Letter from St Giles

We are getting ready to welcome Suffolk. I am quite an expert on the county having experienced the bus replacement service along what appeared to be the entire length of A140 one wet weekend in the summer. Suffolk is like Norfolk but with hills and, thank goodness, speeds up as you approach Ipswich. I know some of you live there: you introduce yourselves by place whereas us conventional types opt for giving of our name. Thus I am greeted with, ‘We live in Suffolk’ indicating that although you seem to be bodily present in the Barbican several nights a week, and are shaking my hand right now, this is not living. We may have high culture and sushi round here, but we lack either the long length of the A140 or the height of the hills. As our friend T S Eliot (known to his family as Tom) observed there is a distinction between ‘living and partly living’ and we are so downright partial in EC2Y.

Suffolk is coming into the City by the coachload and in full fig.  It’s one of those bring-a-bishop hot dates, along with a supporting cast of the Cathedral choir, Dean and Chapter and a large supply of flapjack and squash for the choristers.

Hereford Cathedral did it first. Hereford and Suffolk have much in common: fields, hedges, an underpopulated scattering of hovels for oppressed agricultural workers and, amid it all, cathedrals rising above the landscape that are costly to maintain. It doesn’t add up out there: no Maseratis or Ferraris parked in the driveway as is evident round here, no spontaneous gifts of the odd £1m found in the collection (this doesn’t happen every Sunday). Preventing medieval architecture from drastic crumbling and decay is a shared experience among many clergy and their stalwart teams of church wardens, architects and contractors.  It is an experience that is sometimes a bit much, especially when it rains through the roof and another bit of coping stone falls off the parapet the same day.

City of London churches are thought to be without a financial care in the world because surely HM The Queen personally pays for your upkeep, or HM Government or, all else failing, the incredibly wealthy Corporation of the City of London?  Not so. St Giles’ stands doggedly amid the concrete and glass ‘as that last little memory of mediaeval London that Shakespeare would have known’ because children splat the rat, adults sell donated books, the Administrator hires out the church for concerts, we furrow our brows and apply for grants, and above all, regular worshippers give generously.

It would be churlish to turn away the Suffolk coach on the off-chance that generous supporters, who were just about to sign lavish cheques to St Giles’, were suddenly to get distracted by the dazzle of the bishop, the dean and the flapjack and hand their money over to Bury St Edmunds (by mistake) instead.  Once people stop thinking that someone else will pay for the upkeep of the historic legacy which are our churches, we will find there is plenty for everyone.  On the other hand, a vista tax may be the way forward with an upper banding for Barbican flats that had views of both the tower and the east window. I am sure Suffolk could come up with an equivalent scheme; I will suggest it.

Sometimes it is not that flattering to discover why people chose to hold a service or an event at St Giles’ rather than in one of the neighbouring churches. ‘Handy for lunch at xyz livery hall afterwards;’ ‘We couldn’t afford St Bartholomew’s the Great;’ ‘The one we preferred was already booked.’ I dared to ask the talent scout why Suffolk had decided to select us. ‘It is about equidistant between Liverpool Street and King’s Cross.’ Not all Suffolk in the City arrives on the coach, some splash out and come by train. Digging around in Pevsner revealed a compelling reason why they had made the right choice. The body of Edmund King and Martyr was brought down from Bury St Edmunds to London for safekeeping while the Danes were despoiling East Anglia. The story goes that in 1010 the body rested overnight in the then church at Cripplegate. I am told that would probably have been a wooden one that preceded first stone one built in 1090. Sounds a bit flat pack and perhaps there were heated parish meetings at the time about replacing the dearly loved wooden church which was good enough for grandma’s wedding.  Makes you think though, near this spot rested the body of the man who later, in medieval times, was the Patron Saint of England.

This being the second year we are now better prepared, not so much for the service as for the feeding of the choristers which is much more important. Staff arrive with armfuls of choir robes and crates of sandwiches and buns. The boys spend the next couple of hours snacking and hitting high notes before being taken for a run round the block to calm down before the service. Afterwards the grown-ups saunter off to a reception with rather good food and the boys get put on the bus with the promise of fish and chips. Not exactly clean eating, but I fear celery wouldn’t fill them up in the same way.

We are not always fundraising and asking for money all the time in the Church of England, but if you enjoy the view of your church or cathedral – whether you live here or in Suffolk, please remember that with your generosity some local child would be spared splatting rats and a Suffolk choirboy might get to eat a healthy diet for a change.