The End of History
I am grateful to K. for passing on to me this parish population map from 140 years ago. It is not, I admit, easy to read (though the River Thames is in the usual place) and requires some patience to work out the relative populations of the respective parishes in the West End and Westminster, but if you can do this you will discover that all the parish areas from those years (some parish boundaries have changed) had larger resident populations than they do today, but that among them St Giles had by far the largest population of them all, at 35,703 souls. By contrast the last census in 2011 recorded 3,820 adults and 419 children living in the parish; which prompts my deliberately silly question, ‘Where have all the people gone?’
The people of 1877 have died and, in the face of late nineteenth century urban renewal, their successors have moved away east and north, and their successors have then moved further away east and north, and others have since come in, but many fewer. Such are the things that we Londoners continue to talk about endlessly, are they not? - the hollow centre and the ever extended commuter journey? Why else, I suppose, would Crossrail 1 (and now Crossrail 2) be worth all the upheaval and expense?
Yet we know also that if a similar parish map of 2018 were to be produced showing not resident but transient populations, we would doubtless be astonished all over again (but in a different way) by the numbers of those who on any average weekday pass through. From memory, the last estimate I heard of travellers expected to be coming into the transport hub of Tottenham Court Road once Crossrail 1 (The Elizabeth Line) was fully operational was 200,000 a day!
I know: ‘Enough of this amateur sociological waffle: your point please?’ My point is that there will always be something perennial and always something transitory about the ministry and life of a church such as St Giles, and that what matters is understanding the symmetry between the two: or, to put this in a different way; that the perennial - scripture, liturgy, seasons, creeds, preaching, pastoral care - will always embedded in the shifting - among movements of people, among the rich, poor and middling, among ‘divers tongues’ - and will always be further subject to the vagaries of political forces who in one generation decide to pull down what in a previous generation had just been put up.
What’s more, in case you think this is solely a metropolitan phenomenon, it is not. In the small Sussex village of my previous ministry rising house prices in the early 2000’s meant that you had to be either a pilot or brain surgeon to afford to move in and this in turn altered the social dynamics of the community (fewer younger people born and bred for one thing) and this in its turn affected the nature of parish ministry; and something similar, I suspect, is being replicated in nearly all local communities.
So from a resident population of some 35,000 people who had children who needed schooling, and then grew up and needed marrying, and then fell sick and needed visiting, and then died and needed burying, all of which kept a small troop of curates very busy, and where (England being still and obviously a self-styled Christian country) the place of the church among them all was observed and received; from this we turn to the flux and churn of a population that seldom rests nor remains for long in one place and whose allegiances to the spiritual realm are anyone’s guess, which is where we are now, I suppose, still observing the perennial things and doing our best to understand the transient things and unsure what ‘staying in touch’ with the current generation of St Giles-in-the-Fields might look like; and this is our field of mission. Residents (though far fewer) remain as important, perhaps more important, than ever, but harder to reach in all kinds of ways, harder to speak to of the perennial God; and yet this is where we are called to do our witnessing. Many of the passers by think us redundant, but not all; and so we stick to our task.
Which leads me to ‘The End of History,’ the theatre production currently in rehearsal at St Giles (I can hear singing through the office door), a play for two characters first brought to St Giles at our invitation by Gemma Kerr, director, (of High Hearted Theatre) and Marcelo Dos Santos, writer, to mark the 350th anniversary of the outbreak of the plague in 2015. They have now revised the play, adapted the script a little, found some more money and improved the production, to the point that this month the play will be showing again at St Giles on certain nights from Tuesday, 5th to Saturday, 23rd June. (Tickets can be booked through Soho Theatre at www.sohotheatre. com or by calling 020 7478 0100).
The play is not about the outbreak of the plague itself; no replica plague pits will be dug! Sickness has become, in the play. a metaphor for the place of the outsider, so that as well as picking up the ostracism that came with the first signs of the disease the play also picks up the long and haunting association of this neighbourhood with those classes for whom St Giles is patron: the leper, the outcast, the negligent, the wanderer, the disabled, and apparently (as I have discovered) those with childhood fears, convulsions and even depression (which must account for nearly everyone!) We look back at the long history of this parish and imagine the days of Hogarth and gin and the crowded rookeries and the bursting population and then look up and see, occupying a bench in the far corner of the church, a character who could well have walked out of the year 1877, and realise all over again that the perennial for us is also the constant presence of those on the outside, the misfits, and that though times and circumstances changed and shiny, metal offices have replaced decaying slums, little perhaps has changed underneath, so to speak, and that we are still called to be disciples with and to those who live on the margins and who, perhaps, whether self-inflicted or victims, do not fit in and those who live on the margins of faith as well.
The play, then, focuses on a woman and a man who for different reasons find themselves here, at St Giles, sharing a peculiar loneliness and longing but still able to dream of what might be. They occupy that strange borderland between civility and lawlessness, between convention and release, between stasis and flux which, long ago, erupted through the years of the plague and were continued into Dickensian times. Though I have not asked the writer why he chose ‘The End of History’ as a title, yet I wonder if the cyclical nature of the social flora and fauna of our end of St Giles High Street, where Holborn runs up against the roads heading west and north out of London, does not suggest that in spite of outward appearance the true human things, remaining constant, challenge our idea that everything is always changing and getting better. The writer may have had something else in his mind altogether (come along and find out) but I will stick by this observation for now, for it presents us with the communal bed rock of a continuing Christian presence, here where on certain days everything can seem to be happening all at the same time.