At the end of July, we are leaving St Michael Paternoster Royal, the home base of The Mission to Seafarers for over 50 years. It has become an iconic building, known by many who have visited from across the world, rich in the history of many centuries and resonant with Mission memories. Somewhere beneath it lies Richard Whittington, the famous four-time mayor of London and medieval benefactor of the Church. A real and important person, he and his famous cat became the legendary source of a story beloved of children and of pantomime impresarios! The ground on which we have held meetings, and the stones within which we have tapped our keyboards, have witnessed almost a millennium of London history – of peace and war, of riot and festival, of pestilence and conflagration, of invasion and empire. And a few yards south of us would once have been busy wharves, alive with the sounds those seafarers with whom the Church has become deeply associated.
The medieval church was of course destroyed by fire in 1666. Rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, of St Paul’s fame, it later had roof and windows destroyed by Second World War bombing. Open to the elements for many years, it was eventually restored, including with some excellent stained glass, and became our home in 1968. Now the Diocese of London has new plans, and we trust our successor tenants will find the place an equally good home. St Michael Paternoster Royal’s history enters a new phase.
Like all house moves following a long period of occupancy, moving is a complex process. We have accumulated a great deal of “stuff” over the years, much which needs chucking and some which needs saving. We are unearthing many memories and many reminders of the extraordinary history of our organisation, told in photos, in pictures, in documents and in various gifts received over the years. In our online Sea Sunday Service, released this past Sunday, we have included snatches of conversation with the two living retired Secretary Generals, The Rt Revd Bill Down and The Revd Canon Bill Christianson. They say something of what the building has meant to them. A fuller version of those interviews are available on our website. They remind us of the value of the building, not least situated as it is at the heart of the City of London, and in close proximity to so many key maritime organisations and companies. They also speak of the value of being so closely linked with a church, reminding us in a very tangible and physical way of our fundamental Christian purposes and values. As we celebrate Sea Sunday this year, we remember amongst much else the transformative part that this building, and those who have worked here, has played in the lives of seafarers across the world.
Now IHQ moves to pastures new, into a smaller, modern space allowing for much more flexible working. We will still be in London and a stone’s throw from our many London partners. Our new office will be designed to ensure effective support in a world, and a maritime environment, which has changed very greatly since 1968. As Bishop Bill Down points out in his interview, amongst much else “communication”, so vital in any global organisation, has changed beyond all recognition in the last 50 years. That alone creates a whole range of radical challenges and opportunities which must necessarily impact on where and how we work. We will also be looking for a new “home church” with which to build a relationship, and as part of our commitment to ensure that we never lose sight of the foundations on which we were built, and which continue to undergird our work.
It is perhaps informative to reflect on the long history of St Michael Paternoster Royal. Founded, developed, rebuilt, and reimagined. Led through many generations by people of vastly different skill and character. Serving an ever-changing community of people. Providing physical, moral, and spiritual support through good times and bad. Stricken by crisis and ministering through very difficult times. And yet through it all seeking to share something of God’s love with the community for which it had responsibility. That is its story. It is also the MtS story. As we celebrate Sea Sunday, we remember those we serve and those who serve in our name throughout the world, especially at this time of very particular difficulty and suffering. As we do so, may we be reinspired both by our history, by our continuing faith and by the current need to further develop creative and vibrant support for those to whom our work is dedicated.
In the 17th century, this building saw devastating plague and then fire in quick succession. It was a fearful and terrible time. And yet what emerged was a world renewed and filled with hope. So may it be for seafarers and their families in the wake of this pandemic.