Friday, 15 March 2019

15. St Paul’s Cathedral, London. March 15, 2019

A bargain train trip to London offers the chance for bemusement at Tate Modern, enjoyment at the British Museum and fulfilment at St Paul’s Cathedral. It should be a joyous day of treats but it’s overshadowed not just by stormy skies but by news from Christchurch of dozens killed in an attack on people praying in a mosque. 

By the time I’ve reached Euston the news is already wall-to-wall coverage with messages of condolence coming in from round the world including, of course, Theresa May. In her message she says her thoughts are with those caught up in the attacks and their families.

I’ve often wondered what that phrase ‘our thoughts are with...’ really means. It  crops up a lot in our social media world where the speed of a response appears to be more important than what that response actually is. Not that articulating your sympathies can ever be anything but well-intended. Thinking about someone who’s in distress or grief might help us believe we’re doing something when we patently can’t; it certainly helps those in grief know they’re not alone and that someone, however remote and unconnected, is appreciating their pain. In essence, I suspect it’s the secular, modern version of praying for someone.

It being the lead-up to Easter, the tradition of walking round the stations of the cross is observed. St Paul’s performs this outdoors - even when the sky above is black and threatening and the wind is buffeting hair and service booklets. Statues, memorials, fountains - all act as reminders of the progress made from betrayal to crucifixion. 

Led by a brave verger our group of less than a dozen moves from station to station to reflect as we go with plenty of space for silent prayer. Close your eyes for a moment here and it’s hard to escape the incessant background cacophony of chatter, traffic, skateboarders, circling helicopters and sirens. It’s hard too to get away from the crowded bustle of city folk, tourists and families pushing past this small group of silent ponderers, as London life finds no time to pause.

But perhaps that’s what prayer has to do - carve out the smallest moments of repose and reflection from the weight of thundering life. Holding the conviction that something so quiet will be heard through all this din, and that something will come of it, is in its way very impressive.

Inside the cathedral Stations of the Cross gives way to the much better attended Evensong. This is church as grand theatre. It’s hard to think of many spaces as impressive or inspirational as the interior of this truly iconic building. It never fails to take the breath away through its ornateness, its architectural beauty, its sheer unbridled scale. You can get lost in the space. It can be like being at the back row of a stadium gig. No dry ice or giant inflatables but no big screen either.

There’s a charge for going into most cathedrals these days. Given the astronomical costs of keeping these fabulous buildings open and functioning, that’s to be expected. Cathedrals combine a wealth of treasure and history with an enormous and costly-to-heat space. Maintaining almighty organs, keeping skilled musicians, lighting the distant corners of the vaulted ceilings, ensuring hefty gargoyles don’t come crashing down - it all costs money and someone has to pay. St Paul’s charges £20 (as does Westminster Abbey, its equal in the ecclesiastical attractions league table) and tourists are happy to pay that to sample its stunning interiors, vertigo-inducing galleries and famous tombs.

I must confess that for years I have never paid. Not just because I am a cheapskate, although I am. More because I’ve always enjoyed seeing great cathedrals at work with worship and daily administrations in progress. There’s no charge for being a participant in a place of worship and the daily evensong  provides a chance to see and hear the place at work. Surprisingly it’s a tactic that’s not oversubscribed. I’ve been to evensong in Bristol with about a dozen people, similarly in Lichfield. In Winchester (admittedly at the other end of the day) I’ve sat with fewer than a handful. Not so here. People have come from all over the world not just to see St Paul’s but to worship in in too. So we are packed in. 

I suspect the staff and officials here are wise to the ‘evensong freeloaders’. We are herded quite brusquely to take our appointed places - no option of choosing where you’d like to be. Steward scan the assembled looking to weed out those daring to get the camera out. It’s the same at Westminster Abbey where I recall being moved on past the tomb of the unknown soldier by a jobsworth who clearly resented my pausing there for the briefest of moments.  

Somewhere within all the logistics of packing in people more intent on looking at the huge domed ceiling above or the magnificent gilt choir stalls, than in singing the printed words before them, the service itself is slightly lost. And that’s a pity because the readings are excellent and the anthems could hardly be bettered. Christchurch and its grieving people are remembered - in a congregation as international as this it’s almost inevitable that there’ll be New Zealanders feeling as far from home as it’s possible to be. 

Whether through prayer, social media messages or just reflection, we send our thoughts. And with a gathering as big and global as this, that has to be felt somewhere no matter how loud the din.