London Contrasts: St Paul’s vs All Souls, Langham Place

When I concluded last year’s trip to Israel, I blogged about the contrasts I witnessed. Having returned from a trip to London, I am minded to comment on my own capital’s contradictory identities. Like Jerusalem and Rome, I can confirm that London can hold its own in terms of the interesting places and experiences it is able to offer. The ancient monuments are in contrast to its population of bright young things, trendy fashionistas in a perpetual state of cool dress. Some have dispensed with long beards (so 2017) for simple moustaches to accompany their top knots. The males are equally trendy.

As I strolled through Mayfair and Knightsbridge, I soon tired of gazing at Rollers, Porches and Bentleys on account of their commonness. I even passed a shop in which the good residents of Park Lane might upgrade their yachts. Yet, a matter of a hundred yards’ distance, rough sleepers were occupying the subways. Beggars were a nuisance in many streets, even popping onto my train at King’s Cross seeking a whip-round. The second great contrast.


To the rear of the Royal Courts of Justice at Holborn, lawyers sought refreshment at The Seven Stars after a long day’s advocacy or paper shuffling. Their bickering and quibbling about matters of law demonstrated the importance of honest living and the need for justice. Not very far away in Soho, however, smart black-clad bouncers in three-piece suits guarded the doorways to ‘gentleman’s clubs’, admitting men of dubious-looking morals emerging from expensive cars. Nearby, the haze of cannabis aroma seemed visible in the streets and I kept a wary hold of my wallet. I imagined a Jack Dawkins surveying the scene from some discreet vantage point, no longer wearing a stolen, over-sized top hat but dressed in skinny jeans and dark hoodie. A third great contrast.


The fourth contrast was spiritual. St Paul’s Cathedral is a world-famous London landmark receiving thousands of visitors daily for a sixteen pounds admission ticket. The architecture is stunning, originally intended to be a domed Protestant alternative to the grandeur of St Peter’s in Rome. The audio guides provided had sections about St Paul’s as a ‘worshipping community’, belying the tourist assumption that the place is just another museum. Regular worshippers were recorded explaining why they attended the Cathedral’s services. One explained that he came because he liked the music. Another said she felt ‘at one with nature’. Still a third was impressed by the clergy’s interest in social justice and politics. Not one of them mentioned Christ and His offer of sins forgiven. None talked of eternal life. None mentioned Christ’s victory over death and His empty tomb. What a golden opportunity lost. So many visitors who might hear the Good News offered nothing but platitudes, froth and bubble. 


In contrast, All Souls’ Langham Place, led by the redoubtable Hugh Palmer, clearly had the gospel explained in the church’s vestibule. This smaller, parish church would not easily bore a student of architecture, with its prominent circular spired vestibule and elegant golden pillars. Inside were booklets offering spiritual help and posters explaining the Christian message. They even advertised lessons in the English language, an obvious thing to do in a centre for immigration. The inside space was dominated by a large painting of Christ and the building combined both its eighteenth-century architecture with modern love of natural light and flexible space. Two grand churches in the same city, of the same denomination. One offers visitors the gospel, the other nothing but history and clichés.

What a contrast.