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Pondering history during searing heatwaves and headlines

Reflections from London and St. George’s Cathedral.

Detail of the ceiling of St George's Cathedral, Southwark, in London. (Image: さえぼ/

A searing heatwave a few weeks ago, and Britain in the middle of a political crisis, with the recent resignation of the Prime Minister amid, well, searing headlines. London is never pleasant in hot weather and this year the Tube has been unbearable, many parks a bleak vista of scorched earth and dry grass, and the vast soaring tower blocks which now dominate the skyline somehow reflecting burning rays down into the streets. People look hot too; current fads for ultra-tight shorts, rolls of plump fat emerging from skimpy tops, and a lot of tattoos make for a frankly unattractive scene.

Somehow London has felt alien. Today’s summer noise is all roaring traffic, police sirens, and loud rock music blaring out from shops and coffee bars. The culture is a mix of crudity and political-correctness – Gay Pride flags and lurid advertisements – with an overwash of touristy slogans promoting various attractions.

Then, in the middle of all this, I was heading to the Cathedral. The notion felt almost anachronistic, as if I was doing something distinctly odd, out of kilter with the heat and the noise. Was I simply trying to run away? Escaping the 21st century and heading for the past?

Reality struck. England has many glorious medieval churches, and St George’s Cathedral, in the Archdiocese of Southwark, is not one of them. It is a 19th century Gothic-revival building – older than the more famous Westminster Cathedral, which serves the other diocese across the Thames – and it has a story of its own.

Designed By Augustus Welby Pugin (who also, of course, gave us our unsurpassed Houses of Parliament among other notable buildings), it arose on a site once famous for London’s last massive anti-Catholic gathering – the famous Gordon riots at the end of the 18th century. Southwark, then and now, is not very posh. But once established in the 1830s, St George’s would stand for over a hundred years, having become a Cathedral in 1850 with the re-establishment of the Hierarchy that year.

Then in April 1941, in the London Blitz, the Luftwaffe attacked, leaving the Cathedral crushed and gutted. The Cathedral today, rebuilt from postwar ruins, and standing at the heart of a busy parish, makes a statement about durability, strength, and commonsense. It has seen plenty of political crisis, change of fashions, and even weather: the London fog that engulfed it routinely in its earlier years has long since gone, along with the coal fires and factories that produced it. And the formerly Irish-dominated congregation has changed too: the younger generation in the Cathedral parish is mostly of African and Caribbean immigrant descent, plus a substantial Latin American element; there’s a Spanish Mass every Sunday.

The building was filling up fast as I found a pew near my favourite stained glass: it commemorates St John Paul II’s 1982 visit and shows him blessing the sick and disabled people brought there in vast numbers, in an unforgettable gathering that took place 41 years after that blitz attack in 1941. As a lengthy procession began to form up, the choir (full team of lay clerks plus a substantial mixed-race children’s choir) led us in Newman’s magnificent “Praise to the Holiest in the height” and I thought of Newman, preaching one evening at the little old chapel in Bandyleg Walk nearby, the precursor to the Cathedral. Southwark, with its warren of narrow streets and its unsavoury reputation, had been quite a Catholic centre in the days when the Faith was illegal – still in the memory then, when Newman arrived for that evening sermon not long after his ordination.

And Mass began. Did I mention it was an ordination? The powerful sight of the young men prostrate in the sanctuary as we chanted the Litany of the Saints – John Paul II and Newman among them. The magnificent choir’s soaring plainchant swirling up over the gothic arches and sunlit windows (mostly still plain glass except for John Paul plus a fine Eastern window dominating the sanctuary and a Western one over the door – the Cathedral still has a slightly unfinished feel).

And the bleak feeling of alienation had dissipated. I had a strong, if undramatic, sense of belonging. To be a Catholic is not necessarily to be in the immediate mainstream of culture, but it certainly means being in the mainstream. More than anything else happening in London on that day, this event chimed with the history and the reality of London. In 1415, the English Army marched this way, coming up from the coast after the victory at Agincourt, and honouring their patron St George in a church nearby before crossing the Thames at London Bridge.

Centuries later the Gordon riots gave way to the Cathedral, to bombing, to a Papal Visit…and, this year, to an exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of the latter. And so an afternoon of Ordinations – and the future. Wars, unrest, politics are ever a part of the world, but the Church plods on, trusting God amid the muddle of the centuries, knowing He is “most sure in all His ways”.

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About Joanna Bogle 77 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.

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