Birdsong and Hope: Finding Community in St James’s Garden

Lucy reflects on the power of birdsong to bring hope, even in the middle of a city.

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Church Window Mask

On Sunday morning I listened to the radio – to the service recorded in the garden at St James’s. It was broadcast just after 8am and although I’d been there for some of the elements while they were recorded, it was the first time I listened to it altogether. I found my eyes pricking with tears – not just because I recognised the voices of our church congregation, but actually because of the birdsong that accompanied the whole of the service. Our wren, who lives in the garden, sang all the way through.  And one of the standout moments of all the time I have been here as rector was listening to that birdsong accompanied by the viola, then by our singers singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ and then by the inspiring conversation and poetry contributed by members of our earth justice group.

The average listening figure for Sunday Worship is 1.3m. And I felt privileged to be part of a prayer service that was so strongly honest about the climate emergency at the same time as somehow insisting on hope where it is hard to find hope.

I’m writing this on the Monday of the Chelsea Flower Show from the St James’s garden. The garden itself  is receiving a lot of attention and curiosity, and one of the most common things people are saying is that they don’t think the church is relevant any more, but it could be, and even if they are not a person of faith, they sort of want it to be. I’ve never been here before – and it’s certainly a sight to behold. Lots of stands and stalls, many of which are championing environmental gardening, horticulture, agriculture and planting. Of course in itself it’s not an especially inclusive event, given the ticket price, but one of the most important things we can say as we talk to the thousands of visitors is that St James’s itself has been strongly inclusive for decades and that every plant, every brick, every part of the garden will be relocated either in Piccadilly or on the Euston Road, (where the plants will go at the end of this month).

What I’m learning here is that the show itself seems to act as a sort of catalyst to be able to say things to people outside of a church context: yes to the people who are physically here but also in broadcasts (St James’s will also feature on Songs of Praise and will be part of the BBC coverage this week), and most importantly champion a strong message that the church is engaged with society by communicating and demonstrating the commitment of a church to build community, serve others, put love into action. This communication, at an event like this, is suddenly with a large number of people: the challenge is to stay true to the message of belonging that we try to make real in our building of community together: human and beyond human.  A social worker I know has a really helpful phrase that I often think of in pastoral conversations: that some people’s need is ‘on the outside’ and some people’s need is ‘on the inside’. I think what she means by that second description is that for some people, we look like we’ve got things together; we manage to get up in the morning, or hold down a job or navigate the twists and turns of life in a way that is recognisable to other people. But inside we are more shredded by or harmed by those experiences than we let on. And our need gets buried in a culture that expects success to be material, obvious and afraid of failure. For a Christian community, our vocation is to resist that materialistic culture, while all the time acknowledging our own need, whether that is on the outside or inside, to love and be loved, to belong and to speak about the deepest realities of living in the world.

The wren singing in the garden in the early morning is a sound that will live long in my memory, and for me, in challenging times, was a sign of hope:  that things don’t have to be as they are. And that even in the midst of such societal division and attrition, beauty can be found, and heard, and felt, everywhere.