It’s great having advertising gurus in your congregation. Most churches run some kind of programme for the six weeks of Lent – reading or prayer groups, for instance, or a lecture series. Lent, which mirrors the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, is a season of fasting, prayer and study.
In that spirit, we organised trips to places that we might not otherwise have seen, to jolt us out of the “groupthink” that often afflicts churches. To this end, members of the congregation went to the public gallery of the Old Bailey, to a Hindu temple and to a television studio for a recording of a popular daytime show; and we encouraged people to take the time to look around them and see familiar environments differently. This was where the ad guys came in. To describe all of this – which is, in essence, hanging around and observing stuff – one of our congregation came up with the name “Loitering Within Lent”.
And it wasn’t any old TV studio we were in. My colleague took a group to see the ITV magazine programme Loose Women. She got hauled out of the audience by the warm-up guy, who declared that the show had never had a vicar in the crowd before. She gently refused, when pressed during one of the ad breaks, to “bless the desk” behind which the celebrity presenters were seated. By her own admission, she would probably rather have blessed Antonio Banderas, who came on shortly afterwards . . .
From Loose Women to Leading Women, a national development programme for female clergy that was founded about five years ago. We thought there was room for an intensive, 18-month course to help clergywomen develop their confidence, theological understanding and spiritual depth, alongside their financial literacy and strategic acumen. After seeing three cohorts through the programme, I attended my last residential scheme this Lent and was again struck by the variety of these women: their humour, their sense of camaraderie and, perhaps surprisingly, their reticence about their abilities and what they have to offer.
From there to a panel of Muslim and Christian women discussing gender equality. One woman spoke of her young daughter’s distress after her best friend at school (who is white) told her that she couldn’t be friends with her any more because her mother had told her that she might be a jihadi bride. Another story came from a woman whose veil was pulled by a “suited-and-booted white man” on the Tube, who called her “a f***ing jihadi bride”. These women, like our Leading Women, were articulate, angry and self-deprecating. They were critical of both the media, which seemed obsessed with Isis, and a Muslim leadership that wasn’t saying what they wanted it to say. I left the meeting energised and moved.
Lent rolls on and central London parish life is as mottled and mercurial as ever. One Saturday morning, we hosted a kind of urban retreat called “Street Wisdom” (streetwisdom.org). The facilitators encouraged us to walk the streets of Soho, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly and St James’s. We were urged to walk as slowly as we dared, to take a question to the streets and see what kind of answers we came up with.
The adventures and conversations that people had in their three hours alone were quite amazing. One had had a gun pointed at her; another became obsessed with a torn piece of plastic; others had had profound thoughts about the direction of their lives, just because they had stopped and changed the pace at which they normally lived.
The fire and the rose
Holy Week moves inevitably nearer and the word on the Church’s lips is “Passion”, in its original sense of suffering. A different kind of Passion is coming to our church – not the St John Passion or St Matthew Passion, familiar from the pen of J S Bach, but a new play, The Devil’s Passion, by Justin Butcher. Reminiscent of C S Lewis’s inspirational Screwtape Letters (in which an older devil writes letters to his young apprentice), this play shows Satan in hell, barricading the doors against the harrowing that he knows will come if the events of the week unfold as they must. He resists, rails and is appalled at the inexorable goodness that is advancing towards him.
The contemporary composer Gabriel Jackson also brought his Passion to us, scored not just for the usual strings and choir but also for alto sax, harp and a bewildering array of percussion. The soundscape (which Jackson confesses is “weird”) as the horrifying events of the torture and execution of Jesus were recounted reminded us of the apocalyptic flavour of the story. Unusually, Jackson used words from T S Eliot as well as scripture. The futuristic piece ended with Eliot’s astonishing observation that “the fire and the rose are one”.
And so, this Easter, I find my life full of passion stories; from Muslim women abused in public to the daily encounters we have here with men (mostly men) who are destitute, addicted and in their own circle of hell. We will be in the mix of it all, amid the turbulence and suffering of city-centre life, at dawn on Easter Day at Piccadilly Circus, lighting the fire, singing alleluia and renewing our hope that things don’t have to be as they are. And in the same fire, we will resolutely look for the outline of the rose: as beautiful a description of real life, not to mention Holy Week, as I have ever heard.
Rev Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London W1, where “The Devil’s Passion” will be performed on 31 March and 1 April (7pm). For tickets, visit: thedevilspassionstjames.bpt.me