Why the church is like an ecclesiastical version of Marks & Spencer

What can happen inside a church building? Is it sacred space and if so, what are the limits?

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I have a dog in the middle of the city. So I tend to spend a lot of time on the bus with him, going to the park. It really is true that people speak to you more readily if you have a dog. Or, to be more accurate, if they’re British they often speak to the actual dog, not the human attached. But if there’s room, and I can be bothered, I do love sitting on the top deck: me and my spaniel Joey, our six legs clattering as we climb the stairs; pretending to be masters of all we survey when we’re up there.

When I’m not being accosted by American tourists (“please can I pet your dog? I miss mine at home…”) there is time to overhear the most intriguing conversations. One hands-free-phone exchange had me so entertained I forgot to get off at my stop.

“So I just had this insane idea. I’ll go to a charity shop to get the wedding dress and just fuck it up. I mean slash the front and cut the train. I want to be naked.”

Pause…

“I want to be NAKED.”

Pause…

“Hmmmm. I’m not sure about black. Maybe red. It can’t be white. Maybe red. I wanna be a Rihanna video. I’ll keep you updated. Yeah, love you too.” I’ve taken many winter weddings in my time, where red and black seemed to be the dress code for the guests. But not often for the bride.

Mobile phone masts and jazz cafes

This winter, I’ve learned more concretely the meaning of the American import “Black Friday”. Church finances are always a challenge, especially with custodianship of a Grade I listed building and staff monthly salaries. Priests have to be able to handle a balance sheet as well as a hymn sheet. And this year more than most I’ve felt that we’re a bit like an ecclesiastical version of John Lewis or Marks & Spencer – making half our income in the last quarter of the year.

Many of the budget lines are unpredictable and volatile; we can receive no donations at all for months, then have a week where, inexplicably, we are rescued at the last minute. It’s a nail-biting business. There is a move abroad in the Church of England to encourage churches to make money in more entrepreneurial ways: in villages by hosting post offices or mobile phone masts, in towns by running jazz cafes or spinning classes. In the past, churches built halls to accommodate such activity. Now it’s often happening in the building itself. This begs the question: what can happen inside a church building? Is it sacred space and if so, what are the limits?

At Christmas time, the sacred and secular blur. The Christians took over many pagan symbols and ceremonies such as candles and evergreens to celebrate this principal Feast of the Incarnation, so I’ve never worried about moving from singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to listening to a performance by Ellie Goulding – as we did this month at our Christmas fundraising event for the Felix Project, a charity combating hunger and food waste. Hearts are stirred, charitable instincts are rekindled, and lives are made better for the poorest in our city by believers and non-believers alike.

Falafel in the nave

Our church was approached this year by a Muslim group we know well, asking if there were a way we could mark Christmas together – the Christian feast celebrating the birth of Jesus the Saviour, who is also honoured as a prophet in the Quran. What can we do together that doesn’t dilute either? Our twenties and thirties group came up with the suggestion of a shared meal to talk about a key theme of Christmas: peace.

And so 50 young Christians and Muslims met in the church one evening for falafel to talk and eat and get to know one other. “How realistic is the portrayal of your faith in the media?” they were asked. “What do you think our society celebrates most?” “Do you think secular communities and faith communities are different? How?” If they left with a little more understanding of one other than when they arrived, with a few more contacts in their phone or a determination to keep in touch, then Christmas had done its work. They’ve scheduled another one for Spring.

Reminders of wasted potential

This year we’ve also been hosting a breakfast every week for people with no recourse to public funds: people in the asylum process, people who are refugees. Week by week we have shared stories over coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. As I’ve got to know them, I have been struck particularly by one aspect of their life here: they are not allowed to work. This makes no sense to me. They are, in the main, very keen to get a job, to contribute, to help themselves. But they are stuck.

And so our church will be highlighting one of the fundamental issues of our time: forced migration and the huge number of refugees living in limbo in camps or far from home. We have salvaged hundreds of discarded clothes from camps on the Greek island of Lesvos. We will hang them in the nave of our church until February, in an exhibition by Arabella Dorman called Suspended. They will form a kind of “exploded life”, wasting their potential, unable to go home or move on. With Lord Dubs, who came to the UK on the Kindertransport in 1939, and the inspirational organisation Safe Passage, we will call for the government to fulfil its promise to welcome unaccompanied child refugees – only a matter of 280 children before Christmas.

This festive season, I find myself musing on the often repeated thought that “it’s for the children”, and hoping that the estimated 70,000 London primary pupils who go to school hungry each day, and the estimated 300,000 unaccompanied child refugees in camps across the world, get some of our attention. Especially at the Feast of the Incarnation, when Christians celebrate God becoming real to us in the vulnerability of a baby, but with the light and power and warmth of the sun. 

Rev Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly

“Suspended” runs from 14 December 2017 until 8 February 2018. Details sjp.org.uk

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special