I was not trying to be holier than thou, or anyone else, but I did go to church every day while in London.
I ate in church. I shopped in church. I saw Roman ruins and the Queen Mother in church.
I read marble tributes to poets and kings, and dropped coins into wooden boxes for the restoration of walls and stained glass. I leaned against pillars to stretch my back, and to keep from toppling over while I stared into the clouds of domed ceilings.
I cut through one of my favorite gardens--St. George's Hanover Square behind the Grosvenor Chapel on South Audley--and was greeted by tousled tulips near the end of their rite of spring. I waved as a wedding party emerged in a billow of white from the Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception.
My first church supper--and definitely a bargain--was at the Restaurant, which recently opened downstairs at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square. There is tablecloth-and-waitress service as well as a cafeteria line. Each table is brightened by votive candles in a vaulted room flanked by brick arches.
St. Martin-in-the-Fields is the church of the blue-faced clock. Its portico faces the National Gallery. Its steps shelter the homeless. And anyone who listens to the classics has heard recordings by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
Recitals are frequent. Actors' memorial services are often held there, as many theaters are in its parish. The playwright George Farquhar is buried in the churchyard, as is the actress Nell Gwynn.
But none of that was on my mind as I walked down the steps to the Restaurant after a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the gem-like Ambassadors Theater. I simply was hungry.
Beyond a well-stocked bookstore featuring picture books on Judaic treasures as well as travels of the Pope, I read the handwriting on the wall and ordered a cold chicken plate with two crisp salads and a glass of white wine. The mood was informal and cozy. Chamber music wrapped us in peace.
In the shadows were the locked gates to the London Brass Rubbing Center, where brass replicas have been collected from throughout the country and instructions are given in this popular pastime. The center moved here from St. James's Church in Piccadilly, a masterwork of Sir Christopher Wren that was completed in 1684.
A Joyful Noise
On Christmas Eve a few years back I attended noon carol services at St. James's, and smiled as an earnest choir from the Department of Public Works tried to drown out the lyrical voice of a front-row drunk whose accent was heavy with Ireland. It was almost a tie.
This time I dropped by St. James's for coffee at the little Wren Cafe, which is by the garden facing Jermyn Street. It offered made-to-order sandwiches, hearty lentil soup and hot-jacket potatoes, with a choice of stuffings from chili to coleslaw to sour cream and grated cheese. Pastries ranged from carrot cake to angel food. An art show was going on upstairs.
St. James's seems a haven of tolerance and outreach. Its programs include yoga meditation, lectures on everything from acupuncture to the nuclear age, organ recitals, circle dancing, cancer support groups, plus services of sung and silent prayer.
In the churchyard is a small van that looks like an aluminum-sided confessional; its sign says "Knock for advice and counseling." I knocked but nobody answered. "He'll be right back," chimed a woman from the church door.
Footstool in the Crypt
Another handsome restaurant is the Footstool in the brick-vaulted crypt of the church of St. John's Smith Square, a short stroll from the majesty of Westminster Abbey. On Monday evenings, when concerts are broadcast live by the BBC from the church, bells ring in the crypt to warn concert goers to take their seats.
The Roman road that I saw is in the crypt museum of St. Bride's on Fleet Street. It was unearthed during excavations to rebuild the church after fire gutted all but the steeple during World War II.
The lacy white spire of St. Bride's is Wren's tallest, rising in octagonal stages to 226 feet above the ground. In the 17th Century, they say, a London baker got the notion of modeling wedding cakes after this spire, thus launching the tiered-cake tradition.
Cheers for the Queen
As for running into the Queen Mum, she of the upturned hats, that was at St. Mary-le-Bow, another Wren church whose Great Bell tolled wake-up and curfew for the city of London for more than 400 years, and launched the saying that a true Londoner--a Cockney--must be born within the sound of Bow Bells.
There were crowds on the corner when I arrived. A bobbie explained that the Queen Mother had entered the church for a ceremony to mark its 900th anniversary. When she came out smiling, we cheered.
And never to be missed is St. Paul's Cathedral, a dazzling expanse of light and glory, with its almost luminous stone and glints of gold. This ancient temple is where Lord Nelson is buried and where Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married.
I walked down the aisle and sat for a moment of thanksgiving and wonder. Above were the Whispering Gallery and the Golden Gallery. To my right was a woman who was kneeling with an arm around her shopping bag from which paper towels and celery stalks emerged.
I thought of what the young man had said as he served baskets of bread in the restaurant at St. Martin-in-the-Fields: "Churches ought not to be used just on Sundays."
Amen and amen.