The church spires that once formed the skyline above the rooftops of the City of London are now dwarfed by tower blocks over 150m in height (a broadly accepted definition of a skyscraper). St Paul’s Cathedral, the City’s tallest church, manages just 111m, and St Bride’s, off Fleet Street (the second highest, and famous as the spire that gave rise to the shape of the traditional tiered wedding cake), comes in at a mere 69m.
The City’s churches symbolise constancy and a link with the past in an otherwise futuristic urban environment built on very different values to those that inspired the original patrons of these places of worship. As congregations dwindle (the City’s resident population numbers 8,000, and many
of those people live elsewhere at the weekend), these few remaining historic buildings need champions and advocates – hence the sterling work of energetic charity Friends of the City Churches.
The Friends organise a rota of more than 100 volunteer ‘watchers’ to keep the churches open. They put on lectures, tours, and special events, while encouraging others to make use of the buildings. They also publish a comprehensive web-based guide to the services, concerts, lectures, and other events taking place in the City’s Anglican churches, and in the places of worship of other faiths and non-Anglican denominations, such as Bevis Marks Synagogue and the Dutch Church, Austin Friars.
City workers can enjoy any number of free lunchtime organ, piano, or chamber recitals, ranging from early classical music to jazz and rock. In one recent recital at St Bride’s church, pianist and composer Neil Crossland started his programme with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata and ended with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen.
Cake stalls, second-hand bookshops, Fairtrade shops, cafes, and art, photography, and needlework exhibitions, as well as programmes of lectures and tours, help to keep these churches in use. And with 1,200 subscribing members, the Friends also make donations to the cleaning, repair, and restoration of church clocks, bells, monuments, textiles, stained glass, and furnishings.
The best times to explore the 48 City churches that have survived (and sometimes bear the scars of) the Great Fire, the Blitz, IRA bombs, and the indifference of an increasingly atheistic age is during the Open House London weekend each September, or when these characterful buildings are festively dressed for their annual carol services.
Further information: www.london-city-churches.org.uk
IMAGES: Kate Owen.
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