FLAT OUT IN THE AFTERNOON

~ Posted by Robert Butler, July 26th 2013

A few hundred yards from this office, there's a red-brick church designed by Sir Christopher Wren where, a century later, William Blake was baptised. The church of St James's Piccadilly is flanked by two streets. On the south side, the shops in Jermyn Street sell embroidered dressing gowns, bespoke slippers, panamas, fragrance and vintage ports. On the north side, four lanes of traffic crawl in and out of Piccadilly Circus. But the church itself stands apart from its surroundings, modestly welcoming people "of all faiths and of none". 

The welcome is sincere. Another building designed by Sir Christopher Wren, St Paul's Cathedral, charges £16 for an adult (you can buy your ticket online), but here the entrance is free. Going inside (above) yesterday afternoon, I found the place was empty, save for a few tourists looking at the marble font, the corinthian columns and the intricate limewood altarpiece, which depicts a pelican pecking her breast to feed her offspring.

But as I sat watching the July sunshine stream through the large windows, I suddenly became aware of a man, lying stretched out on the pew immediately in front of me, fast asleep. His shoes were underneath the pew, his feet were bare, and his head rested in the crook of his elbow. And then I saw that in the pew in front of him, another man was asleep, this time with his anorak pulled over his face. And in the pew in front of him, yet another man was asleep, his rumpled T-shirt exposing a Falstaffian stomach. 

In all, I counted ten people asleep on the hard wooden pews (one or two had even spread out a thin layer of newspapers as a cushion.) No-one was disturbing them, no-one asking them to move along. According to the website, St James's believes that the Gospel offers a "radical welcome". That was obvious.

But returning this afternoon, to see how much the numbers fluctuated, I saw only one man asleep on a pew. The reason wasn't hard to spot. In front of the altar stood a grand piano—there had been a lunchtime concert. 

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life