The Cathedral of the Working Class - “There is considerable freedom, but greater responsibility, that comes with being the cathedral of the working class.”

Posted on by Howard Pugh

The most recently built span across the Thames River in London is the Millennium Bridge, a slender, elegant steel suspension bridge—for pedestrians. There are Anglican cathedrals near both ends of the bridge, St. Paul’s at the north end and Southwark at the south. A show of hands, please: how many of you have heard of St. Paul’s Cathedral? [Many hands] And how many of you have heard of Southwark Cathedral? [Few hands] There are good reasons for that.

St. Paul’s was built by Christopher Wren, England’s pre-eminent architect; the English Baroque cathedral is his masterpiece, sited majestically on Ludgate Hill. Famous people are buried in the cathedral, and members of the royal family have been married in and buried from St. Paul’s.

Southwark, on the other hand, finds itself surrounded by large nineteenth century warehouses; a railroad trestle passes within yards of the structure, and a farmer’s market sprawls just outside the main entrance. Members of the royal family are not married in or buried from Southwark. There are two areas, however, in which Southwark holds its own or eclipses St. Paul’s: age, and its commitment to radical inclusion. In 1006, the Priory Church of St. Marie was founded by the Bishop of Winchester on the Saxon foundations of a church built in 886. In various incarnations, Southwark has existed on the south bank of the Thames River for over a thousand years.

When Tommy and I visit London, we sometimes attend services at St. Paul’s, especially evensong, which is achingly beautiful. But we always make our way to Southwark. Why? Why Southwark?

At the extreme east end of the vast interior of Southwark, beyond the chancel, beyond the retro-choir, are three chapels. The most appealing, to my eye, is the Chapel of St. Andrews. More than a decade ago the decision was made to rename, though not rededicate, the chapel. For those hearty souls in fundraising, a naming opportunity quickens the pulse—and makes the palms itch. I know exactly for whom I would have named the chapel. A short distance from the cathedral is the reconstructed Globe Theatre. Shakespeare was parishioner at Southwark, as was his brother, who is buried in the cathedral: I would have had a Shakespeare chapel. I mean, hello, think of the tourist dollars! But no, the chapel is not named for him or indeed for any other luminary in the cathedral’s long history. The chapel is now a memorial to those who died from AIDS: the AIDS chapel. Tommy and I both lost people we were close to during the height of the health crisis; we return to Southwark to remember and pray.

Tommy had left the chapel, only a priest and I remained. We walked out together. I learned he was one of the cathedral’s cannons, a kind of senior administrator. I asked him how much resistance there had been, in the larger community of the cathedral, to the naming of the AIDS chapel, and he immediately responded, “None at all.” Frankly, I was incredulous and pressed for an explanation. He stopped walking and stared at the floor. He finally answered: “I’ll give you four reasons there was no resistance. First, we know who we are. Second, we know whose we are. Third, we know where we are. And fourth, we know what our mission is.” The good cannon veered off into his office but returned almost immediately to the hallway and added: “There is considerable freedom, but greater responsibility, that comes with being the cathedral of the working class.”

The Long-Range Planning Committee has been working very hard for over a year to create a strategic plan for this church. The plan it lays out is collectively ours: we have met with the committee in focus groups; we have spoken with, emailed, texted individual members to share our concerns, our hopes for this church. I have read the document closely. The goals are ambitious, as indeed they should be. We are a healthy, growing church with exceptionally strong leadership. Do I think the stated goals are achievable? Yes, yes I do. And I can give you four reasons why: we know who we are, whose we are, were we are, and what our mission is.

We know that we were founded soon after the Civil War to serve the working men and women of Richmond. But we know more than that, don’t we? We know there is a prophetic vein that runs through the muscle of this congregation. There is a fearlessness in in our proclamation of the Gospel, in our commitment to dismantling injustice, in our embrace of responsibility for those in need, especially the marginalized. We know who we are.

We know we are not here this morning because this is the church where our great-grandparents worshipped, or our grandparents, or, except in a few cases, where our parents worshipped. We are here because our spiritual journeys brought us through the doors of St. Mark’s, and we stayed. We know we were led here by the Holy Spirit. And if we know that, we know whose we are.

Last year Tommy and I had a friend visiting from Bristol, England. John had begun as a seminarian but ultimately became an architectural historian with the National Trust. John was attempting to come to terms with the perplexing geography of Richmond. I unfolded a flat map in front of him, identifying major arteries and points of interest, not least our house and our church. He studied the map intently, eventually laying the edge of his thumb on North Boulevard and slowly drawing his thumb southward, then on West Broad and slowly drawing his thumb eastward. He then rested his thumb at the point of intersection, on St. Mark’s. He looked up, smiled, and observed: “St. Mark’s is the body of Christ.” Yes, in fact, it is.

This church is not in the leafy suburbs, my friends. It is here, at the crossing of this city. I have long thought that if Jesus were to visit St. Mark’s, we would not find him in the sanctuary. He would be at the back door, helping us feed the homeless. Or he would be in the parish hall on Wednesday evening, exorcising the daemons of drug addiction, which begs the question: why do our parishioners volunteer to stand in the kitchen preparing food for the homeless, or volunteer to open the church for twelve-step groups? We are a compassionate, generous people; we know who and where we are.

Take the coming weeks before Pledge Sunday to consider how you give back, in time, talent, and treasure. The average pledge goal for 2019 is $2,822. For some of us this range of giving is not possible; there are others who already give five times this amount. We simply ask whether—given the remarkable potential evidenced by the strategic plan—you can increase the level of your financial support. We would very much like to increase the percentage of St. Mark’s households that pledge. We are currently at 69%. I would like to see at least 75%. If you are pledging for the first time, begin where you can. We ask no more than that.

David Jones, the former bishop suffragan, was visiting St. Mark’s. It was confirmation Sunday. He was standing in the narthex, waiting to process. I was an usher and happened to be standing next to him. Staring the length of the nave, and without turning his head, the bishop announced: “St. Mark’s is our medieval cathedral.” We are not the diocesan cathedral, and the architecture of St. Mark’s is not gothic. I said nothing, but the bishop could see from my expression I was confounded. He gently explained: “I see St. Mark’s as our cathedral because this is where the pilgrims come, and they are always warmly welcomed.”

There is considerable freedom, but greater responsibility, that comes with being the cathedral of the working class.


Homily excerpt from Sunday, October 14 by Howard Pugh, Stewardship Chair