As you head north over the River Thames on the Millennium Bridge in central London, you can see before you a range of church towers. Straight ahead is the dominating outline of St Paul’s Cathedral, and to the west, the ‘wedding cake’ spire of St Bride’s, but nearest is the historic tower of St Benet’s, Paul’s Wharf. William Shakespeare, who owned a property nearby, was accustomed to the bell ringing from this tower, which found its way into his Twelfth Night: ‘…The bells of St Bennet, sir, may put you in mind – one, two, three.’ Various church buildings have stood on the site since 1111, and after the Great Fire of 1666 the building that stands today was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. It is a strikingly different style from his great cathedral, which can be seen through a window in St Benet’s.
Much of the history of St Benet’s has been lost in the mists of time. One rector in the early 17th century was the puritan Thomas Adams, who affirmed, ‘The sum of divinity is the Scripture; the sum of the Scripture is the gospel; the sum of the gospel is Jesus Christ.’ It seems that for many years there were Welsh connections in this corner of the Square Mile and in 1879 Queen Victoria declared that St Benet’s was to hold services in Welsh ‘in perpetuity’. Such services have indeed continued, and today St Benet’s is the sole remaining Welsh Anglican Church in London.
A little bit of Wales in London
It is said that the nations of the world come to London, and they do. What is not so often observed is that this includes a large number of Welsh people – some for a season of life, others for longer. Many of these arrivals find that once in London they now feel their Welshness more keenly than before, or even for the first time. They want to join the activities of the thriving London Welsh community. Many go so far as to take lessons to brush up on their Welsh language skills, or even to learn from scratch.
Taking the gospel to the Welsh in London
The church of St Benet’s today is not so much the building but the people. There are fluent Welsh speakers in the congregation, while others struggle beyond ‘Bore da’, with a spectrum in between. Each Sunday we follow a traditional form of service, with the hymns, readings, and set prayers in Welsh, and the intercessions and talk in English. Those not so familiar with the Welsh language quickly find their feet. During 2018 we have been working our way through Matthew’s Gospel, and have been amazed, challenged and encouraged each week as we have sat at Jesus’ feet and seen more and more of how it is that ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21).
Our longing at St Benet’s is to reach all nations with the good news of Christ, and especially the Welsh. We are well-connected for transport links, and so people come to us from around London – we are pleased to welcome visitors regularly. Some come with an interest in Christian things, while others attend, at least initially, to hear Welsh being spoken or to see the building in use. Special services will draw a crowd and we look forward to having many join us in the run-up to Christmas.
At St Benet’s, we have ‘good news of great joy’ to share, and we have been given a unique opportunity to proclaim it. Our prayer and longing is that our heavenly Father would be pleased to use St Benet’s so that many, including the Welsh, would come to know and trust in the ‘Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:10-11).