On a Saturday last November, visitors to St James’s church in Piccadilly were greeted by an unexpected sight. A rabble had apparently taken over the elegant 17th century Wren building and were making themselves at home: eating at trestle tables laid out along the aisle, painting cockle shells in honour of the church’s patron saint, talking, praying, and laughing. To one side of the altar, a black-clad figure was pounding out Beatles hits on the piano while the little crowd gathered round her belted them out with gusto.
The pianist was the Rev. Lucy Winkett, and we marauders had taken over the church at her invitation. Anyone wanting to inspect the Grinling Gibbons reredos more closely was going to have to make it through the enthusiastic throng that is L’Arche Community on the road. L’Arche, if you haven’t come across it before, is a community where people of all faiths and none live alongside and support adults with learning disabilities, and Lucy Winkett is a staunch friend and ally.
The happy and productive day was rounded off by a communion service conducted by Lucy Winkett, flanked by the red and gold cockle shells drying on the altar steps. I became aware that the service was being accompanied by the most fabulous singing, rather than the murmur of prayer, and I realised it was coming from Lucy Winkett herself, pouring forth as she blessed the water and the wine.
In my experience of vicars, they are not renowned for their singing voices, so I had to know more. Fortunately, Lucy Winkett has an entry on Wikipedia (only 17% of Wikipedia biographies are of women – just saying . . .). All was explained when I read that she had actually trained as a singer at the Royal College of Music. Following this, though, she changed course and trained for the ministry, becoming the first female priest at St Paul’s Cathedral – an appointment that attracted a fair amount of hostility. She recounts that the ex-military organiser of the press conference hastily convened to deal with the furore gave her a code name for her arrival: ‘For this female first, for this breaching of the barricades, was I given a suitable code name such as Boudicca, Joan of Arc, or Amy Johnson? No. I was Little Red Riding Hood.’
She is regularly heard on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, and writes on culture, gender, and religion. But to my mind, her greatest achievement is this: to fulfil, albeit temporarily, the Biblical prophecy that ‘The last shall be first . . .’ Here in this most exclusive part of London (the Ritz hotel and Fortnum & Mason are a few doors down), her inclusive approach has given those who normally count least in our society the most privileged access to her sublime building. Looking around at her congregation of Anglicans, Catholics, Muslims, agnostics, people with and without learning disabilities and/or physical disabilities, another, more secular, aspiration also came to mind: liberty, equality, fraternity.