On 21 December 1514 the young and dashing King Henry VIII signed a Charter which created the Worshipful Company of Innholders. On Saturday the Company came, with their friends and supporters, to Southwark Cathedral to celebrate 500 years of their life. It was a great occasion but made even more wonderful because it happened the day after the sleep out in the churchyard.
For the last four years members of the Cathedral congregation and people from churches in the area with teams from local companies, have spent a night in the churchyard to raise money for the ROBES Project. This is our local cold weather shelter and the fundraising on this one night has been able to provide most of what is needed to run the project. This year we were joined by the Master Innholder and others from the Company who slept out before they had their celebration. It was wonderful to bring together a celebration of the life and work of innholders with the fact that there are so many people on our streets desperate for a place to rest their head for the night, desperate for a place of hospitality and desperate for a place to call home.
Above the arms of the Company, where you might find a helmet on other coats of arms – or a cat licking itself clean on the arms of the Worshipful Company of Launderers – is a star. That is a reminder to us that a star hovered over the stable at the back of the inn where Jesus was born.
There will be so many children in the next few weeks playing the part of the innkeeper. In the crib service in the Cathedral we have quite a few of them, turning their back on Mary and Joseph as they make their way up the aisle, shouting out ‘No room’, until the couple find someone with a bit of imagination waiting for them. It wasn’t that the initial response from this innkeeper was any different – ‘There’s no room in the inn’ was his reply as well. But then he did come up with the imaginative solution – ‘But you can use the stable.’ It wasn’t ideal but it was a place of hospitality. It was warm, it was dry and in that less than ideal but imaginative space ‘the Word was made flesh’ and to that stable the visitors came to greet the birth of the Messiah.
All of that is properly the subject of a few weeks away. But that star above the Innholders’ arms and the ROBES sleepout for this year brought it all to mind.
Most days on my way to the Cathedral I bump into Steve. He is our local Big Issue salesperson. He stands in Clink Street just close to the remains of Winchester Palace. In former times, before the creation of the Worshipful Company of Innholders, it was the Bishop of Winchester who regulated the inns of the South Bank, of the Liberty, as it was known. Along with the taverns and the alehouses, the brothels and the theatres, the bear baiting and the other forms of entertainment that the area provided as a pleasure ground for London, the bishops saw that the inns were well run (well that was the intention) and took a share of the profits.
Now, Steve stands near the remains of their London home, selling his magazines. Steve is an ex-serviceman, a veteran and he was one of those who marched past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. He proudly showed me his ticket and told me how wonderful it was and how proud he was to be able to do it.
But I wasn’t proud of the fact that someone who has served Queen and Country has to sell the Big Issue to make ends meet. I’m not proud that too many ex-servicemen and women – along with so many people from all walks of life – are amongst the homeless. I’m not proud that in a community that boasts some of the most expensive real estate in London we have to sleep out to raise money for a cold weather shelter. Homelessness is a scandal.
There will always be some people who do not want to live in a house and be tied down in that way. But I believe that they are a minority. Most people want a roof over their head and a warm, secure place to lie down and sleep. It’s a basic human right. The importance of housing is recognised in the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which includes ‘the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate … housing’. The United Kingdom is legally bound by this treaty. Protecting people’s human rights in housing is therefore important in its own right.
The Innkeeper who Mary and Joseph found had imagination. The Inn was full but the stable was empty. So where is our imagination?
The community at Southwark Cathedral is looking in the long term to re-opening All Hallows’ Church in the Cathedral parish as a place of worship and social mission. But whilst we are raising the money to do that, a wonderful thing has happened. The Westminster Housing Cooperative was invited to come in. They take less than ideal buildings and with the people with whom they work, people who might otherwise be homeless, they transform these buildings into places in which people can live. In a semi-derelict, ignored, unused church, transformation has happened. Six units have been created in which people are now living. Bathrooms and a kitchen have been created in what were filthy abandoned spaces. Old blocked up windows have been unblocked and the light is flooding in and at night you can see that the building is alive. It is a little bit of resurrection.
But it is also about imagination. The stable wasn’t built as a maternity ward or a home for a homeless family – but it served the purpose and God blessed the Innkeeper with the star of presence. An old church was not built to provide accommodation but it does – and God is blessing that community. There are so many places where the homeless could live – but seeing the possibilities demands the imagination and commitment and compassion not just of the nameless Innkeeper but of the whole of society, for people like Steve and all the Steve’s there are in this country. And we have the challenge from Jesus who says to us
“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25.40)
in these days of Advent
as we watch and wait for the coming of your Son,
may we look out for each other,
for in the most vulnerable
we know we will meet Jesus.