as the Circle Line rattled back round into the centre of London from Notting Hill Gate, focused on the people and things that I could hear around me, and handed them over to God: a sort of sacramental eavesdropping, if you will. “Here we go, God,” I said, “over to you”; and started to clear my thoughts and listen.

Somewhere near by, a German father was teaching his son to count. I prayed for them; for that nation; for my sister who lives there. A couple sat heavily opposite me, and had a loud conversation. Their voices grated, but, rather than indulge in the sweet poison of irritation, I tried to interrogate why. What is it that’s wrong with me today that has caused this? I repented of it; then commended the source of these voices to their Maker.

Now, as the stations come and go, and the automated voice tells me where we are, I offer to God the joys and tragedies that have occurred — and still occur — there. At Gloucester Road, I think of the priest I know locally, and his unbidden and unmerited kindnesses to me make me smile. Sloane Square is painful, but a chance to offer that pain to God. At Temple, it strikes me just how shocked the pagan priests of far-off Londinium would be to hear of the triumph of the Nazarene.

I give thanks for the arc of salvation, dwell on the distance of history, and pray for whoever it was who first recorded those words “Mind the gap.”


VOICES are not the only things that I hear. The churning of the doors at each station becomes a key part of my sense of rhythm. “Who made thee?” I find myself asking. If we can — pace William Blake — ask that question of a little lamb, then surely we might also ask it of these unions of metal and oil? Anyway, I do ask it, and come up with the great “I AM”, albeit via the ministrations of the good people at the Litchurch Lane rolling-stock works in Derby. I pray for them, too.

So it continues, for my whole journey, until I open my eyes again and offer all that has been “through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.” As random as their origin might have been, I soon found that these prayers followed structures that would be perfectly recognisable to Dr Cranmer and the other authors of the collects. Invocation, acknowledgement, intercession, confession, petition, and, finally, aspiration — these all happened as I journeyed and prayed.

It struck me later that it was an act of trust, too: not only in God, but in my fellow- passengers. I now do it on most journeys — trusting that these little prayers might consecrate carriages as I travel.

All prayer is an act of trust, I suppose, in the good purposes of that self-same God. I am thankful that those good purposes sought me out once again, that morning, in a train tunnel somewhere south of Notting Hill Gate.


The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a writer and priest.

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