Wednesday, 22 December 2021


A Telegraph Article Regular readers will be aware that I knew the archbishop of York many years ago, and so feel able to comment occasionally on things he says. I have given up the hope that he might try to look less prelatical in photographs, because that seems to be the style that he has chosen. Presumably he encourages the photographers to picture him staring meaningfully into the distance in full visionary mode. I continue to be anxious about archbishop Stephen’s Gospel interpretation, though. Last Saturday he had a piece in the Daily Telegraph which was a nice defence of singing, and especially singing in church (though there was no hint that he and the other bishops might have been over zealous in ordering us out of our churches in the first lockdown). He’s absolutely right about the Hallelujah Chorus (I made the same point a few weeks ago in a sermon). That was fair enough, and I was enjoying the article, but then I came upon this sentence: “It is the particular song that we sing at Christmas, the song of the angels: peace on Earth, goodwill to everyone.” Now, that’s an unexceptionable sentiment in a way, and rather the sort of thing that one might expect an archbishop to say, but the trouble is, that isn’t what the angels sang. Yes, if you rely on the Authorized Version (for which Stephen at college had contempt) the text says, “on earth peace, goodwill towards men” and I am happy to agree that those phrases are part of our English cultural heritage, and perhaps lurk in many (older) people’s memories, but that’s not the point. Of course archbishop Stephen amends “men” to “everyone”, which is perfectly fair, but it really won’t do to present that as what the angels sang, because the universal scholarly consensus nowadays is that the Authorized Version was translated from defective manuscripts. The angels didn’t sing the rather incoherent “peace on earth, goodwill towards men/everyone” but “on earth peace among those whom he favours”. All modern translations prefer “en anthropois eudokias”, which is found in the best and earliest manuscripts, to “en anthropois eudokia” which is a widespread reading but seems to be a mistake, or possibly an amendment by a scribe who didn’t understand the Hebraism of the original. “Eudokias” is a surprising usage, but it makes it into a coherent sentence, instead of two oddly juxtaposed phrases, and it is unbelievable that anyone would have changed “eudokia” to “eudokias” precisely because it is such an unusual form, whereas you can imagine a scribe outside the Hebrew Christian environment in which St Luke wrote assuming that it was a mistake and preferring the simpler “eudokia”. Apologies for the excursion into Greek, but the point is that it really does change the meaning. The peace that the angels proclaim is among those people who are pleasing to God, those whom God favours, the recipients of God’s goodwill. The phrase in St Luke’s Gospel is related to what is heard by those at Jesus’s baptism, when the voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son … with you I am well-pleased.” Jesus inherently pleases God, but that’s not necessarily the case with the whole of humankind, this blessing of peace is for those who do please him, and that is where we part company with the archbishop’s reading. Now you could construct a universalist case to say that actually the whole of humankind does please God (there is after all a strand in Old Testament “Wisdom” literature that takes that view) but that’s not obviously what St Luke means. He clearly intends “eudokias” as a qualifier, precisely because a significant portion of humankind clearly doesn’t please God, but causes him profound sorrow and regret (if not anger). The Christian gospel for 2000 years has been that the birth and death of Jesus was necessary precisely because so much of humankind was completely displeasing to God. His birth as one of us is an affirmation of our nature, but certainly not a celebration of our behaviour. Archbishop Stephen knows all this. Perhaps he is ignoring the fruits of modern scholarship in order to sound warm and affirming to all of humanity, perhaps he was just being careless, but he knows that there is plenty of human behaviour that is profoundly displeasing to God. Christianity requires that we change the way we live, “repent” in the biblical language, which aligns us with Christ and makes us people pleasing to God. In the end, the song of the angels is celebrating God’s people, those who accept the gift of his Son, which is not quite what the archbishop seems to say. And in the Holy Land Meanwhile I find myself having to take issue with the archbishop of Canterbury as well. Him I’ve never met, so I claim no insight, but his article in the Sunday Times caught my attention. It’s a piece co-authored with the Anglican archbishop in Jerusalem, following on from a statement issued by a number of Palestinian Church leaders last week, and the headline was “Pray for Christians driven from the Holy Land”. Now it’s absolutely right to draw attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East and the frightening decline in their numbers as they go into exile, but this piece seems to suggest that this is all the fault of the state of Israel, which is simply not true. Israel is not driving Christians out of the Holy Land. The article admits that overall the number of Christians in Israel is rising, but concentrates on the exodus of Christians from the Old City of Jerusalem (the Church leaders’ statement makes a good point about trying to preserve the Christian Quarter which is missing from the Sunday Times article) and talks about attacks and intimidation from “fringe radical groups”. Clearly there is cause for concern, and there is obviously obnoxious behaviour from some Zionist groups in Israel, but frankly Hamas in the Palestinian territories is far more anti-Christian, and Christians in Israel enjoy much more safety and security than anywhere else in the Middle East. The major exodus of Christians is from countries like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, which used to be safe, but are no longer, but the article rightly draws attention to the departure of Christians from the Occupied Territories, but this is not merely the fault of the Israeli occupation, but the catastrophic misgovernment of the Territories by the Palestinian Administration. As the article rightly points out, Palestinian Christians are disproportionately well-educated, and it is hardly surprising that they should leave the corrupt, lawless statelet, especially given the intimidation offered by Islamists. In the region, Egyptian Christians have been subject to barbaric Islamist terror attacks, whereas nothing remotely similar has ever happened to Christians in Israel, while Christians cannot even worship freely in Saudi Arabia. The archbishop has allowed himself to take a strangely one-eyed view of a real problem, presumably out of solidarity with his Palestinian fellow archbishop, which is very sad, because the plight of Palestinian Christians is a real one, as anyone who has been to the Holy Land is aware, but just blaming Israel is no answer. h

Friday, 8 October 2021


CRIME VICTIM It was a stressful Sunday morning anyway,with my elderly assistant priest not having turned up for Mass, which makes me (and others) anxious, and means that things are not necessarily prepared properly before my arrival, hotfoot from St Mary Mags. On this occasion, though, I was distracted as I brought my bike inside and didn't check that the door was securely closed behind me. Apparently it wasn't properly closed, because when I came back up to the vestry after Mass was over, the bike was gone, and with it my phone, which was in the pannier. The feeling of frustration and disbelief was enormous. I couldn't see how this could have happened. I am never careless. I am not the sort of person who becomes a victim of crime, I thought. But this just demonstrated that it can affect anyone. I dutifully informed the police and got a crime number, which satisfied the phone company. The phone was insured, and a new one was miraculously provided a few days later, though of course I had to take it to the shop to get it all sorted out, as it was way beyond me. The bike, however, was more problematic. It should have been covered by my household insurance, but I invalidated that because I left it unlocked. The fact that it was indoors, in enclosed premises (securely enclosed, as I mistakenly thought)changed nothing; it was away from home and not locked securely to a fixed object. So I wasn't covered. Huge frustration. I was, however, covered by the church insurance, which covers us for loss of possessions taken from the church up to one thousand pounds (though with a two hundred and fifty pound excess). The bicycle rules don't apply there. So, God willing, I should at least get part of its value back. What can't be replaced, of course, are the associations and memories. That was the bike on which I rode to Paris, bought specially for the purpose. It had recently become my second bike, as I bought a new, faster, one this summer after a lot of looking at websites, but the loss of the Paris bike has made me very sad. FLOOD VICTIM On Monday 12th July the weather changed bizarrely in the course of the afternoon, and I was sitting in the office at St Peter's when the sky turned black and a deluge began. We soon had water coming under the main door and falling in sheets off the porch as people used donated clothes to try to staunch the flow into the church and hall. Then I got a phone call from the Grand Junction staff who told me that water was coming into the undercroft at St Mary Mags, apparently from the sewer. I couldn't cycle home in the deluge, so Fiona came (very gingerly) in the car and collected me. I found the Grand Junction staff, shell-shocked, having retreated from the undercroft which was now under nearly a foot of water, two steps were covered. I fussed around rather ineffectually and tried to call the fire brigade, but couldn't get through, as the water rose over another step. Lucy phoned Thames Water, and didn't get through until the next day, but that was necessary to be sure that they logged the existence of the flood, since we are not in a row of buildings, unlike the houses in Kilburn Park Road and Shirland Road, where multiple basements were flooded. Poor Fr Amos at St Augustine's had rather more water than us, flooding his nice new boilers. We watched it until it stopped rising, and then went home. Astonishingly, the next morning the water was gone, and the manhole through which it had entered (and seemingly departed again)was in the middle of a very clean patch of floor, ringed by a circular rampart of ballast. The water had come in through a drain that we blocked with concrete nine years ago, and that gravel was the remains of the concrete plug. The dark grey residue on the floors contained a lot of cement dust, evidently, but blessedly no sewage. The water had come in through the Comper Chapel, and had fortunately burst the plasterboard screens (which had screend off the chapel from when we were doing the building works in the main part of the undercroft) before it got much deeper than a foot. The conservator later reported that the flood had merely washed the painted surfaces in the chapel, not having been there for very long. In my nice new sacristy a bit of water had got into the bottom of the frontal chest, but that had then been lifted off the ground, so the water was just at one end; the force of water necessary to lift a nine-foot by four-foot by one-foot solid oak chest must have been quite something. So, several frontals were damaged, but not too badly. The vestment press is completely unusable, but only the bottom two drawers were actually under water, which mostly contained rather unimportant vestments. Just one precious one was inundated, and we hope to be able to get it restored, though the colour has run terribly in the embroidery. So the past few months have been spent drying out textiles, and moving them from place to place. They occupied chairs in the nave for a while, but when school broke up they were able to go onto the dining tables in the school hall, and dried out nicely there during the holidays. After school came back I have been moving them from place to place, which is a chore, as the sacristy is much too damp to bring anything back into. I just have everyday, synthetic fibre vestments in there for now, as we wait for the place to dry out. Noisy fans have been installed, but it will take a while.

Thursday, 19 November 2020


Back in the 1980s I remember Archbishop Robert Runcie being seriously embarrassed at General Synod by a seemingly innocuous question. The Synod, being modelled on Parliament, has a session of "questions to the Archbishop", at which Bob, who was a bit of a politician, used to enjoy showing off, but on this occasion he was wrong-footed. "Can the Archbishop tell us when the Christian Year begins?" he was asked, and his response came down to, "It depends which calendar you use." The universal tradition of the Church has been that the church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, which in England we tend to call Advent Sunday, and which is the Sunday nearest to 30th November (unless you are in Milan, which has a six-week Advent). That's what we were all brought up with, nice and simple, but when the Church of England published its new service book in 1980, the Alternative Service Book, we found that there were now nine Sundays before Christmas, 

It was, of course, an attempt to resolve the age-old calendrical issue of resolving fixed dates with movable feasts; because Easter moves around (within a range of a month) there are variable numbers of Sundays in the ordinary times of the year, the spaces between Epiphany and Lent, and Whitsun and Advent. The Anglican revisers of the 1970s thought that counting back from Christmas was going to make the content of those Sundays somehow more coherent, but it didn't in fact help sorting out the fact that some Sundays hardly ever happened. The old Book of Common Prayer had the opposite problem, that there weren't enough Sundays provided "after Trinity", and so you had to use the unused ones after Epiphany to make up for them. In ASB you missed out Sundays, so that the tenth Sunday before Christmas became the Last Sunday after Pentecost, and then the new year started with the Ninth Sunday before Christmas. But, the liturgical colour (the colour of vestments, altar frontals and so on) remained green, because these were still essentially ordinary Sundays. It only turned purple in Advent.

The revisers of Common Worship had another go at this conundrum. A notion had grown up that you could find a common theme in the Sundays in November, and that these might constitute a new season, called "Sundays of the Kingdom". So, you keep the first Sunday in November as "All Saints' Sunday" because lots of parishes would already observe All Saints' Day on the nearest Sunday. Then the second Sunday in November is Remembrance Sunday in England, and virtually all Anglican churches pay some sort of attention to that. The fourth Sunday in November, meanwhile, is, in the Roman Catholic calendar, the Solemnity of Christ the King, an observance that had gained widespread observance in Anglo-Catholic parishes. This just left the rather dull third Sunday to be changed, and so it was that the "Kingdom Season" was born. Someone also had the bright idea of using red vestments then, which are, of course, often the nicest in any church, and get very little use. The trouble is that we try to teach the children what the colours mean, and red is already two things, red for the blood of Christ and the martyrs, and red for the flames of the Holy Spirit, and now you were adding in a third red, and why exactly? Why red for the Kingdom? Because the decor in Buckingham Palace is largely red and gold? Or why?

The main issue with the Kingdom Season, though, is simply that it sets the Church of England apart from the rest of Western Christendom. It is an Anglican separatist innovation, something which we have pledged ourselves on numerous ecumenical occasions not to do. Of course, many of the people who promoted it don't care about the mainstream of Western Christendom, and lots of them pay no attention to the calendar anyway, so messing about with what other people do was a harmless game for them.The insidious effect of this has been to create a badge by which you can identify people's churchmanship. So, Anglo-Catholic parishes that follow the Roman rite will simply be in green, with no question. Traditionalist Anglo-Catholic parishes will mostly be in green, because they resist unjustified innovation. Meanwhile, high-church parishes who want to be seen to do what the Church of England does, mainly use red. I remember practically the only row I ever had with one of my curates was over this; I said, "I don't know anyone who uses red." He retorted, "I don't know anyone who doesn't!" Of course we were both wrong, but one often exists in one's own bubble. It is, for me, a cause for regret that those who run the Church of England should have created an unnecessary source of division among us, for little actual gain, but then they have quite a record for that.      .               

Friday, 23 October 2020



The Graves of the Saints

A week in Rome was spent mostly in pilgrimage, hunting down some of the less famous holy sites (as well as the usual artistic pilgrimage). In fact, it was interesting to see some of the more famous sites with very few tourists, so perhaps, in retrospect, we should have taken the opportunity to go to the Vatican again.

One of the happy discoveries was San Giorgio in Velabro, which we hadn’t planned to visit, but just found open. It’s in the valley between the Capitoline and Palatine Hills, with a lovely Romanesque campanile, and an early medieval Ionic portico, in a surprisingly quiet spot. Just in front is the rather clumsy “Arch of Janus” which is actually a sort of shelter for fourth century market traders; “a work of the decadence” says the Blue Guide. Attached to the side of the church is a much finer classical monument, the Arcus Argentariorum, which dates from 204, and is a pretty monument erected by Rome’s moneychangers to the emperor Septimius Severus and family (who perhaps was not such a persecutor as Eusebius thought since this little arch was allowed to remain). San Giorgio has a timeless atmosphere, a rather dusty basilica, with sixteen random classical columns, and a fine thirteenth century altar with its canopy above. Under the altar in the proper place (for a basilica) are the relics of St George, brought there from Cappadocia around 750 by Pope Zachary. But not only is this the resting-place of St George, it was the titular church served by St John Henry Newman, so he will have celebrated at that altar, as Cardinal-Deacon of San Giorgio in Velabro. There is a memorial plaque on the south wall, but the Holy Cross fathers, who look after the church, do not seem to have cottoned on to the Newman connection, so nothing is made of it.

For the first time I was able to get into Santi Apostoli, next to the Colonna palace, and the parish church of the exiled Stuarts (the rather modest palazzo in which Bonnie Prince Charlie was born and died is yards away). It is surprisingly vast. There under the altar are the relics of the apostles St Philip and St James the Less (“Pip ‘n Jim” as they used to be known in Oxford), in a crypt decorated in the 1870s in the style of the catacombs, which is really atmospheric. Near the apostles’ tomb is the beautiful renaissance tomb of the father of Pope Julius (and brother of Sixtus IV). Also buried in the church are Bonnie Price Charlie’s mother and the great renaissance man Cardinal Bessarion, as well as the rather undistinguished Pope Clement XIV, who has a very distinguished monument by Canova. There were many other relics that we visited, but those will do for now.


The Rooms of the Saints

Another theme was rooms where saints lived or stayed. It was not possible to visit St Ignatius’s room beside the Gesu, but we managed three, and were thwarted with a fourth. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (Rome’s only Gothic church, as one is always told, though it’s only partially true) is currently having works done, unspecified in nature, but which close the west end, so to gain admittance it is necessary to walk round the block (a surprisingly long way) to an entrance that brings you into the north transept. We did this as they readmitted visitors at 5pm one rainy day, but the friar opening up put very few lights on, so it was deeply gloomy and there was a very odd feel to the building, with the whole nave cordoned off and sunk in darkness. Still, the things you want to see are still accessible, most particularly the tomb of Blessed Fra Angelico, which is right beside you as you come in that funny entrance, and of course St Catherine of Siena’s effigy and tomb under the high altar. In the gloom most people didn’t even notice that there are coin-operated lights for some of the chapels, and so I performed a public service by illuminating the chapel with the beautiful Filippino Lippi frescoes of St Thomas Aquinas (though these are very expensive lights, 1 Euro per minute). Beside that chapel is the rather nice Cosmati tomb of Bishop William Durandus of Mende, a place of pilgrimage for liturgiologists (like me), because Durandus was the great medieval theorist of the liturgy, finding mystical meanings for everything that is done (or worn, or used) in church, not to mention church buildings themselves. What made this visit particularly special, though, was that we were able to see the room in which St Catherine died, which is at the far end of the Sacristy. In truth, it’s not terribly emotionally-charged, since it is clad up to the dado with very 1950s panelling, but at least you suppose that the two little windows are authentic, and its very smallness gives you a sense of the austerity of that remarkable woman’s life.

For austerity, though, St Gregory the Great’s stone slab on which he meditated (and perhaps slept) takes the prize. This is in the church that bears his name on the Caelian Hill, in a tiny room that was his cell, quite out of alignment with the baroque church. This was his monastery of St Andrew, from which he sent St Augustine to become the first archbishop of Canterbury, so it’s tantalising to have traces of the ancient buildings under the skin of the rather lovely later church. When modern archbishops of Canterbury come calling, the Pope generally takes them to Vespers at San Gregorio Magno, an action which is weighed down with significance.

On the site of St Gregory’s ancient monastery the outstanding saint of the twentieth century, Mother Teresa (St Teresa of Calcutta) set up her Rome headquarters, so you go through a garden gate beside the church, and there, at the end of a path, is the enclosure of the Missionaries of Charity. At specified times you can ring the bell and a sister will show you the cell in which Mother used to stay when she was in Rome. It’s small and very simple, and very evocative of the saint. In truth, it’s very like the cell she had in Mother House in Calcutta; in fact the whole enclosure looks terrifically Indian, which is a bit disconcerting. It seems really appropriate that this modern reformer of religious life (though she never thought of herself like that) should have acquired the use of that ancient monastic site.

The one saintly room we were thwarted in seeing was the room of St Dominic, where he lived for several years, and met St Francis, in the Dominican house adjoining Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. Sadly that’s only accessible on a guided tour, and they have been suspended. Santa Sabina, though, is terrific. I can see why it was Comper’s favourite. Interestingly, they keep it clear of chairs, as he liked his churches to be. It is a very beautiful authentic fifth century basilica, restored in the ninth and thirteenth centuries, but not much messed about. Terrific schola cantorum and ambones, and apse with marble and porphyry revetment. There is fifth century opus sectile inlay in the spandrels of the arches and round the apse, which appears to have a chalice and host design, but the only panel of mosaic left is on the west wall, with a huge inscription. Beneath that is the amazing fifth century door, with carved panels of astonishing vigour, including what is probably the oldest surviving image of the crucifixion in public art. That was really something to see.


Working Title

On our last morning we slipped into San Lorenzo in Lucina, which is on a quiet piazza just off the Corso, the smart shopping street. It’s another church that preserves its twelfth century fa├žade, with an ionic portico and Romanesque campanile, though the interior has less charm. I was keen to see the tomb of Poussin, the great seventeenth century French classical painter, and also the relic of St Lawrence’s gridiron. As it happened, we couldn’t wander around, because Mass was being said, with a congregation of five. It was the feast of St Ignatius of Antioch. The celebrant, it slowly dawned on me, was a cardinal (for he was wearing his red zucchetto) so it must be the titular of the church. A swift google search subsequently revealed that this was correct, and that we had been present at the Mass of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, and former secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship. He was using the Roman Canon, but otherwise it was a very Vatican 2 sort of celebration, not really his style. Our seats at the back enabled us to view the tomb of Poussin, and the relic of the gridiron, so we got value for our brief stay.


Test and Trace

Back last winter it seemed a good idea to return to our honeymoon hotel to celebrate our first anniversary, and so that was what I arranged, for June. Obviously that was impossible, when the Foreign Office was advising against travel to Italy, and there were actually no flights anyway. The hotel very kindly asked if I wanted to rearrange (which they didn’t have to do) and so I picked a week in October which seemed feasible, and for which BA was offering flights. As Italy seemed to be coping better with the second wave, it didn’t seem such a bad idea, though BA told me five weeks ago that they had cancelled my flights and were rebooking me on earlier ones, so clearly they were consolidating flights because not so many people were travelling. As the date approached we became anxious that the “travel corridor” to Italy might be closed and that we might have to quarantine on return, but that didn’t happen. I was concerned to discover from an Italian website that their authorities would require us either to have had a COVID test within 72 hours prior to arrival, (how exactly do you do that without symptoms?) or to take a test on arrival, but that seemed a gamble worth taking. Then I was confused by the forms handed out on the (half empty) plane which implied that this was not necessary. It was; BA was wrong.

So, at Fiumicino, we found the COVID testing facility, queued up, and had a swab test. Then after waiting twenty minutes we were handed official certificates saying that at 6.30pm on Saturday 10th October, we had tested negative. Most efficient. That all seemed very easy, I have to say, though it would be a struggle if large numbers of people were actually travelling, which they aren’t.

No such testing available on the way home, though, on what turned out to be the last BA flight before arrivals from Rome became subject to fourteen days’ quarantine, a flight that was pretty full of rather nervous people. It turns out we were right to be nervous, as we have now had the message from NHS Test & Trace telling us that we have to self-isolate for fourteen days because we were in potential contact with someone who has tested positive (on that flight). What a bore! 


Friday, 9 October 2020


One of the perhaps unexpected privileges of parish ministry is taking funerals for people whom you would have liked to have known. As Anglican clergy we are available to take the funerals of anyone who lived in our parish, whether or not they came to church. This can be a challenge. In some churches where the geographical parish is very small the funerals tend to be merely for churchgoers, in which case the job is easy (though sometimes not, because there is such a thing as knowing too much about someone), but for most of us there are a fair number for people we don't know at all. Now, I regularly hear about regrettable occasions where clergy have clearly failed to do their homework for some reason, but generally I think we all try to do a decent job.You just have to find out about the person, and use what you find out to preach the gospel of the resurrection and make what you say appropriate and personal. Connecting with people's emotional state, and holding out the prospect of the life to come seems fairly basic. Sometimes, though, in doing one's research, one realises that one would really have liked to have known the deceased.

Recently I did a funeral for an old gentleman who had been a doctor, according to the undertaker. Well, when I talked to his son it turned out that the old gent was a very distinguished epidemiologist. He had also served in the Royal Navy, and been surgeon to the fleet at the time of one of the Icelandic Cod Wars. Then in later life he worked for the EEC in Luxembourg, in the nuclear power inspectorate, which is where he was at the time of the Chernobyl disaster. He clearly also enjoyed his retirement in southern Spain. His son remarked that he had studied epidemics all his life but never really saw a big one, and just when his knowledge might have been useful, he couldn't contribute. His funeral was marked by a bizarre choice of music, "We gotta get out of this place" by the Animals, which he had apparently sung in his care home (though his son never realised he knew it). Otherwise the music was very normal and dignified, but we did smile.

More recently still, I took the funeral of an old lady who had been in the nursing home just round the corner, which (in normal times) I visit every week. She had been an occasional attender at my services there when she first moved in, but I'd never really got to know her. It turns out that this was a real missed opportunity, since she had been Margaret Thatcher's personal secretary throughout the Downing Street years. Prior to working for Mrs Thatcher she had done the same job for Airey Neave, until he was murdered by the IRA. Apparently she was there in the Downing Street flat when Mrs Thatcher fell (incidentally, isn't it interesting that the US President has "the Residence" while our PM has a flat) and went everywhere with her. No-one at the nursing home had the slightest idea of any of this, as far as I could see, presumably because the old lady's rather modest family didn't make a song and dance about it, in a rather British understated way. It made me at once proud and regretful, as that old lady should have had a bigger funeral than she did, though of course no-one can have a big funeral at the moment, thanks to the virus.  

We always try to help out our brethren with bigger parishes, and so do funerals from across parish boundaries when asked, but sometimes the funeral directors take the mickey and just phone up seemingly at random. The very first funeral I did in London was like that, on my first week in the parish, when I didn't yet know the geography; an undertaker phoned up and asked whether I would take this funeral, of a lady from such-and-such flats. I, eager to please, and knowing I had lots of flats in the parish, said yes and wrote down the unfamiliar address. It turned out to be just off Portobello Road, not that far away, but not my parish, not even my deanery, not even, in fact, my archdeaconry or episcopal area. In secular terms, not even the same borough. I never did get to the bottom of why that had come my way.

I was, though, pretty green in my first week in London, because I was also a victim of what was known as "the funeral scam". A person rang the doorbell, claiming to be related to one of my church officers (whose name they had in fact just read off a notice in the church porch) but unable to get in touch with them for some reason. They had just heard, they said, of the death of their mother, and needed to get back to somewhere in the north to arrange the funeral. I wrote all this down, and was, of course, hugely sympathetic and gave them some money to get them back there. My church officer would pay me back, they said. Of course, they were not related, and I never saw my money again. An email the next week revealed that this scam was being used regularly on London clergy. I at least consoled myself that I was the innocent country boy, learning the ways of the big black smoke; others had less excuse.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020


We have finally resumed worship at St Peter's. Some of the church council were very apprehensive about it, but others were quite insistent that St Peter's people were not coming to joint services at St Mary Mags for good reasons, like the distance they had to walk, and missing the particular atmosphere of St Peter's. I think the anxiety was mostly from those who sit near the door and are charged with keeping order, which can sometimes be a challenge, given the odd selection of damaged and troubled people who turn up from time to time (and never actually on time). In the end, there is nothing we can do about that, because it's important that people find this place a sanctuary, and so we went forward in faith and trust.

As it happens, there has not been much of that sort of random and disruptive attendance since we came back. I think many people have got accustomed to there being a lot more rules, and doing what they're told. Certainly our food bank has to operate with strict conditions, that mean that the usual denizens of Harrow Road cannot just wander in and out as they are accustomed to do. The clients do not seem to mind very much. I suppose some of them know that they are vulnerable to the virus one way or another, and so see the point, but it's also the case that they are mostly people who are used to being told what to do, because they don't actually feel they have much agency in their lives.

The resumption of worship has been a challenge, since we can only seat twenty-eight people (a few more if families come together and sit on benches) because St Peter's is just a small space, with a rather low ceiling. I've certainly found that it feels quite different from how it does at St Mary Mags, a vast, cavernous, well-ventilated (some might say draughty) place; at St Peter's you are conscious of unavoidable proximity to other people, and so I don't think people really want to sing, whereas at St Mary Mags I know some people are struggling to restrain themselves. This last Sunday we had a baptism, which I could see presented a challenge for regular parishioners, who were clearly jumpy about the dozen strangers who weren't exactly keeping their distance from each other (but we didn't know who lived with whom, did we). It certainly meant that the church was close to full, which increased anxiety, and I'm quite sure that some people were jsut anxious about being in a confined space with a bunch of people they didn't know. Normally church is quite reassuring because although you may not be intimate, you are pretty familiar with the faces that surround you, although you may come from very diverse backgrounds you are at ease with each other because of familiarity. That was all upset by the influx of strangers on Sunday. Not that they were all strangers, as the mother of the babies, and her mother, are fairly frequent attenders (and were very regular fifteen years ago) but it was their guests who changed the usual dynamic. It was interesting to observe, and raises a whole lot of questions about how we react to strangers, which are important for our mission, because, you know, we do actually want strangers to come in!

Still no news about the murderers of the Somali boy. Two Sundays ago a woman's body was found on Westbourne Green, causing some inconvenience to some of the congregation of St Mary Mags. Everybody thought the worst, and I suppose people were relieved when it emerged that the police were treating it as probable suicide. It doesn't make it any better for the family left behind, but the community feel a bit less unsafe.


Wednesday, 12 August 2020


We've seen no progress over finding the murderers of the local boy. He was from a Somali family, and had been at Paddington Academy, where he had just finished. Sadly, it appears to be, as they say, "gang-related".  

One of the striking features of the lockdown was how the beggars disappeared, but now they have returned to all their normal positions. The man who comes and sits outside Royal Oak Station was one of the first to resume (he commutes regularly to his pitch), but now there is a person back by the cash machine at the Chippenham as well. The purveyors of hard-luck stories (and habitual visitors) have returned to my doorstep as well. One of the hard-luck stories actually lives in Archway, so I really don't know what he's doing here. I used to have a regular hard-luck story who was also known to a fellow priest in Winchmore Hill, so I get the impression that some people have a fairly wide radius in which they ask for help and seem to spend much of their time travelling around doing so.

It's worth pointing out that most of the street beggars are not homeless. Westminster City Council did a fine job of getting homeless people into temporary accommodation when the lockdown began, and no doubt that suited the hotels in which they were placed, but I admit to some anxiety about what is going to happen next. I wouldn't fancy being the council official who has to tell the homeless that it's time for them to get back out onto the street, nor indeed being the local politician who has to announce the policy. Perhaps it won't happen? But, then, where will they put the homeless? 

Soon after the lockdown eased some drug users started using my church porch. I opened the door and surprised them one day, but they claimed only to be rolling cigarettes. Not true of course. Tiny little plastic packets and paper torn into little squares, as well as bits of foil were the detritus left behind. It became evident to them that I did not welcome their presence, and I scowled at them each time I saw them, which was fairly often since that porch is opposite my front door. The upshot was that they moved round to the north porch, which we have opened up as part of our conservation and development works. That porch had been bricked up in the 1950s when Clarendon Crescent, which it opened onto, was gradually falling derelict. Unfortunately, the configuration of the porch was such that it was very hard to close it up, and a space had been left that they tried to close with netting. Over time the netting failed, and the porch became a great place for pigeons to roost. When I came, we had a portaloo out there, but it stood on at least six inches of pigeon guano and was covered in filth; it was one of the nastiest spaces in London. So, we cleared it, and restored the door, and cleaned up the steps.

It has always been our intention to construct a glass pavilion over the north porch, but this proved to be the most controversial bit of the whole plan for the new building, and so we took it out, having spent eighteen months discussing it, and so the new building received its permissions. We then made the case for the glass pavilion separately, and were duly granted permission, though too late to get it built as part of the main contract. Had the contract been finished on time (or indeed anything like on time, or even properly) we should have had the pavilion by now. The work was going to be instructed this spring, but of course did not happen.The reason the porch was bricked up sixty years ago was the same reason we insisted we needed the pavilion now, the likelihood of anti-social behaviour; and so it has proved. The drug users not only consume their drugs nicely concealed at the bottom of the steps, but feel able to defecate there as w ell. Clearing away human excrement does not put one in the best frame of mind for the Sunday Mass.  

The man at Church House Bookshop asked me wistfully how it was in Paddington, because there was absolutely nobody about in central Westminster. I had to tell him that things were almost back to normal here. The quietness of central London is not something we are enjoying here. The Council have even removed all their paraphernalia for wider pavements, though we still have some bike lanes left. Sadly, though, my favourite restaurant has not re-opened. We would like to help them out!