When Sir Christopher Wren designed one of the City’s most beautiful churches, St Michael’s Cornhill, Christian worship had been going on at that site for centuries.
It has continued until now. But neo-vandalism is putting paid to St Michael’s.
There are many ways of destroying a church. French revolutionaries favoured a wrecking ball; their Russian counterparts relied on dynamite; both would rob the churches first.
Robbery is no longer necessary in England: Henry VIII did such a thorough job of it that our churches stayed robbed. And wrecking balls and explosives are much too unsubtle for us.
St Michael’s is being destroyed by a delayed-action bomb called modernity. Such charges have been placed under every church in Europe, and they’re going off one by one.
The Times bemoans the impending demise of St Michael’s but, in a characteristically shoddy display, fails to explain it. The paper identifies the immediate reason (“the Anglican parish’s insolvency”), but without uncovering the underlying cause.
Instead it delivers an earth-shattering revelation: “For years it has been running at a loss, supported only by the generosity of a local livery company and by grants and donations from legacies, well-wishers and the diocese of London. However, in the past year these sources have dried up…”
Churches, gentlemen, aren’t commercial concerns. Fair enough, in Russia, where the church is an extension of the KGB-mafia oligarchy, the holy fathers are doing rather well for themselves.
They bypass import duties to flog booze and fags at a huge profit, and have even turned Moscow’s Sretensky Monastery into a money-spinning brothel. But in the civilised world churches always depend on charitable contributions.
These have indeed dried up at St Michael’s. However, this drought isn’t caused by the depopulation of the City, as The Times seems to believe. Five years ago, the City’s population was no bigger – and yet St Michael’s thrived.
Both the parish’s success and its collapse had the same reason: Peter Mullen. His arrival explains the former, his departure the latter.
Peter, the author of 30-odd books, is one of our best theologians and preachers. Yet to be a great pastor, a man has to be more than just good, pious and intelligent. Other qualities are essential too: charm, sociability, inner strength – the list can get very long. Yet no matter how long it gets, Peter has all those qualities in spades.
To say he performed a miracle at St Michael’s and his other parish, St Sepulchre-Without-Newgate would be frivolous in this context. But no less true for it.
When Peter (a close friend, hence my use of his Christian name) was appointed in 1998, the two parishes were moribund. The geographically natural congregation wasn’t there, and funding was hard to come by.
Yet Peter turned things around in short order. There’s no doubt that, had he applied his fund-raising talent to serve Mammon rather than God, he’d give Richard Branson a good run for his money.
As it was, his personality brought in funds, while his sermons and pastoral work drew parishioners from far afield. Many travelled for hours to hear Peter celebrate Mass the way it has been celebrated in England since the time of Christopher Wren.
A church being a conservative institution by definition, a modernist clergyman is an oxymoron. Peter would have none of that: it was strictly the Prayer Book and KJB for him. This wasn’t just because of Peter’s doctrinal purity: he brought to bear on his work his poetic sense and musical sensibility.
Peter has published books of poetry, and he’s an amateur musician. Mind you, one doesn’t have to be a poet to choose between, say, “With this ring I thee wed” and “This ring is a symbol of our marriage”. A simple ear for English will suffice.
Nor would Peter indulge those whom The Times extolls for “wanting alternatives to classical church music”. The celebrated choir of St Michael’s performed pieces reflecting Peter’s knowledge that such alternatives don’t exist for as long as Christian liturgy remains Christian.
His sermons were conservative too, and not just in the doctrinal sense. Peter was scathing about modern perversions, sexual, political or otherwise. He mocked trendy pseuds imposing their ideology on the church, and didn’t pull any punches when taking swipes at the Anglican hierarchs. It was living Christianity, bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ.
That rubbed the modern, and modernising, Church of England the wrong way. The hierarchs’ resentment of Peter grew, and, when he reached the supposedly mandatory retirement age four years ago, they pushed him out – without the slightest regard for the future of his parishes.
They neither realised nor cared to what extent the success of St Michael’s and St Sepulchre was down to Peter – nor how quickly that success could turn to failure.
Soon after his departure, the choir of St Michael’s began to outnumber the parishioners, and the new rector could match Peter neither in doctrinal purity nor in fund-raising clout. Hence the demise The Times writes about.
That Michael Binyon’s slipshod article doesn’t mention Peter Mullen’s name even once is astounding. Peter could give Michael a lesson in journalism – not to mention some other lessons as well.