WHATEVER you think of the controversial HS2 train project, some of the archaeology that it has stimulated has been fascinating, and, for St James’s, Piccadilly, especially so.
The burial ground close to Euston Station, now known as St James’s Gardens, was in use between the years 1788 and 1852, and was begun because the site in Piccadilly had simply run out of space. Archaeologists working in Euston have uncovered the remains of 40,000 individuals; it is one of Britain’s largest-ever digs. The team has worked with hundreds of volunteers to create what has been termed the “Zooniverse”: a database documenting the people who were buried there, and the items they took with them to the grave.
For Passiontide, five of those whose remains have been discovered in Euston are having their stories told, here in the church of the parish where they lived — and not just their stories: substantial, laser-cut 3D cardboard figures now sit in our pews, reminding those of us in the present that we pray in the presence of the souls of past worshippers, as well as of our own congregation.
As an evocation of the great cloud of witnesses, it is compelling to have this evidence of lives adjacent to ours.
Aids to worship
ONE of the striking features of art in church is that the daily liturgy goes on around the installations. So, these parishioners from centuries past will simply be there as we ourselves gather to pray. Elizabeth Mercer was a dressmaker, who died, aged 32, in 1792.
She was buried in the third section of the graveyard, where the poorer parishioners were laid to rest. Married to Samuel, who was a butcher working in Tottenham Court Road, she smoked a pipe: we know, because the clay wore a notch in her teeth.
She is sitting in the pews now at St James’s, with her pipe, and the crutch that she also used.
Re-membering the past
BACK in the present, in just the past few weeks, St James’s has hosted memorial services for locals and members of the gathered congregation alike: a filmmaker from Soho; a yoga teacher from west London; a respected member of the Reform Club; and a person, accompanied through the asylum system, who found her way to the church some years ago, and who was faithfully visited by her friends in the congregation right up to the end. Today’s stories carry echoes of the stories of the past. Multi-layered and complex, all of human life is here.
Let there be night
BY DAY, and by night, too. At a conference run by the Mayor of London’s Night Czar, I listen to some incredibly creative and compassionate Londoners. Together, we talk about the night-time economy and society: about how too many assumptions are made about going out, about alcohol, about the need for organisation, and for booking in. You can’t just turn up or wander about at night. Maybe you should be able to. But the night isn’t safe.
We learn that accidents are up by 40 per cent at night, when people are fatigued; that the population that comes out only at night is 90 per cent male, making female night-time workers more nervous; and that what is needed is “safe, productive, innovative gathering”. One inspiring entrepreneur leads a night-time equivalent of a park run: running in groups, through streets that have less traffic and fewer obstacles.
We think about urban space, and how it changes, and who feels confident in it; and many call for a “different kind of curation” of those spaces, changing perhaps from the current “Business Improvement Districts” to a more collaborative “Community Improvement District” model — and what that might do to the prioritising of public funds.
If the church can be part of this sort of place-making, then let us do it with all our heart — telling the stories of the past, and reflecting on the experience of workers and visitors, by night and by day. Connecting the present to the past deepens the possibility of compassion across generations, and responds to the scriptural insistence that death does not have to silence a life — and that, in the present time, the night deserves as much attention as the day.
City of God
THE Passion of Christ is as visible in 21st-century London as it was in first-century Jerusalem. The way of the cross is followed by many, not least the poorly paid inheritors of Elizabeth Mercer’s trade and skill.
Sitting, this month, in a packed St James’s, listening to the innovative and deeply compassionate music of the American singer song-writer John Grant, I hear his lyric that characterises pain as a glacier, “moving through you and carving out deep valleys, spectacular landscapes”.
This sounds to my ears like a particularly Passiontide sort of song. It tells us that suffering, of course, remains while Christ is in the city — then, as now, day and night — and that Christ has come to the city to die. But also that this redemptive death will — has to — invite new contours of living for all of us, even in a cityscape that looks as if it may never change.
This Passiontide, I hope that I can see Christ’s arrival, reshaping the landscape with wounded hands, walking the hard streets with bare feet, calling our church to live out this sort of sacrificial love, for the sake of helping to build a good city, not just a prosperous or a busy one.
The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.