02 February 2009

A church in the heart of the City of London

Saint Botolph-without-Bishopsgate is in the heart of the financial centre of the City of London

Patrick Comerford

I was supposed to be back in London today (2 February 2009) for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or Candlemas, and to preach at lunchtime at a Service of Light in Saint Botolph without Bishopsgate in the City of London. However, the snow that has been falling since last night has blanketted most of England and is preventing me getting from Cambridge to London. Instead, I’m in the B Bar, close to Sidney Sussex and Christ’s College, telling the Revd Dr Alan McCormack that I can’t get to London ... I’m even wondering if I can catch my flight back to Dublin from Stansted this evening.

Alan is the Parish Priest of Saint Botolph’s and a former colleague in the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission while he was Chaplain and Dean of Residence in Trinity College Dublin.

I was looking forward to being in Saint Botolph’s today. It is a living church set in Bishopsgate in the heart of the City of London, between Liverpool Street Station and London Wall. Many Irish visitors pass it by, often not noticing the church as they emerge from Liverpool Street station and the express train from Stansted Airport.

Saint Botolph’s is a Church of England parish church committed to a welcoming and inclusive ministry in heart of the financial centre of London. Today apart, the church is open every weekday from 8 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. and there are regular services at lunchtime every Wednesday (1.10 p.m.) and Thursday (12.10 p.m.) that last no longer than 40 minutes. Visitors from every religious background, from any faith, or from none, are welcome and are encouraged to rest, to reflect, or to join the parish in prayer.

It is probable that Christian worship has been offered on this site since Roman times. Saint Botolph, who died ca 680, was one of the earliest and most revered of East Anglian saints. A missionary bishop and an early Benedictine, the Breviary says that he was Irish by birth. He later became known as the patron saint of wayfarers. The foundations of the original Saxon church were unearthed when the present church was being built.

The early church is first mentioned in 1212 as Sancti Botolfi Extra Bishopesgate. The parish registers, which date from 1558, record the baptisms and burials of many notable people. The great actor Edward Alleyn – Shakespeare’s contemporary and the founder of Dulwich College – was baptised here in 1566, and an infant son of the playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1635) was buried here.

Sir William Allen was Lord Mayor of London in the year Jonson was born. He too was born and buried in the parish, and he marked his time as mayor by repairing the church at his own expense.

The most famous parishioner of Saint Botolph’s may have been Sir Paul Pindar, who died in 1650. He was James I’s Ambassador to Turkey, and his epitaph says that he was “faithful in negotiation, foreign and domestick, eminent for piety, charity, loyalty and prudence.” The magnificent Jacobean facade from Pindar’s mansion in Bishopsgate is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The church survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 unscathed, but by the early 18th century Saint Botolph’s had fallen into disrepair and a new church had to be built. The old church was demolished in 1725, and the present church, which is the fourth on this site, was completed in 1729 to the designs of James Gould, under the supervision of George Dance.

The church is aisled and galleried in the classical style. It is unique among London’s City churches in having its tower at the East End, with the chancel underneath. The font, pulpit and organ all date from the 18th century. The English romantic poet John Keats (1791-1825) was baptised in this font in 1795.

Several rectors of Saint Botolph’s went on to become Bishops of London. The Revd William Rogers, who was rector from 1863 to 1896, was a great social reformer. He devoted his time and money to the education and welfare of his poor parishioners, and founding the Bishopsgate Institute which carries on his ideals to this day. He also took a leading part in rebuilding Dulwich College.

The church contains the regimental memorial chapel of the Honourable Artillery Company and the Book of Remembrance of the London Rifle Brigade. The most recent addition is a memorial for people with hæmophilia who died as a result of contaminated blood products.

Saint Botolph’s lost only one window during World War II. However, in 1992, the Saint Mary Axe bomb damaged the exterior joinery and windows. A year later, the church was one of many buildings in London that were damaged by an IRA bomb on 24 April 1993. The bomb opened up the roof and left the church without any doors or windows, the rector’s office and the vestry were shattered, and papers and files were scattered across Bishopsgate. The building was declared a dangerous structure and was cordoned-off.

The extensive restoration project that followed took 3½ years to bring the church to its former glory. At a Thanksgiving Service in January 1997 to mark its completion, the Bishop of London dedicated a new stained glass window commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Bowyers.

The churchyard at Saint Botolph’s was the first burial ground in the City to be converted into a public garden. There was much opposition to this transformation, but today the open space is much appreciated by many people who find it a tranquil place to sit, or who use the netball and tennis courts.

Saint Botolph’s Hall in the church garden was once an infants’ school, but now serves as a multipurpose church hall. At its front entrance, there is a pair of Coade stone figures of a schoolboy and girl in early 19th century costumes. Nearby is the large tomb of Sir William Rawlins, Sheriff of London in 1801 and a benefactor of the church.

Near the Bishopsgate entrance to the garden, a memorial cross is said to be the first World War I memorial erected in England – it was erected in 1916 after the Battle of Jutland and the death of Lord Kitchener.

I was in Saint Botolph’s when the Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, introduced Alan as parish priest in 2006. It is such a pity to have missed the opportunity to be there today. Now I’m off to trudge through Cambridge in the snow; hopefully the trains are running to Stabsted this afternoon.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin.

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