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Leaving St Giles: Part I

If arriving at a new parish can be likened to putting on a new suit of clothes, then leaving it is a kind of disrobing; or if to a baptism, then being laid to rest; or if to learning a new language, then to falling silent. Clearly, the imagery is running away with me, but you get my drift; and put that way it doesn’t sound too good, does it?

I thought freedom from the six-day burdens of work and position was meant to be liberating, like an endless Sabbath, but this doesn’t sound very liberating at all. When the Israelites got to the Sinai peninsular after their Egyptian Passover they complained to Moses that they couldn’t grow cucumbers any more like they used to back home. When the dust finally settles again will I, in similar fashion, pine for the drug dealers and shadows of Flitcroft Street? (And if you think I am making the cucumbers up, see Numbers, chapter 11, verse 5; they missed melons, leeks, onions and garlic as well, bye the bye, but you would, wouldn’t you?

Somehow, though, I doubt if it will be that simple. The fields and soggy conduits of St Giles, past and present, have indeed wrapped themselves around me like a kind of clothing; the stream of humanity has caught me in its flow and watered my imagination; and the stories and idioms which have arisen from church, churchyard and parish have peppered my speech for so long now and so intensely that, although no longer being Rector and no longer being resident will prove a jolt to the system, it will not, I think, prove lasting; for I am no longer the person I was when I first arrived and have re-discovered a truth learned long ago in my first parish but since then slightly forgotten: that the place where we priests minister always changes us more than we change it.

Hereafter, hearing any reference to St Giles will, I know, immediately unlock the doors of memory and experience through which a gallery of modern-day Hogarthian characters will noisily stroll. I will think of C., who used to call in most weeks but hasn’t done so for years now. I fear he is ‘no longer with us,’ as we like to say. C. talked at breakneck speed whilst unconsciously taking off and rearranging his clothes. His soul brother, he felt, was Mick Jagger; and he (C.) had been damaged beyond repair by years of amphetamines and manic madness. He always asked for money at the end and I always gave him some, as if to reward him as the curtain fell on that week’s performance.

No, I suspect the suit of clothes, even though not worn, will remain hanging in the wardrobe, and the waters of what has been a strange blessing will continue to flow, and the vernacular idioms of need and plenty will still force their way into the mind and memory. Will this be like the mark that Cain had to carry around with him, I wonder, (what was that mark anyway, I’ve never been entirely sure?), or will it be more like the hobbling of Jacob after wrestling with the angel? Remember, though, that in both cases these signs of encounter with God, which they then carried through with them for the rest of their lives, were signs of favour and protection. Odd, isn’t it, how God sometimes displays favour?

I have not, then, found St Giles to be a place of health and happiness so much as of courage and earthiness. This is a place where people still have to labour in order to remain in place and hold their own, as once they laboured in the fields of Matilda’s hospice where the sick and wounded found respite; and to judge by the comments in the church’s visitor’s book - ‘So wonderful to still find these beautiful old churches, a symbol of continuity and hope in the transitory events and values of modern life. A real force for beauty and truth,’ J. B., Norfolk - it continues to be a place where respite is found, and there is in this, so it seems to me, something mildly miraculous. There is no more important task facing the mission of the Church of England in the 21st century than that of keeping the doors of heaven open. The rest, to my mind, is just so much opinion and talk.

When, therefore, I think of The Leaving of St Giles I realise that I don’t for a moment think of leaving corporate St Giles, road works St Giles, public realm St Giles, business St Giles, shiny, jazzy, media-networking St Giles, all of which, I am fairly sure, will soon evaporate for me in the warmer air of another way of life (which is, as I write, in case you were wondering, still shrouded in mystery). For everyone’s sake I look forward to the day when the developers and their international investors and the construction industry declare an amnesty on scaffolding, yellow jackets, hard hats and Heras fencing, so that above the murmur of traffic a new quietness might be heard; not silence (that would be asking too much), but a quietness all the same, the chance to walk the streets calmly. This feels like a distant dream right now I know, but it’s good to indulge our dreams sometimes, surely.

It’s a story of resistance that I will take away with me, and it is the striking impression of the harassed faces of locals known and unknown which will stay in the memory long after those of the corporate franchise-makers have faded away. Kathy, in the small hairdressers in Denmark Street, tells me they’ll have to move out before long because the developers want the property back. Whatever comes next will, I dare say, make more money painting someone’s nails or selling chocolates, but something will, all the same, have been lost.

As time has passed so my admiration for those whom I have watched scratching a living from the thin soils of ever-rising rents has grown. I think of a priest’s work in these parts as scratching a living of sorts as well or, better still, as a kind of scavenging, ever mindful of the speech and stories that make ministry truly the pastoral, person-centred endeavour amongst the ‘fallen’ which it is at its best, or so it seems to me. Resistance, then, within and without St Giles; people being their own dogged, eccentric and surprising selves. It’s not always beautiful but when the day comes for me to pack my bags I’ll find room for them which I won’t find for the others.

And then, on top of all this, there’s the way that history just will not let us go, but clings to those who dare to preach and pray where so many have preached and prayed before, and those who dare to join them. It brings a weight and solidity to ministry that I first came to feel in my previous church, which had been founded just two years before St Giles (in 1099) and no more than 35 miles away in Sussex; and have once again come to know in a very Georgian kind of way here in the West End. I am not sure I have always found my religious superiors entirely sympathetic to this, for an impatience with the nagging constraints of tradition has arisen in the wider church, a more entrepreneurial and reductionist spirit, and with it, in some quarters at least, a desire to strip away the ‘husk’ of tradition so as to reveal the ‘kernel’ of faith. But we like the husk, and we like the husk that is of St Giles! It’s what makes us the Christians we are.

No-one paying attention can be left in any doubt that Jesus is Lord among us, even though we may find older rhythms and speech to declare it. In fact it is the ‘husk’ that protects the ‘kernel,’ is it not, (?) and we both want and need both to allow scripture to be read as a constant invitation, sinners to be received as fellow travellers, doubters to be respected and not condemned, and the needs of the wounded to be addressed even if they cannot join in with our creeds. All this I will take away with me when the time for leaving St Giles finally arrives; and I will not have regretted one moment of it; indeed, I shall leave feeling privileged to have been even so brief a part of its history. The future of the life and mission of the Church of England is probably not going to be modelled upon the pattern of St Giles-in-the-Fields, circa 2019; but without it the lanes and streets of the West End will be that much poorer. It will be a fortunate person who one day will pull on the clothes of office to serve this church and parish in the years to come and I am sure it will change that person as much as it has changed me.

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