St. Martin-in-the-Fields

st martin-in-the-fields
renewal (3/3)

Concluding today is the three-part documentary series profiling the famous church that overlooks London’s Trafalgar Square. For nearly 300 years, St Martin-in-the-Fields has had a ringside seat at London’s favourite public stage, whilst also being at the forefront of change itself. In contrast to the building’s 18th-century classical façade, the people behind the church are anything but traditional in outlook, happy to provide a platform for peaceful political dissent as well as supporting its parishioners spiritually and practically. This programme examines how the church is preparing for its future and preserving its past.

St Martin’s is an 18th-century church with 21stcentury sensibilities. It was the first parish church in England to employ female clergy and one of the first to launch its own commercial ventures. From its popular crypt café to its role as one of London’s major concert venues, the church has something for everybody. However, not all of the building is up to standard, with some parts in desperate need of renovation. “Our Chinese people’s day centre, social care work with homeless people, music – all take place in 19th-century burial vaults which were condemned as unfit for the dead in 1848!” says vicar Nick.

Work to update the network of leaky catacombs begins with their demolition, kicking off a two-year project of renovation to provide the church with new state-of-the-art parish rooms. As the heavy machinery gets to work, archaeologists from the Museum of London carefully dig alongside them and soon make some exciting discoveries, including a skeleton which could date back to 7AD and a stone sarcophagus which is later revealed to date from Roman times.
The church’s strong links with the past do not end with the skeletons buried in its back yard. Since the present church was completed, St Martin-in-the-Fields has been the official parish church of the Royal Navy and proudly flies a royal ensign flag. However, its ties with the establishment do not prevent it from providing a platform for peaceful dissent. Protests against climate chaos, genocide in Rwanda and thirdworld debt are just some of the events that have taken place on the famous steps of St Martin’s.

Sometimes, says Nick, the church’s location in Trafalgar Square can create a feeling akin to being at the eye of a storm, from dealing with raucous football fans devastated at an England defeat to contributing to the colourful celebrations of the Europride gay pride march. “I suppose the task for this church is to find a way of being still at the heart of the city,” he explains. “A place of quiet and reflection where people can discover themselves and find God.”

St Martin’s holds over 23 services a week, which means a lot of work for head verger Ralph. “We work like a railway timetable here,” he laughs, busily preparing for a confirmation service and a Chinese communion service. “We can’t afford to have late trains running here!” Ralph says that when he experimented with a pedometer, he discovered that he walked five miles a day. As well as regular services, Ralph is also kept busy with special events, like a service put together by Tear Fund and Christian Aid to address the issue of climate chaos. There are also many musical events, making the most of the church’s impressive acoustics, featuring traditional and newly commissioned music.

The church closes its doors for five months in order to let the renovation works continue inside, and Nick is confident that when it reopens it will mark an exciting new chapter in St Martin’s rich history. “Extraordinary things happen in this place,” he says. “It’s a mixture of the location, people and history. This sort of open, hospitable, holy space in the heart of London is bound to be creative –and you just know that good things will continue to happen here.”

st martin-in-the-fields
the pilgrimage (2/3)

Continuing today is a three-part documentary profiling the famous church that overlooks London’s Trafalgar Square. This second programme joins pilgrims on a 72-mile journey from St Martin’s to Canterbury cathedral –an annual event which raises funds for the church’s work with the homeless.

St Martin’s has taken the homeless under its wing for over 80 years. The work began during World War II, when Reverend Dick Sheppard opened the church’s doors to troops stranded in London on their way back from the Front. From these basic beginnings, the work evolved into the Connection –the church’s charity and day centre for the homeless. But safeguarding Sheppard’s legacy of social care and keeping the Connection going does not come cheap. For the past 16 years, St Martin’s has been raising funds by organising an annual, sponsored pilgrimage to Canterbury cathedral, ending at the site of Sheppard’s grave in the cathedral’s cloisters.

Colin, a pilgrim who is almost totally blind, is walking to Canterbury for the second time. Alongside him is Eugene, who has been disabled since birth and is part of St Martin’s unusually large Chinese Christian community. Many of the pilgrims have a direct link with the Connection, including Kevin, one of its clients. He has been on and off the streets since he was 11. “I’m the wrong side of 40 for sleeping out nowadays,” he says, but smiles and adds “I don’t look too bad for it – I’ve still got my own teeth!” In contrast, Simon, a trustee on the Connection board, has come along to get an insight into what the unit does. And Sam, 27, is walking for the first time. A chronic anorexic with a long-term drug problem, Sam first came into contact with St Martin’s seven years ago: “They [the Connection] have literally had to pick me up off the floor before.”

Mid-way through the second day, after a night spent sleeping on a church hall floor, the pilgrims are faced with the toughest leg of the journey: the beginning of the North Downs. Coming up, however, is one of Kevin’s favourite buildings: the Carmelite Priory, which has offered refuge to weary pilgrims on the way to Canterbury for the past 700 years. The next day, they set off on an eight-mile trek to Charing, near Ashford. Pilgrimage veteran Gilly, who is on her 11th year, is part of the fast walker group in the front. “Every year it seems to become less about walking and more about the pilgrimage,” she explains. She is accompanied by her dog, who, on his third pilgrimage, is a relative novice.

Bringing up the rear is Colin and Eugene’s group. The men are just two of the pilgrims who have found themselves making new friends on the journey, a happy and regular consequence of the pilgrimage. “Deep friendships are made,” says St Martin’s vicar Nick. “I don’t think you’re at all aware of people’s social circumstances. And I think that’s one of the gifts of the whole thing, really.” Towards the end of the walk, friends and family join the trek, swelling the numbers from 60 to around 100.

As the walkers close in on Canterbury, there is a special moment when the cathedral first comes into view –and then the pilgrims finally arrive at their destination, tired but happy. Asked if he feels proud to have completed the pilgrimage, Colin replies cheerfully: “Proud? Exultant!” Over the course of their journey, a community has been formed of a disparate group of people who have become friends and even had their lives changed. One of the most affected has been Sam, who was profoundly moved by the experience of being accepted, inspiring her to return to rehab soon afterwards. Six months later, she describes how her life has changed from being a “real mess” into something filled with hope: “I’ve got a life today.”

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