Snoring in church, crashing into coffins and gambling in a dog collar

The rector of St James’s Piccadilly on the weird and wonderful life of a church in the heart of Lond

Just after the roadworks restoring Piccadilly to two-way traffic start in earnest each morning, we gather for morning prayer and the Eucharist. Still in the 50 days of Easter, our prayers are full of declarations about the hope that comes in the face of death. Energetic verses describing Christ bursting from the tomb give the day a bracing start and I once again feel grateful for the rhythm of the liturgical year, giving shape to the seasons.

As we battle against the diggers breaking up the tarmac outside, I am reminded of our doomed efforts to be devout during Advent last winter, when our attempts to join in the responsory "Now it is time to wake out of sleep" could hardly be heard above the snoring of one of our homeless visitors.

Suited and booted
Speaking of visitors, I meet two men in their forties who arrive in the morning to sleep on one of the pews. Both speak openly about their lives, saying they are determined not to take drugs but are acutely aware of how difficult that will be as their time sleeping rough extends. They seem to have struck up a friendship that might give them some strength to stick to their guns. There is a bravado and swagger that seems to me to mask an unnameable pain as they assure me that tomorrow everything will be better and that it won't be long before they are back up on their feet again.

I'm thinking about them when I go to Westminster Council the following day. Being chaplain to the new Lord Mayor of Westminster for this year will involve me in mostly cere­monial duties, but inevitably as I sit in the council chamber I am reminded of the policy decisions that must be argued out by our elected representatives. These will dramatically affect our borough, which has a growing residential population and a cap on housing benefit to administer.

Later that day, I meet with an energetic young woman who is spreading the word about a project called Suited and Booted, which asks for donations of men's suits and shoes to enable those who've been homeless to go for a job interview looking presentable. Situated as we are by Jermyn Street, full of men's outfitters and shaving accessories, I can see that it might be something we could help with.

In the music room with the lead piping
Later in the week I am sitting in the corridor of a packed train on the way to the Hay literary festival to be a judge for the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing, started by the present Archbishop of Canterbury in 2005.

The judges and authors are all staying in Baskerville Hall, a stone's throw from what are said to be the graves of the celebrated hounds. Arthur Conan Doyle was apparently a frequent visitor here and only relocated his mystery to Devon on the request of the family, to save them from tourists.
It's a suitably literary environment in which to discuss the merits of contemporary writing and the discussion is lively and not a little argumentative. I try not to be distracted by the obvious Agatha Christie plot that presents itself, in which the ambitious writer bumps off the judges one by one, and I enjoy gathering for drinks in the music room, where there is at least one visible candlestick and a length of lead piping.

The prizewinner is unanimously confirmed as David Bentley Hart for Atheist Delusions, a startling and invigorating defence of Christianity based on a close reading of early Christian and pagan history, all framed with references to what he calls the "imbecilic" assumptions of the New Atheists. It's not a polite book, but it is an explosive and eminently readable survey of the unique contribution of Christianity to society. With detailed scholarship and supple reasoning, it wittily exposes the nonsense that is peddled as philosophy by what he calls Christianity's "fashionable enemies".

The wages of sin is text
Back to St James's and the burial of the dead. I am standing at the door of the church as the coffin is brought out of the hearse. The roadworks mean that the cortège is 20 minutes late and the flustered undertaker is wondering when to phone the crematorium to ask if they can move their "slot".

As the coffin is lifted on to the shoulders of the men in black, in the middle of a busy shopping day, a young woman is advancing, eyes fixed on her mobile phone, thumbs busy texting. She is walking briskly and doesn't stop until she bumps into the irritating wooden object that seems to be blocking her path.

She looks up, about to express her irritation when she sees that she's just collided with a coffin. She seems to take it all in her stride, says "oh", and graciously pauses her walk, while continuing to text.

I hope that she is at least acknowledging something of what's happened by texting "OMG I've just walked into a coffin", but I don't hold out much hope. At least she steps aside to allow the procession into church.

Chips are down
Any modern vicar must spend time fundraising and to this end I attend a dinner in the basement of the Ritz hotel. I say basement, but it's the Ritz Casino, and I have never walked down such plush stairs in my life. An enjoyable meal follows, but for me the highlight of the evening comes at the beginning when the staff member who welcomes us takes one look at my dog collar and, without missing a beat, simply asks: "Will you be gaming tonight, madam?" Everything in me wants to say casually that I will start with £50k and see how I go.

I tell my host later that this is possibly one of the top 20 moments of my life so far. Even without chips, the presence of a priest in the games room later on causes a little consternation, which is equally gratifying.

Contemporary ministry in the Church of England seems to be, as the sculptor described the music of Bach, modern like the waves, old like the sea.
The Reverend Lucy Winkett is rector of St James's Church, Piccadilly

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit