Battersea to the Barrier

Many jobs – I suppose – have a perk.  One of my first jobs when I was in the VIth form was at what then seemed like a large ‘out of town’ store on the edge of Leicester – Woolco – where I was on the ‘Red Grille’ – a feature of those American style stores.  My job was cooking the chips and occasionally cooking omelettes and in the morning making huge apple pies.  The perk? Well, as many chips as I could eat!  It was worked on the same principle that people told me applied for those working at the Fox’s Glacier Mint factory, also in Leicester – you could eat as many mints as you wanted.  You soon grow sick of chips and mints which is good news for your employer!  So maybe not such a real perk.


The Woolco where I cooked chips!


But the perk I have now is living in the Deanery.  For those who don’t know the house is located alongside the Thames between the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern and as I open my bedroom curtains in the morning I look out on St Paul’s Cathedral rising majestic above the surrounding buildings on the other side of the river. It’s a beautiful house in a fantastic location in the midst of a vibrant and ever changing part of south London – and I know that I am very privileged.

My neighbour and my predecessor in the Deanery, however, knew the place when the riverside walkway had not been opened, when Bankside was a dead-end which stopped at the disused power station. There was no bridge, no art, no theatre and no visitors.  Now we have it all and thousands upon thousands of tourists walking past. I personally don’t mind that.  I like watching people and the house is a great place to do that from and, ok, the buskers can sometimes drive you mad but I would want to live nowhere else and whilst I know that I will have to leave the house when I leave the job I will make the most of it whilst I am here.

I moved into the area in 1999 and since then I’ve witnessed, as all my neighbours have, a complete transformation in the area.  There seems to be a new construction site opening every day, a new building beginning to rise from some deep hole, a new glass and steel structure breaking into the skyline and as all this happens property and land values in the area have modelled the Shard, gone skyrocketing.


Redevelopment areas on the south bank


A couple of years ago I met with the priest from a neighbouring parish, Canon Giles Goddard at St John’s Waterloo.  Giles is in a similar situation, his parish is full of redevelopment and regeneration.  Our conversation was about what was happening to the sense of community in the area and what we could do to ensure that the mixed nature of the area survived all that was happening.  That conversation continued and others joined us until on Friday over 80 people gathered in the Guard Room at Lambeth Palace, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, to talk about regeneration and redevelopment on the south side of the Thames in the area we defined as the title for the event ‘From Battersea to the Barrier’.

We’d invited not just clergy – in fact we were in the minority – but politicians, planners, developers, community builders, academics to share in the conversation about what makes the good city.

It fell to me to chair the event and in my welcome I said this, amongst other things.

We’ve asked you to join us so that we can think together about what makes a good city. The developments along the south bank of the Thames, which has always had a different character to the north bank – a playground for London, a place of industry and commerce but above all a series of urban villages with a riverfront – are so dramatic, so radical that we want to engage with you in making these not just good places to live but life-enhancing places to live.

For Christians the city is essential – God is a city-dweller and the ultimate destination, so we believe, is the perfect, heavenly manifestation of the city. Every day, Jews and Christians read the psalms, a book of Hebrew poetry, and one of those psalms says this

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns
(Psalm 45.4-5)

It could have been written of London. What we’re doing this morning is something that Christians have always done – think about the city. Back in the 6th century St Isadore of Seville was thinking about the difference in Latin between two words for city – urbs, the built environment and civis, the people and he wrote this.

‘A city is a number of people joined by a social bond. It takes its name from the (civis) citizens who dwell in it. As an urbs it is only a walled structure, but inhabitants, not building stones, are referred to as a city.’

You are builders, planners, community makers, we are priests. Together we’re making a city. The question for today is, can that be a good city?

The conversation was good but in the Q&A session which followed there was a real challenge to the church. ‘If this is important to you then you have to be there in the discussions – and we don’t see the church there.’ That was basically what we were told and whether or not it’s true – and at the local parish level I don’t think it is – at the strategic policy level perhaps they have a point and certainly this is their perception. One politician said that the arts and culture section had stolen the march on us. Something has to change.

It set me thinking.  When I was first ordained the report of the Church of England, ‘Faith in the City’, was published.  That was a seminal piece of work and it produced a huge amount of energy and initiative – the Church Urban Fund amongst that.  But do we still have the passion for the urban environment and inner-urban communities that that report documented?  To be honest I’m not sure. Certainly urban dioceses find it much harder nowadays to recruit clergy to the ‘tough’ parishes that once were the apple in the eye of many clergy. Can it be that we are so concerned about our internal disagreements and so transfixed on keeping the show on the road that we have taken our eye off the ball?

Jerusalem as depicted in the Maddaba mosaic

Jerusalem as depicted in the Maddaba mosaic

I want the conversation on Friday at Lambeth to be the beginning of renewed passion for the city where we are.  We are at a critical moment in the life of this city of London and the south bank of the Thames in particular.  Will it be a good city? Will it be a life enhancing place to live, for all, real communities for the future as we have had real communities in the past? How can we make the ‘urbs’ serve the needs of the ‘civis’ and how can we make this city a reflection of that city of destination to which we believe we are heading, where God awaits his citizens.

God, you build your city
with living stones;
may our cities
be as alive as yours
as embracing as yours
as inclusive as yours.

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