The Angelus Bell now rings out daily – at midday and in the evening – from a church at London Bridge. In fact there are two bells, making an attractive chime. One bell is called St Bernadette and the other St Joseph, and they were donated to the church many years ago. Their full restoration is just one of the good things that the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham has brought to this corner of London.
The Church of the Most Precious Blood is very – VERY! – near the big railway junction that brings trains into London Bridge station. In fact, the church is almost tucked under the railway viaduct, and if you stand in front of the sanctuary, facing the congregation – where Father Christopher, the parish priest, stands to preach every Sunday – and look up to the windows at the back of the church, you will see, at regular intervals, a train trundling by. And you can hear every train, every time, in every part of the church – and they run throughout the day and late into the night.
The church was built at the end of the 19th century, to serve the needs of the growing Catholic population of this area. Although I have described it as London Bridge – because it’s the area right by this great bridge over the Thames – it’s real name is The Borough. This refers to the fact that we are across the river from The City – the famous centre of London with St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Bank of England, and so on – and we are in different and independent territory, a Borough in its own right. And the history of this area reflects that identity.
The Borough High Street is a busy road that leads out eventually towards the southern suburbs and to Kent, past the Elephant and Castle. And along by the river, here in The Borough, you will find so much that is associated with the history of Britain. Here is the old Palace of the Bishops of Winchester – now largely a ruin, but with a fine rose-window still clearly to be seen and old rugged walls. Here, nearby, is the Clink Prison which housed both Catholic and Protestant prisoners at various stages during the Reformation. Here, a bit further on, is the house where Catherine of Aragon stayed when she first arrived in London to marry Prince Arthur (who later died – she went on to marry his younger brother, Henry…)
The Church of the Most Precious Blood thrived for many years as a Catholic parish – at one time the regular congregation was between 700 and 800 souls. But the area has changed: vast office blocks now stand where once there were the homes of railway workers. There are still a good many people living here, but it is not the community it once was.
But a new chapter has opened: the church has been given into the care of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham – and with this has come a new thriving. Pope Benedict XVI created the Ordinariate for Anglicans seeking full communion with the Catholic Church, so that they could bring with them their own traditions and patrimony. And at Precious Blood Church this has meant all sorts of things – from a new enthusiasm for singing (Missa de Angelis every Sunday, lots of good hymns), to a full restoration of the bells and – perhaps the most popular development, with winter coming on – a new heating system. This last has also meant a beautiful new floor, and this in turn has improved the acoustics and the whole “feel” of the church. And teams of enthusiastic volunteers helped to stack and clean the pews, and replace them when the new floor was ready, and clean the statues, and more…with further volunteers brewing tea, and a general atmosphere of community goodwill.
The Thames is one of the famous rivers of the world, although small compared with the vast rivers of Africa and Asia and America. And along its banks so much has happened – from the battle between the Saxons and the Vikings on London Bridge over a thousand years ago, to the bombing in the Second World War, within living memory. The next bridge along from London Bridge is Tower Bridge, alongside which stands the great Tower of London. Just recently, a walking pilgrimage went from Precious Blood church all along the southern bank of the Thames to Westminster, and then down along the northern bank to the Tower, to pray at the site of St Thomas More execution.
As the Angelus bell rings out at the Church of the Most Precious Blood, it does so over a corner of London where Christians have been praying and living and working for centuries and centuries. And so it goes on.
A final amusing note: recently EUROSTAR, the Channel Tunnel link between Britain and France, produced a new promotional advertisement, urging French viewers to visit London. It shows clips of London life – a zany whirl rushing from one scene to another. And one scene shows…Father Christopher, in a golden cope, leading his flock on a Marian procession through a busy South London street! The statue of Our Lady is being carried by four burly men from Precious Blood Church, while a troop of the faithful follow behind. So the Ordinariate has now become part of the heritage of Britain.