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Learning from London, Day 1: St. Paul's Covent Gardens

Brad and I actually arrived on Thursday, and we’ve explored a lot.  On Friday, one of the places we went was Covent Gardens, where we stumbled into a little church courtyard.  Turns out it was the garden of St. Paul’s Church Covent Gardens.  Known as the Actor’s Church because of its proximity to the theatre district of the West End, St. Paul’s was commissioned in 1633, and was the first entirely new church to be built in London since the Reformation.  When it first opened, the entrance was on the East Wall, and the altar was on a different wall.  The bishop wouldn’t hear of it, and he required that they immediately brick up the entrance, move the altar to the East Wall, and put the entrance elsewhere. So, they did.

Now one enters through a courtyard garden that was meant to be behind the church. It’s lovely.  Full of roses and summer flowers, it is a haven for people on lunch breaks, gawking tourists and those just needing a quiet moment.  Posted signs say that the garden is a ministry of the church to give people a little respite in the chaos of the neighborhood around them. We walked through the garden and into through a wide open door.  Immediately I noticed three things: On the left of the door, neatly folded clothing and shined shoes sat on a long table.  A sign read: “Do you need gently used, clean clothing? Help yourself.”On the right, a desk held flyers about coming events.  Behind the desk sat a highbacked chair on which a lovely dark cat sunned himself.  Turns out his name is Jones (in honor of the church's architect, Inigo Jones).  He is their resident greeter, and clearly is very comfortable in his role. In front of me, a wooden stand held the sign pictured here. I took the sign off of the stand and laid it down to take a picture. No one stopped me, though the cat blinked a few times. The woman poring through the clothes on the table didn’t notice.  Through an open door, I saw a priest typing on a computer.  Just another day at church.   I walked in to the nave to find a simple sanctuary and ancient wooden pews. Nearly 400-year old clear glass windows shone sunlight on a bar set up in the back corner (for performances, other than worship) and plaques commemorating famous actors and directors. Two pews had sleeping homeless people.  A few people sat in prayer.  And in the middle of it, the paschal candle…the one we light for the Easter season and for all funerals, stood waiting to be lit again. Ribbons hanging off of the stand moved gently in the breeze.  I moved to the front of the chancel step and bowed.  Again, no one thought it odd. This is the church in Covent Gardens.  Old (by our standards) and yet very much alive. I think about what it means for this church to gather, transform and send in this place, as they are.  They gather in the garden. They gather in the pews. They gather clothing. They gather actors and other artists. They gather people in performances. They gather people who need a safe place to sleep. They even gather animals. They welcome, they give rest, acceptance. something new, and a safe space. They transform with what they have, but they keep what has been there forever too.  And then they send each one back out into the world, restored and made new. What would it mean for St. John’s to keep our doors open during the day? What would it mean for us to put up a sign like the one in the picture? What would it mean to let someone sleep in our pews?  Could we do it?  How do we do it already?  What is God saying to us about it? Much to pray about and ponder!

Copyright ©2019, St. John's Episcopal Church, All rights reserved.

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