Lucy Winkett reflects on the Wren Project and the stories it helps us tell.
It was a former church warden of St James’s who called it ‘The Wren Project’. Mercedes Pavlicevic had been part of St James’s for many years, and had served as Treasurer, PCC Lay Vice Chair and, amongst many other things, as a music therapist, was an inspirational musician on Sundays and other times too.
On an awayday sometime around 2014, Mercedes, who was hugely enthusiastic about getting the project together and being part of the team that shaped what would be done, said clearly and strongly (she often said things clearly and strongly…) that The Wren Project was a good name for this undertaking. Her reasoning was that it rooted St James’s in its history, but also referenced the architect who was renowned for his imaginative bringing together of science, architecture, design and the practise of religion. So it was a way of saying that this wasn’t just a restoration of a religious museum but trying to express an innovative and holistic vision of what ‘church’ could be in society. One of Mercedes’s favourite words was ‘complexify’, and the various moving parts of The Wren Project have certainly lived up to that. Mercedes died in June 2018, to the great grief of St James’s congregation and especially her beloved wife Mary. But every time I give presentations or have conversations about the Wren Project, I remember her fierce commitment to making this happen and her insistence that we stuck to the principles of making a more just and beautiful future.
I mention her, because the sheer complexity of the Wren Project can make it feel remote, out of reach, however many explanations are given or detailed plans scrutinised. Plans for the releasing of the pews, so that they can be moved, the restoration of the south door that Wren designed, the absolutely vital installation of a lift in a newly expanded Rectory, and the re landscaping of the garden to ensure that anyone who uses a wheelchair can access any part of the site without having to ask for help: all of these elements (and these are just a few of the strands that the Wren Project includes) require different groups to be consulted, different levels of permissions and compliance with different pieces of legislation, both church and secular. The impetus behind all this seeking of permission is really good, in the sense that the widest possible consensus has to be obtained, from yes, the Sunday congregation, but also St James’s physical neighbours, stake holders, and all those who give up their time and energy to work for amenity societies, who believe in the celebration of the rich heritage found in any square patch of London. But it does take time and patience, and a willingness to remain flexible while sticking resolutely to the principles of honouring the past while acting to bring about a new future.
But ultimately, this is a project that is a collection of stories, human and beyond human, as St James’s successive PCCs, Rectors and Wardens have wrestled with the priorities and plans necessary if we are to be good custodians of unique 1684 heritage, and also imaginative, open-hearted builders of a new future in the complex society of today.
People’s stories such as that of a young artist Esme Valencia Lindstrom, who St James’s worked with in the autumn of 2021. She created a completely different ‘visitor experience’, making films from cameras attached to animals throughout the church and garden, and helping us see astonishing lichen and fossils all over a site with which we may have thought we were familiar. Using microscope glasses, she helped us see St James’s and The Wren Project in a completely different way. She wrote at the time,
The piece comes out of thinking of a location as a practiced place, as constantly recreated by those who are there, rather than something still, static and separated from its inhabitants.
So many stories are wrapped up in this project: the mechanical and engineering consultants who have worked so diligently to find and assess the historic pipework under the floors and behind the walls, the staffers at the HS2 project who have helped select, move and store some of the gravestones from St James’s gardens that could return to the courtyard and tell their own stories in due course, the silvicultural experts who have examined every branch of every tree, the commitment of today’s Caravan volunteers who are helping people heal one attentive conversation at a time, making the garden a place of consolation, honesty and peace, and inspiring the re-landscaping design. The lawyers and surveyors who pore over all the necessary paperwork whenever a planning idea has to be explored and brought to life. And the thoughtful contributions of some of our guests going through homelessness, who see the courtyard and garden from the perspective of people who have more time than they might want, really to look, and think and see how things can be improved. Some great ideas have come from these conversations too.
The Wren Project is, of course, when it’s all taken together, a big and complex undertaking with many practical and sometimes contradictory considerations and compromises. But at its heart, it’s a collection of stories from generations of people who pray and have prayed, building this curious thing called ‘church’ in a modern city, interdependent with one another, and with all that lives and has lived. A quotation from psalm 127 keeps the perspective that’s needed: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers labour in vain’. This prophetic voice is a voice not from the past but from the future. It reminds us that if we can bring the Wren Project to life, it will help to shape St James’s, this tiny corner of London that has such a catalysing spiritual effect, for people not yet born. It is a stake in the ground rooted in prayer, that is committed to future generations, who have never heard of this place and don’t yet know that it can be a place of transformation, kindness and hope for them. I hope that this can be our gift to them: because your story is already woven into the fabric of this place; you are an integral and vital part of it whether you have passed through, are with us online, listened to music, drunk coffee or been here in the pews for years. Nothing and no one is lost, all leave their imprint and story here. In imagining a more just and beautiful future, thank God for you, for the diverse, complex community that is made of the ‘living stones’, the stories of the people of St James’s.