After the Arctic, the Beast from the East

The following statement will do absolutely nothing for my street credibility, but here it comes: I like going to church.

Not any old church of course. I like going to aesthetically pleasing church with soaring Gothic vaults, stained glass windows and lots of candles. Where the clergy wear glittering robes and move from A to B in a procession, ideally featuring incense. I like going to church when its choir sings soul-stirring anthems with scrunchy chords and old-fashioned hymns with descants. I like church with coffee in the hall afterwards where nice people talk to other nice people wearing a similar ensemble of corduroy trousers and beige knitwear.

It must be my Anglo-Catholic upbringing. (You can take the vicar’s daughter out of church, etc.)

I suppose the same goes for the Church itself. It can easily get complacent. Turn inwards not outwards. Settle into a pattern that’s all very cosy and familiar.

But then a few weeks ago, the Beast from the East came along and kicked the church I go to into a far less comfortable zone.

Out of the cold…

There’s nothing like a distinctly challenging night in the Arctic to change the way you look at people sleeping rough. (I say ‘sleeping rough’ deliberately, rather than ‘sleeping on the street’ or ‘homeless’. Sleeping rough doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s horrible. It might equally be called sleeping cold, or sleeping scared. If you can get to sleep at all.)

Like most people, I don’t relish the thought of anyone suffering a night on the streets in any circumstances, never mind sub-zero temperatures. But now the horror is a little more vivid. It was bad enough for me when I was wrapped in the security of being amongst friends and trained guides, and the comfort of knowing that I only had to get through that one night and the ordeal would be over. So when the Beast loomed, I couldn’t help thinking of all those rough sleepers I see in Edinburgh’s west end and wondering what would become of them.

I wondered, but I did nothing.

But St John’s Church on Princes St very did something.

In response to the extreme weather, the clergy decided to open the doors round the clock for anyone – homeless, hungry or stranded – to come in, help themselves to a simple meal and a warm brew, and find a place to sleep.

The call went out and volunteers came from charities, social enterprises and the church congregation itself. Local businesses donated food. Bundles of warm clothes appeared at the church door.

One evening I dropped by for a meeting and saw what was going on. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head ever since.

… and into the warm

I was greeted at the door by one of the volunteers from a nearby kirk. Dressed in bright colours and a broad smile, she joked about her “various mental health problems” in a way only someone with various mental health problems can, before peeling off down the south aisle singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, thank your meds…”

I wandered on up the nave. In the low light of the church there was a hum of activity. It was warm. It was calm. A lady was serving food and drinks from a table in the back corner. There was a rail of jackets and jumpers that anyone could help themselves to. Small groups huddled in pews all around the church, clutching cups of warm soup. Church pews aren’t very well suited to sitting and conversing, so people sat in contorted positions to talk to each other over the wooden barriers.

Most of them were men under 40. There was a handful of women.

Sleeping bags had been laid out on the carpets at the front of the church, in the children’s corner and in the chapel. The long cushions from the communion rail were being used as mattresses in whatever space people could find.

I stepped into the sanctuary. One man was sitting on the steps to the pulpit, head bowed. Another was sitting in the choir stalls, staring up at the vast organ pipes, lost in his own world. I don’t know if he was having a moment of spiritual enlightenment or in a drunken stupor. The thing is, it didn’t matter. This was his home for the night and nobody was judging.

A man staggered down from the high altar shouting something incoherent. He wasn’t angry, he was just shouting. Everyone ignored him.

No part of the church was out of bounds. There was no sense that anyone could come in as long as they tucked themselves away in a corner. It was as much their church as anyone’s, and they were asked to make themselves at home. So they did.

When it was time for a church service, nothing changed. During choral evensong on Sunday night, the congregation doubled as the usual church-goers joined the homeless community. Prayers were intoned. The congregation mumbled along. Some of the guests joined in, others moseyed around with cups of chicken broth. The choir sang the regular canticles, responses and anthem to a harmony of snores and random yelps. They sang the Magnificat: “He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

The uncomfortable truth

I had wondered, but I had done nothing – paralysed by indecision and other excuses. So now all I can do is tell the story of what I saw that week, and hope it reminds people that churches can do very real, courageous and important things.

I was humbled and awed by the speed with which the church responded to that crisis. No creeping decision by committee, no bureaucratic implementation process. Just a human response to need.

They could, so they did.

The life of St John’s looked very big that week. I’ve never been prouder of the place I go to church – however uncool that makes me sound.


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