EVER since the legislation was passed that requires calories to be visible on menus, I have been agonising over my “flat white”.
This Australian import had become my coffee of choice, in the thousands of coffee shops that pepper central London. But, now that I can see it’s so much worse for me than Americano or the smaller, stronger macchiato, it’s harder to choose it from the bewildering selection of coffee and tea with which St James’s is surrounded.
And coffee is big business around here. Always has been. From the time of the late-17th-century building in which we worship, and the city layout of Soho and St James’s Square, coffee has had a distinctive and local history, the 18th-century coffee house playing an influential part in the debates and discussions of this part of London — close to the debating chambers of Westminster, but not too close for a bit of plotting or social reform.
TODAY, we’ve made our own sort of coffee house, connected to the politics and social morés of the day, but focused on the serving of good-quality coffee and food. The church has formed a partnership with Redemption Roasters: a café — housed in our building — that “reduces reoffending through the speciality coffee business”. Most days, I’m in there, as the coffee is really great, and the banter is good fun, too; but these days, it’s straight filter for me.
NOT coffee, but tea, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon right in front of the altar in the sanctuary: a slap-up, Victoria-sponge sort of event, with sandwiches, crisps, and everything. I sit between a couple who have been many times before: practising Hindus from India, via Uganda, now celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary after 30 years in London, and glad to be in a holy place to mark the occasion. The accountant for the charity in question joins us.
Suddenly, there is a flurry of recognition, as the young woman who has recently been through the immensely gruelling asylum system and is now running her own accountancy business sits down, and the nonagenarians start talking about their Ugandan years, swapping anecdotes and Swahili vocabulary with her over the scones.
Malaysian and Ghanaian guests join in, comparing what happens around the world when neighbours — as these are in central London right now, as some of the guests at this table — are habitually going hungry. And bags of leftovers are taken home.
ANOTHER table, another host, but this time a grand gallery full of artists and architects at the annual dinner for the Royal Academy of Arts — and the first time in its 255-year history that a scientist has addressed this audience.
Emily Holmes is a professor of clinical neuroscience, and speaks to artists about the images that we carry in our heads. She explains how the power of imagery affects the way in which humans behave — not just what we think or feel (for instance, by way of the intrusive, unwelcome images that plague our minds if, say, we suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder), but in ordinary time, too.
It is not, of course, hard to convince artists of the power of imagery, but to offer detail and proof of how it works adds some evidence and rigour. By the President of the Royal Academy’s admission, it’s also perhaps the first time that the boxer Mike Tyson has been quoted at the RA. She described the effect of the pandemic on a huge variety of cultural and other institutions by way of Mr Tyson’s assertion: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
POST-Covid church life is still requiring a great deal of flexibility, adaptability, and patience; and planning is still a huge challenge. Patterns of association, activity, and relationship have shifted in a half-changed world, but have often not yet settled down to something new.
Much that is obvious has changed, but much, too, that is less obvious, and it’s the “unknown unknowns” that will get us every time. Just as well that there is that marvellous Yiddish proverb, “Man makes plans, and God laughs.”
This puts me in mind of that 1970s joke from the late Bob Monkhouse: “People used to laugh at me when I told them I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”
WHICHEVER table is set, including the holy altar at which bread and wine are shared, and whatever the company, there is room for both laughter and tears in this church drenched in both climate-grief exhaustion and inexhaustible grace.
For, of course, the eucharist is not simply a memorial service with an act of remembrance at its heart, but a vision of the future where everyone is fed, all are welcome, and no one is left behind: a ritual expression of heaven on earth, wherever it’s celebrated and however many people are present.
This theology is lived out at the variety of tables and gatherings that are a feature of everyday church life, not just on Sundays. It challenges all of us to ask ourselves where, and with whom, or what, do I eat and drink and make conversation, because — you know — just maybe we really are entertaining angels unawares.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.