December 17, 2020

Last week, in the middle of the afternoon, my church hall dramatically collapsed.

This was the building into which the church retreated when the Luftwaffe destroyed the main church on the first night of the Blitz. Locals with long memories speak of parish parties, of plays and weddings, of local food clubs. But this was long gone when I arrived here from St Paul’s Cathedral a decade or so ago.

Its back had been broken some years ago after a gang of bored local lads broke in and decided to start a fire. And so it stood there, tiles falling in, home to the foxes, waiting for the end. In August 2018 we applied for planning permission for some flats on the site and a new church hall. The words “awaiting decision” have been on the Southwark Council planning website for two years now.

As the demolition diggers rip through the parish bar in the old hall, tearing down the brick walls like they were paper, flattening the site for God knows what future purpose, an optic of Bells whiskey hangs momentarily in the rubble, a reminder of glories past. My sacristan, whose father was the organist here for 53 years, cannot bear to watch. She is long past tears. The sadness runs far deeper than that.

The story of my parish is hardly unique. We are an inner city multicultural parish with records that go back to the 13th century. The Rectory in which I live was built in the garden of a much grander building sold off many moons ago. Back then, the Rectory would be home to a small army of curates — biretta wearing, Anglo-Catholic priests, swinging incense and praying their rosaries, all of whom had felt called into the inner city inspired by Oxford movement. Parades of them in lacy cottas would lead the faithful on high days and holidays up to the Elephant and Castle in triumphant procession. After church they would fan out into the surrounding estates, taking Holy Communion to the housebound. This was how the church helped to format community. It was the centre of local life, the fixed point around which things revolved.

In many ways, we continue to keep this faith alive. Usually around 80 or so come to church on a Sunday, either by zoom or in person. That’s not what it used to be, of course, but among them are some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. There is a big-hearted solidarity here, expressed in collecting food for those who have hungry families, offering a welcome to desperate refugees and to other church groups without a physical home. Sunday worship continues throughout the day; first in English, then in Amharic and sometimes in Shona. Often members of these congregations will join us on Sunday morning, all of us huddling around the Gospel together, looking for warmth and shelter.

“All you lot want is money,” shouted an angry local at me in the hours after the hall collapsed. “Take no notice,” another intervened, “he’s always like that.” But he was right in a way. We need money to fix the Victorian church tower, the one bit of the old church that did survive the Nazi bombs. We need it to secure the front of the church, currently only half protected by some bent Harris fencing, and too often home those who sneak through to find their comfort in thin vials of poison that they pump into their veins, or to those caught short, looking for a toilet. On Sunday morning, before worship, the first thing we have to do is clean up. It’s a disgusting job. But also a reminder of what we are taking to God in prayer during the service that follows. Yes, we want money. As things stand, we can’t even afford to pay for the demolition works.

The destruction of the diggers on site reminds me once again of that basic principle of conservative philosophy: that it is easier to tear down that to build up. The initial thrill of something happening after years of stalemate quickly give way to a sense of loss. The hall has stood here for 140 years. And now, as new views are created, it is almost as if it had never been. The past is fragile, even when expressed in bricks and mortar. Nothing is as solid as it seems. All is grass. “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” as the book of Ecclesiastes puts it.

But a funny thing can happen when you reach this low point. As Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, put it to me in our Confessions podcast, it is here in Ecclesiastes, in what seems like that most miserable book in the Bible, that the word joy occurs 17 times, more than anywhere else in the scriptures. And this place is indeed a source of incredible joy for me.

Yes, of course I romanticise it a little. Like many Anglo-Catholics I maintain a strong emotional connection to the history of the slum priest, the ground troops of the Oxford movement. John Keble kickstarted it from the pulpit of the University Church of Oxford in 1833. Railing against the apostacy of the nation, he spoke of the country as “indulging or encouraging a profane dislike of God’s awful presence; a general tendency, as a people, to leave Him out of their thoughts”. As a young curate in that very church, I would ascend the same pulpit and often reflect how much worse things had got since Keble woke up a whole generation of clergy to the fight that was before them.

Our church hall was built in 1878, at the very height of internal battles within the church about the movement’s influence. Parliament had passed the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 to limit the growing influence of the movement, deeply distrusted by the church establishment for its Popish sympathies. The reason Anglo-Catholic priests found themselves in the inner city was that these often unwanted parishes were the only ones that would have them. But there they flourished, the emphasis on ritual, beauty and community being perfectly suited to places that had been largely unattended to by the church.

In 1877, Fr Arthur Tooth, a popular priest in a parish a few miles east of mine was imprisoned in the notorious Horsemonger Lane Gaol, a place of execution next to my parish, for refusing to acquiesce to the new liturgical regulations. As my church hall was erected, in the defiantly Gothic revival style – i.e. Popish — many other Oxford Movement priests languished in prison.

The Movement was intended not so much as a revolution, more a retrieval of the kind of relationship between church and people that was believed to have found its high point in the Middle Ages with its traditions of guilds, crafts, apprenticeships and fraternal instincts – hence its hallmark neo-Gothic architecture. And the reason it was persecuted within the church is because it harked back to a pre-Reformation idea, as if the Reformation had been a kind of mistake, not least because it made the relationship between God and human beings a matter of personal, individual responsibility, thus side-lining the very idea of community, and of church community in particular, as little more than a matter of chosen alliances.

Anglo-Catholic parishes threw the best parties because they recognised in the joy of social solidarity the very basis for church life, that God makes most sense when set within the life of a worshipping community. But it was in the Eucharist that this sense of common life under God was most fully realised. And so the parties in the church hall and the Solemn Mass over in the church were of a piece with each other, the Mass being the feast of God’s presence amongst His people, both concerned with the rejuvenation of joy, of the community coming together around a common altar.

Why do I love it here? Partly, because there is so little bullshit. When things have been stripped back this far, there is no room left for pretending. And there is a huge liberation in that. In circumstances like those in my parish, people are thrown back on the core values of the faith: love God and love each other, the beauty of holiness, the need we have for each other. Don’t get me wrong, we have failed to realise this vision a lot of the time. But failure presents no block to the persistence of hope. Indeed, in the Christian story, failure is where hope begins, almost a prerequisite. This, I take it, is the message of the cross, of the cry “my God, why have you forsaken me”. If hope can find its feet in a place such as this, it can find a place amid all the twisted rubble of my life too. If hope survives the cross, it can survive anything.

And the story of the emergence of hope in a world of brokenness is why Christmas is not just a tall tale of angels and shepherds. It’s a depth charge of hope dropped right into the middle of human darkness. I suspect many of those public voices now calling for new restrictions on our Christmas festivities don’t quite appreciate its full existential import. To Christians, it’s not just a few days of merry making — thought I am all for that — it is a celebration of hope, of good news exploding into time and place. And this hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is two things. First, the reframing of daily struggle and hardship within a much wider story in which good is always more powerful than evil. And second, it is a spiritual form of bloody minded defiance. It is Gandalf standing on a narrow ledge, staring the beast in the eye, shouting from the depths of his being: “You shall not pass!” That is the point of my parish — we wage a war on bleakness.

With the hall coming down, something of the parish’s connection with its Anglo-Catholic forbears feels more distant. But we will, of course, survive. No, we will flourish. And the first signs of our revival will come this Christmas eve when we allow ourselves to celebrate our Lord’s birth with unbowed enthusiasm. For with songs like this, how can we ever be broken?

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor and meek and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.