SE1 7JU. That’s the postcode for Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Why on earth do I know that? Because it’s been stuck in google maps on my phone for the last week. Every time I put my journey plan into National Rail journey planner, some trying-to-be-clever-and-failing-miserably algorithm came up with a new convoluted way of getting from Waterloo to Lambeth Palace. Being a 20 minute walk, or a hop on the 77, I thought I had it set in my mind. But on Monday, said algorithm decided it would be better for me to go from Waterloo onto the Bakerloo line and get off at Lambeth North and take a 7 minute walk. That seemed stupid. Tuesday’s answer was to get on the Jubilee line to Westminster (which takes you under the Thames), only to then get out and have to walk for 13 minutes across the river again. If it was possible for journey planner to lose its mind any more, it just had. By Wednesday, and ever more confused, I resorted to the reassurance that I could just meet Canon J at Waterloo, and we would go together.
I had never been to Lambeth Palace before, as my frustration with Google maps and the TFL would probably indicate. Over the summer, I received an intriguing email from the Dean, asking if I would consider talking at Lambeth Palace about being a young person in a Cathedral. I said yes, of course. It is hard to say no to a personal request from the Dean. But between July and September I had kind of forgotten about it. Results day, starting school, learning to drive and all general chaos of a new school year had taken my thoughts off it.
This time last week I realised that I had agreed to speak at Lambeth Palace, and I had not a clue about what I was going to say. I received a guest list, which included the likes of Bishops, Council Chairmen, QCs, MPs, several current/previous Lord Lieutenants and spice (see here for definition), Livery Company representatives, and City professionals worth millions. What on earth could I say that was going to make a difference to such people as these? As I sat, approaching Waterloo, the thought suddenly dawned on me that I had done absolutely nothing to prepare answers to what I was going to be asked. I think I actually dropped a Tyrells vegetable crisp because my hands started to shake so much. And believe me, you don’t want to drop a Tyrells vegetable crisp. Not only are they the kind of ridiculously-expensive-but-we-put-them-in-the-cafes-at-stations-because-we-know-you’re-so-desperate-that-you’ll-buy-them food, but who wants to waste a bit of guilt-free snacking? I mean vegetable crisps – surely they can’t be bad for you…?! But perhaps approaching Waterloo shaking couldn’t have been a better situation. Sometimes, but admittedly only sometimes, it is better to feel underprepared. That way you cannot stick to the safety of some formulaic, emotionless words. What you say will have to come to you at that moment, from your heart.
As agreed, I met Canon J under the clock at Waterloo. 16:00. About 3 hours before go-time. We jumped straight on a bus, the 77, despite the journey planner’s assumed authority. I think I was probably very quiet for quite some time. I had thoughts running around in my head. How was I going to feel when I walked into Lambeth Palace? How would I find talking to important strangers? Would anxiety be my shadow? Would what I said be of the right standard, and be appropriate to the audience? Would I like any of the canapés? Please tell me they weren’t going to be soggy. When would I get time to learn a table of Greek correlative pronouns?
It helped to sit by the river, watching pigeons divebomb into the murk and resurface like doves. Watching boats trundle past. Admiring the Houses of Parliament. Catching melodies from the conversations of tourists as they walked past, awe inspired. There was a gentle breeze, it was warm. The sun poked through the clouds, the light making the soft waves of the tide glimmer momentarily. Patches of blue appeared from behind an October cloud.
Then we went to enter the place itself. A small door was sheltered in the corner of the famous façade. The heavy knocker boomed as we entered, and with us the breath of years of history. To be in a place were the past and present mingle so inextricably is an experience that will always silence you. Here was a place where you could feel God’s presence. A place that has housed religious turbulence, religious politics, religious war. But a place that guards the beating heart of the Church of England. A place which seemed to welcome all. A safehaven in a claustrophobic city. Immaculate gardens, fig trees, old wings, new wings, rebuilt wings. Intricate portraits, extraordinary light fixtures and rich hangings at every turn. The door open to a grand staircase leading to the Palace itself. It is hard to describe something so simultaneously daunting, comforting and awe inspiring. It was an inescapable feeling.
I felt privileged and humbled to be there. To walk in the footsteps of so many world changers, world leaders, world thinkers. To feel that heart beating. Walking in, I felt so small, and yet so significant. I felt so afraid, but so at ease. I felt alone, but in company. I felt so confused, yet very calm.
I could feel myself getting more and more nervous through a briefing that truly demonstrated the importance of this event. Everything seemed somewhat hinged on an interview I would do that would hopefully mean something to people. Hopefully was a key word. Who knew what was going to come out? Chatting to familiar faces eased away a portion of those nerves. And Evening Prayer waved away a few more.
It was a joy to worship in the Lambeth Palace crypt. Carved into the earth, its arches support the weight of centuries of prayer. Nooks and crannies in the stonework provide space for thought. Plain and light, it channels the intimacy of faith. Candles flicker on the altar, and through their holey casing, they cast flickering bubbles of light onto the wall. Reverence and humility as they kneel before the altar. The carpet is soft beneath the feet, the walls cold to the touch. The silence of holiness breathes its way into your lungs. A basin of holy water. Remembering baptism, confirmation, life. The cross and pain and hope. The Bible, laid open on the lectern, speaks words of comfort to closing hearts. The rhythm of psalms, the praise of the Magnificat, the closure of the Nunc Dimittis. The prayers of all, lifted to heaven, float along the curvature of the ceiling. It feels safe. It feels like home.
One by one, we trickled in. We each found a place, and took our seat. The Community of St Anselm, robed in the chaste white, bore the cross of each around their neck. The silence spoke to each in harmonies of unique frequency. Words jarred as souls burst from the confines of psalmody. But slowly we found our rhythm. The need for individualism, fears, the unknown, was blended into one single voice. In faith, we were one. No matter how fraught the day had been, how busy the tube, how dirty the air, how noisy the street, how rocky the path, the voices of all, yet one, brought us home.
On leaving the Crypt, I had my first chance to ‘eye up the opposition,’ so to speak. But I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a battle, there was no opposition. We all wanted the same thing. They weren’t ferocious lions. I wasn’t being thrown into a pit. They were ordinary people, who wanted a human story. And that’s what I could give them.
A story of a girl who lost herself, time and again. A story of a girl who was bullied into stereotypes, quotas and who never saw herself as good enough. A story of girl who was jealous, angry and bitterly hurt. A story of a girl who didn’t recognise what was around her, until she grew up. And then she saw a community who had saved her, who had found her, and who continue to bring her home. A people who care, value, love and pray. A chapter who know without knowing, give answers without her asking questions, who understand what she doesn’t understand herself. A Cathedral which harbours the best in people, which offers a place for grieving and a place for rejoicing. She saw the melody of humanity, the chords of stability, the key changes into despair, hope, renewal. She saw the coda, the triumphant plagal Amen. This was a story of a girl who’s life had been changed because of a pile of bricks on a windy hill.
This was the story I had to share. This was the story I couldn’t let die. Because there are lots of girls out there. There are lots of boys out there. At the end of the day, there are so many people out there. They all have the same story. And I can only hope that 5 years down the line, graduated from University, probably grappling with unemployment, mortgages and general adulthood, that this little girl will reflect. She will say, that is the place that brought me home. That is the place where I was found, and where I found myself. That is the place where I found God. That is the place to where I will always return. And looking around her, she will see the stories of that day, the people that will continue to be saved by a single step into God’s home. She will never feel alone there.
It may just seem a pile of bricks. But it is a community. A people. A salvation. A livelihood. It gives value. It gives hope. It gives light. Its where God speaks. Its where God sings. And its where, sometimes, if you reach out your hand into the golden light, you think you can touch heaven. Your heart is full of faith.
I sat back down on the sofa. I had felt the tears brimming pressing at my eyes as I spoke. And whilst it would have been no weak thing to let those tears fall, I held them in. I looked up and saw eye upon eye smiling. Eye upon eye filling with their own tears. Hand touched hand in an undeserved applause that seems still to echo in my head. They understood. They saw it. I felt it.
And as I manoeuvred my way around the room to the wine, I grabbed a chocolate brownie and popped it in my mouth. Unlike the spontaneously combusting hoisin duck cones, it was exquisite. The layers were defined: biscuit, cake, ganache. The firm base, the lasting taste of the middle, the heavenly sparkle on top that captures your heart. That’s what people need. Not the basic biscuit. But people want the lasting taste, and sparkle. The emotionally affecting part of a brownie. The emotionally affecting part of an evening.
Slowly I worked my way around the room, talking, engaging, debating, informing. I was overwhelmed, I still am overwhelmed, by the response I received. Everyone seemed so affected. I didn’t mean it to be so. All I tried to was to be honest. To speak my heart. I probably stayed too long, drinking wine, eating brownies and talking.
We took pictures. I don’t like having my picture taken. But it is a snapshot of a second of an evening which will stay with me for a lifetime. My memories of Thursday night will transcend a single image. The conversations I had following ranged from carved mice, to Universities, to discerning vocation. My thoughts and prayers have not stopped racing since.
As we left to hop back on the 77 to Waterloo, where to my sheer delight every single train seem to be delayed by over half an hour, I felt privileged and humbled to have been at Lambeth Palace, and to share my honest and unrefined story. I felt overwhelmed that I had walked in the footsteps of so many world changers, world leaders, world thinkers. I had felt the heart of the Church beating at its very core. Walking out, I still felt so small, and yet so significant. I felt so afraid, but so at ease. I felt alone, but in plenteous company. I felt so much more confused, yet still so very calm.
I hope it will not be another 18 years before I have the chance to step inside the walls of Lambeth Palace again.