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Hope rises from the rubble of my church This ancient parish stands firm as the demolition diggers move in

Sadness lies too deep for tears as Giles Frasers' church hall is torn down.

Sadness lies too deep for tears as Giles Frasers' church hall is torn down.


December 17, 2020   6 mins

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.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Nicholas Ridiculous
Nicholas Ridiculous
3 years ago

Giles, I admire you very much indeed. You perfectly encapsulate what I love about many Anglican parishes and they, like your hall, are slipping away one by one – dying of neglect. A neglect of what really matters by the very people who should be tending the community and spirit of the parish – those at the centre of the CofE. We have enough trouble with the MSM’s portrayal without hostility within the ranks! Have a great Christmas and keep writing your prophetic pieces – you give me hope.

Mark Lilly
Mark Lilly
3 years ago

What a splendid seasonal present. To hear that parishes “are slipping away one by one – dying of neglect.” gives me renewed hope for the future. May the stone age hate culture of monotheism in all three forms slowly dissolve in its own self-created slime.

ian.komera
ian.komera
3 years ago

Thanks for a beautiful, moving but unsentimental account of what the incarnation means.

Micheal Thompson
Micheal Thompson
3 years ago

Thank you for this beautiful and thoughtful piece. It helped me gain some much needed perspective. Happy Christmas to you and all your parish.

Teo
Teo
3 years ago

“All you lot want is money,” shouted an angry local.
Maybe the angry local had a point that it will take more than money to rebuild the church from the rubble.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Teo

It will also take a great deal more than money. May God bless your ministry, Fr. Giles.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘Its back had been broken some years ago after a gang of bored local lads broke in and decided to start a fire.’

This is London, where there is more to do and more opportunity than almost any city in world history. There is no reason for anyone to be ‘bored’. I grew up in the middle of nowhere but we were never bored, and we didn’t go around burning down buildings. Actually, come to think of it I was in a band with someone who burned down part of the local high school. I guess these people are everywhere.

Tony Gerrard
Tony Gerrard
3 years ago

Thank you, Giles. You always leave us with encouragement and hope.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
3 years ago

Thank you, dear Father, for this great affirmation of our faith and tradition. A joy to read and an inspiration.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Your moving story brought to my mind an old, favorite poem: “Still Falls the Rain…”. Thank you.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Still falls the Rain”-
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss”-
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to the hammer-beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of the impious feet

On the Tomb:
Still falls the Rain

In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.

Still falls the Rain
At the feet of the Starved Man hung upon the Cross.
Christ that each day, each night, nails there, have mercy on us”-
On Dives and on Lazarus:
Under the Rain the sore and the gold are as one.

Still falls the Rain”-
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds,”-those of the light that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark,
The wounds of the baited bear”-
The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
On his helpless flesh”Š the tears of the hunted hare.

Still falls the Rain”-
Then”- O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me doune”-
See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament:
It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree

Deep to the dying, to the thirsting heart
That holds the fires of the world,”-dark-smirched with pain
As Caesar’s laurel crown.

Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain”-
“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.”

Edith Sitwell wrote this during the blitz.

Eliza Mann
Eliza Mann
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Beautiful.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
3 years ago

I believe that the Church of England is severely constrained because of its enormous portfolio of listed buildings. They are ruinously expensive to maintain and consume a lot of the energy of the dwindling congregations. It would be far more sensible if a separate body like a specialist National Trust only hopefully less woke looked after the real estate leaving the Church to save souls or something similar. I’m not suggesting chucking out the priests of congregations but simply making better use of the buildings as public spaces when they are not being used for worship. In many rural areas they are the only public buildings but they are locked up except for one Sunday in four. Freeing them from the control of Bishops would also bring more money in for maintenance.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
3 years ago

Thank you very much for this thought provoking and optimistic reflection.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago

Thank you Giles for such a great article at this time.
Wishing you and your parish, and everyone else, all the very best this Christmas.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
3 years ago

The Reformation did not ‘sideline the idea of community’, it took away the power and control of the clerics, and the repressive and dictatorial regimes they acted for. Such ‘community’ as there was was organised purely to serve their interests, with poverty-ridden and subsistence societies handing over tithes and taxes under threat of eternal damnation.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
3 years ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

The power of the clerics was merely transferred to the power of the state, which has had mixed results of its win over the last few centuries.

Swiveleyed Loon
Swiveleyed Loon
3 years ago

The imprisonment of priests for opposing liturgical laws was a shoddy, demeaning episode in the history of the Church of England, and not really so very long ago. It is very little known these days. I only know of it because I have a contemporary account of the persecution of the vicar of Miles Platting.

Peter KE
Peter KE
3 years ago

Nice article.

David Brown
David Brown
3 years ago

A minor point, but Bell’s (there is a possessive apostrophe on the label), being Scotch, is whisky. Whiskey is Irish, or American.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

Hope is good, but hope for what? Isn’t vision necessary if hope is going anywhere? You mention Ecclesiastes and it’s frequent mention of joy. It says in Proverbs “without vision the people perish.” Vision gives substance to hope and fills the people with joyful motivation. Without vision hope will die and there will be a tendency, as we see in this article, to retreat into the rather romanticised memories of the past.
One of the signs of a growing revival in the Church is the vision for reordering church buildings making them fit for purpose for worship, ministry and service to the community in the 21st. century and beyond. The parish I’m in is in the Welsh Marches. Unlike most villages in the area it is large and has a lot of rural poverty and neglect. In her second year with us our parish priest shared what she believed was a God given vision of a growing church housed in a reordered building. This vision was tested by consultation with the church and community. Now 4 years later work is going on to complete a renewed building with toilets, meeting room and worship area which can also be used for concerts, art exhibitions etc.
It’s costing £130,000. All of it bar a couple of thousand has been raised without fund-raising events. We have prayed, given generously and sought some grant aid. Praise God the money has come in – the result of the joyful motivation His vision has given us. This is a tiny example of the spiritual renewal which is going on at the moment throughout the Church.Of course it’s never mentioned in the media and never acknowledged by the atheist, anti-Christian mafia some of whom populate these columns.
You seem to make a distinction between the Evangelical emphasis on an individual’s relationship with God and a Catholic emphasis on a corporate experience of God. It is best to have both. I saw both being offered to very good effect in Evangelical parishes in inner city Liverpool when I was a priest in an Anglo-Catholic parish.

Mark Lilly
Mark Lilly
3 years ago

If undeveloped and uncritical minds – untroubled by the repressive and murderous deeds of the groups with which they are affiliated – find themselves enthralled by religious gibberish, a free society should not interfere. But Fraser is a serious social pest. He is everywhere across the media, including two major media outlets notorious for their outrageously unrepresentative encouragement of supernaturalism: the BBC and the Guardian. Giving him yet another slot – and especially here, where the ideal is to break new ground, not to encourage recruiters to a benighted stone age system – is too much. Basta!

David Sherman
David Sherman
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Lilly

You disagree, so it shouldn’t be permitted? Hmmm.

I disagree 100% with your post but I totally believe you should be free to post it. Similarly, Giles is free to write when invited and you are equally free not to read it, if it offends you.

Mark Lilly
Mark Lilly
3 years ago
Reply to  David Sherman

Of course he is free to write. I go out of my way to clarify that I abhor censorship. The quite separate point I am making is that he (particularly) and his point of view is disproportionately represented in the public domain. He is hogging the limelight.