Thought for the Week – St James, Son of Thunder

As we approach our patronal festival this weekend Lucy talks about the complex history of Saint James.

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Church Window Mask
Lucy Winkett

This week, St James’s Church celebrates what’s called the patronal festival. It’s the day that the church celebrates and remembers its patron saint, James, on 25th July every year.  And this week, thousands of people, many of them young, are walking the famous pilgrimage route the ‘Camino’ to Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain, where it is said that James is buried.

For a thousand years people have walked, or ridden horses or now cycled to Santiago, and today, these pilgrimages are made for a huge variety of reasons, not just religious ones. Some undertake the journey at a point of decision or change in their lives, some walk as a statement of solidarity with the planet, some make the pilgrimage as a faith commitment, with a rhythm of prayer and reflection that can be life changing.  Saint James has a meaning and resonance that is strong today.

person walking on a road

Our church building, between Piccadilly and Jermyn Street in central London was dedicated in 1684, and was named after James because there was a leper hospital close by called St James until 1552 when Henry VIII bought the land to build St James’s Palace.  And while James, the apostle who makes several appearances in the gospels, isn’t a founder of this particular community, that the church is named after him is significant.  Having a name, James, gives the church not just a set of ideas or a philosophy or a plan– but a person and a story. A sort of guiding spirit.   And unlike some of the other characters in the gospels whose personality is harder to access, James’s personality does come across. Not always positive, but definitely as an energetic, quite argumentative person. Referred to, with his brother John as a ‘son of thunder’. Maybe he had a temper, or maybe he carried with him a sense of urgency that things weren’t right as they were and he was impatient for change.  There is a striking story in the gospels, where James challenges Jesus to give him more acknowledgement and power.

And because of particularly the European resting place of James,  he is associated with pilgrimage. James is the pilgrim saint: always pictured with a scallop shell as a tool for the journey (which pilgrims carry to drink from roadside streams and to wash themselves) and a staff to help them up the hills.  James’s people are people on the Way – people on the road- who pledge to travel with each other through the world and through life.  Of course the name of James has not only been revered and celebrated but sometimes weaponised, especially during the Crusades. Christian suppression of Islam was often done in the name of James, who became known as the Moor slayer.

But the tradition of James as the traveller saint, the pilgrim, is the image that endures.

scallop shells

In 1688, the year of the last Roman Catholic king in England and 4 years after this church was opened, the parish decided to establish a workhouse for what were known as the able bodied poor.  St James’s Westminster – which is the official name for this parish – was active in providing accommodation for destitute Londoners – and in 1776, the workhouse in Poland Street, Soho,  a stone’s throw from this building, had grown into one of the largest in the country, run by a Board of Guardians, known by then as the Union Society of Westminster, which interestingly still meets today. Descended from the vestry of St James’s parish, they have dined continuously each year since 1784 – although now they do it in the Dorchester Hotel…..

In the 1881 census this workhouse had over 600 inmates. Residents such as Ann Standeren, who aged 81 was listed as a greengrocer, failed. Rose Stone, 19 years old, a general domestic servant, and the Sullivan family: Daniel, 35, a house painter, his son Daniel, aged 9 and his grandmother Mary 85 listed as a comb finisher.  Desperate stories of course lie underneath these bare descriptions and statistics.  The struggle to make ends meet is current not just historic of course: the widespread use of foodbanks by families who are working but not earning enough to live, the close link between a parish such as ours and the economic debates of the day remain.

A 19th century song was written about this parish’s workhouse: called the St James’s Infirmary Blues – derived from an English folk song called The Unfortunate Rake.

As I was a walking down by St James’s Hospital, I was a walking down by there one day, what should I spy but one of my comrades all wrapped up in a flannel though warm was the day.

St James’s Infirmary Blues has become a jazz standard and has been recorded by Louis Armstrong, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Hugh Laurie and more recently, the band White Stripes.  It’s a lament for a young man or woman, cut down by disease and tells the story of one of the young people of this parish. But this story and this song have now been sung all over the world.

I went down to St James’s Infirmary, saw my baby there stretched out on a long white table, so cold, so sweet, so fair. Wherever she is, God bless her, wherever she may be.

Today’s stories are told too in this place. Just in the past couple of weeks, the Hong Kong activist, now having claimed asylum in the UK, Simon Cheng, spoke here about the fight for democracy and freedom. And the life story of a hugely inspiring writer Liu Xiaobo, was commemorated by his friends and supporters, many of whom have spent years in jail after the Tiananmen Square massacre, witnessed by them all.  Grief has been held here by a young man whose mother died shockingly and suddenly overseas, and the story of political fallout from the US Supreme Court judgement overturning Roe v Wade was told here too by a young lawyer based in a state that has banned safe and legal abortion as a result. The astonishing creativity of one of the UK’s greatest 20th century sculptors was celebrated here, and the music of a country under terrible pressure, Ukraine, was played and celebrated here too. The countless stories held and told by guests and volunteers at Feast and at the Sunday breakfast, and the one-to-one conversations held all day every day in the Caravan counselling project are all part of the fabric of this place dedicated to James.

This place which hears so many stories, and whose walls are soaked with the prayers of generations – is St James’s; the community in its widest sense that we celebrate today.

The story of James and John’s conversation with Jesus appears twice in the gospels. In Mark’s gospel, it is James and John who themselves ask Jesus if they can ‘sit at his right hand and left’. In Matthew’s gospel, it is their mother who asks for them.

Whoever instigates the conversation, the question is a political question. They’re asking for Jesus to let them know, when the revolution is achieved, when the battle is won, where they are going to be. They’re talking about a realisable future – when Jesus has ‘won’, somehow, they hope that they’ll still be there with him in prominent places of power.

Jesus answers their questions, as he often does, with more questions rather than simplistic answers.  He ignores their request for a heavenly seating plan, but raises mysterious questions about baptism and the cup of suffering that he knows he has to drink and asks them if they are willing to suffer too.

This is an important gospel for a church and community like us. People often describe us a  Liberal church. We don’t mind what we’re called, but we do try to be a socially active and politically aware church, an indispensable part of living out our faith. In churches such as these, it’s not difficult to start to give in to a fantasy that if only we tried hard enough or had enough advocacy events or lobbied enough politicians – we could, ourselves, make society completely just: make everything better, eradicate suffering by our campaigns and our hard work.   Underneath that fantasy is the more personal question that James and John would ask: so where would I be in that society?  Where would my seat be?

Jesus’s answer subverts this question. He starts talking about other things;  about baptism – a radical sacramental ritual washing that depends not on a political strategy but on “turning to Christ”.   And he asks them if they think that they can drink the cup that he drinks –  which is the cup of suffering that he begs God to take away from him the night before his execution.

Church is a curious concept, a curious thing. It’s not really an institution or an organisation, although it can look like both sometimes. It’s not a building or a Sunday club or a political party or a social gathering – even though at times it will have aspects of all these: Church is sui generis – it is of itself a different thing –  both a gathered congregation on a Sunday, also active and open every day during the week, drawing people from all faith backgrounds and none. And the gathered Sunday congregation dispersed throughout the world the rest of the time too. You could almost say that to church is closer to a verb than a noun. It doesn’t make sense to say we “go to church” – we are church – all the time – work, home, night and day. And church in its widest possible sense is just a gathering. To “church” – simply means to assemble – to pledge to travel together, in the manner of the pilgrim saint St James, and to talk as we go. To assemble to pray, to sing, to bring our new born children, to remember our dead,  to dream of a better world, and talk together about life. And to have a fundamental hospitable openness to strangers, who don’t stay strangers for long.

Celebrating St James’s Day is an annual chance to pause and think about who we are and what we’re for, in a world that is still is full of men like Thomas Billington, listed in 1881 destitute in the poor house, as a waiter, or Hannah Barratt a charwoman.  Working and too poor to survive.  St James, the pilgrim saint, with all the energy and impatience for change that is in the gospel, raises the voice of lament and protest at such a world. And the church resolutely imagines a better world,  as an assembly of people in a building where prayer is indispensible, where just action is expected, where God is addressed, where we are contemplated by love. Rooted in God’s earth, we envision a just society and a creative open-hearted church. We imagine the world to be different and work to make it so.