No, this is not an ecclesiastical neo-gym where one gets divinely given a washing board stomach. Rather, it is St Mary Abchurch, a name whose origins lie mistily in the annals of Time to the point historians still can’t agree where the “ab'” comes from. It might be linked to Southwark Cathedral, then again it might not. Oh…and it’s first rector might have been Robert of the 12th century, but might have been ‘Luke the Supervisor’ in 1323.
For all that, this delightfully square building, cloistered just off Canon St, was rebuilt after The Great Fire of 1666 at a point when Sir Christopher Wren was experimenting with domes. This 1708 40ft diameter cupola is stunning…as I look up there are four occuli, points on a compass designed to let light shine on a golden depiction of heaven where ten angels repose among clouds, supplicants to the glory of God as given in the lettering of His divine name. Beneath the disk and cornices are several paintings of seated figures emblematic of the Christian Virtues and Graces. These are seated in penumbra, patiently waiting a call from the cherubs to ascend into the Light.
Yet, under this stunning dome, this church is a treasury of seventeenth century woodworking. There is a magnificent reredos with lime wood carving by Grinling Gibbons. It is the largest in the City (outside of St Paul’s Cathedral). The pulpit, door cases, font cover and rails of Royal Arms, Lion, Unicorn are exquisitely carved by William Emmitt. The gilded Pelican in her Piety appears on both the reredos and the copper weather-vane above the north door. The Pelican was a common subject of the Period and links this church with Corpus Christi, Cambridge.
As I sit in the second pew I notice a wrought-iron sword-rest. I have no idea what it is for but my donation of £5 for a 20p map quirks the kindly interest of an old man who is sitting near me – we are the only two people under the dome this morning. He is not just a parishioner, but an active member of the parochial council; he thanks me for my donation and explains that the rests are for the civic sword when the London Lord Mayor attends a service in state. Each bears the arms of two London Mayors – Samuel Birch (1814) and George Scholey (1812). I nod in fascination as he goes on to explain a little about the organ (there is a sign outside advertising lunchtime organ recitals but I am far too early for that). It seems that after 1822 an organ was provided; damaged in WWII it was then replaced and the carved oak from of its case dates from 1717, of the church of All Hallows, Bread St which was demolished in 1877. There is now a shopping mall on that street 😦
As I thank him for his erudition and time he urges me to look up when I go outside to see a fine example of a bell tower. I stand, stretch; there is a reluctance to leave such peaceful solitude – these places always appeal to my introversion – but I shoulder arms and trudge quietly down the nave, turn left and step out into a small courtyard where builders are slouched for a sly coffee.
I look up. My amiable companion is right. There is a red brick with stone quoins bell-tower in the north-west corner. The slender spire, leaden, arches gracefully into the blue skies of London, a bronzed bell is glinting.
I have a map of City Churches. There are 58 of them. I have now visited 4. How long do we have here, Diplomat? I think I need to speed up…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?