Vagabonds at St James' Piccadilly - a record of Christian, lay-led, adventuring
From 1992-2020 I worked at St James' Piccadilly London as one of its priests - unpaid, a 'non stipendiary' to use church-speak. I had been sure that my vocation was to combine parish-based work with so-called secular work, to be present in the world beyond the church. A 'priest in secular employment'. I experienced my years at St James's as a great adventure, mostly because of the people who formed the congregation. One expression of the liveliness and adventuresome spirit that characterised that church community in those years was a group called Vagabonds. I don't want the history of the St James' Vagabonds to be lost. The material which follows was on the St James' website in the past, but seemingly no more. I hope it might inspire as well and serve as a record. The group celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2013. I preached on that milestone, and the group, on 18 August that year.
The Vagabonds were a group of mainly Christian spiritual enquirers which met informally once a month in a pub close to St. James' to discuss a topic of interest. They take their name from William Blake's poem The Little Vagabond, a character who prefers the alehouse to the church (Blake was baptised at St James’).
This memoir of the early years of the Blake-inspired Vagabonds group at St James’s Church Piccadilly is by Dick Whittington, co-founder of the group, and marked its 15th anniversary in 2013
‘Dear mother, dear mother the Church is cold
But the ale house is healthy and pleasant and warm’
‘The Vagabonds’ – from William Blake’s poem about the little ragamuffin in his ‘Songs of Experience’ - always seemed a good choice for the St James’s group that bears his name. Blake was baptised at St James’s but never set foot in a church again in his life; so he was very much a lay Christian - and the group is led by laity. Also, since the beginning, the group has met in a pub (not always pleasant and warm ones, but things have improved), and holy fun and ‘irreverent reverence’ have always had a place at the Vagabonds’ table.
In addition, the group has been a home for at least some of the outsiders at St James’s. (This is a paradox – St James’s as a church is a refuge for outsiders and pilgrims from the wider Church. However, in any group of outsiders you will get the ‘insider outsiders’ and the other outsiders, those looking ‘in from the outside on the insider outsiders’ (as it were)). The real historical vagabonds were thrown off their land by parliament’s enclosure acts which rescinded their ancient land rights. They led the life of criminalised wanderers – little devils and tatterdemalion  scofflaws  perpetually cast out. So, the name has a respectable and apposite pedigree.
I first came to St James’ in 1994 – young Master Hugh Valentine was officiating that very Sunday (and it was Hugh who was later to commend to me the time-honoured New Testament tradition of consorting with publicans and harlots – and he was not speaking figuratively). This was the time when the ‘March for Jesus’ and ‘Toronto Blessing’ style charismatic fundamentalist Churches were at a peak and St James was part of an oppositional culture to the individualistic and authoritarian excesses of this movement.
When I first chatted with him at the church door one Sunday Donald Reeves – who was then the rector – told me that he was concerned about young people who were being traumatised by fundamentalism, some of whom ended up at St James’ as refugees . I’d been a fundamentalist in my adolescence, had never completely sorted things through, and felt an empathy for these ‘young people’ – whoever they were – and the idea of the original Vagabonds gradually evolved as an attempt to create a space for former fundamentalists at St James’. There were several attempts and plenty of ‘back to the drawing board’ moments over the next few years.
In 1995 Leah and I who both used to belong to the Creation Centred Spirituality (CCS) group at St James’s discussed trying to start something for young people – possibly for disaffected members from neo-evangelical churches – based in CCS-Matthew-Fox type shtick. We set a date to meet in the tower room in St James’ one Sunday after Church and published the event in all the London Church of England papers, and in notices at St James’s for three weeks prior to the event.
On the appointed Sunday we waited with a flip chart and marker pens in hands (which seemed like a good idea at the time). No one turned up. I remember Leah was miffed and said, ‘I don’t do failure! (and she doesn’t – she’s redoubtable). I thought 'well unfortunately it’s an old, old story to me'. I think we decided that doing something for young people in a non-residential parish was not such a good idea, so we shelved it. But it was always worth a try.
Attempt two was a bit more complex. In 1996-97 breaks were beginning to appear in the edifice of the new evangelical movement. Dave Tomlinson – a prominent leader in the House Church movement and now a minister of a thriving London Anglican Church –- had written a book called ‘The Post Evangelical’. This was strongly critical of the fundamentalism and authoritarianism of the new evangelical churches. Dave spoke at a symposium at St James's about Post Evangelicalism. The Sheffield Nine O’clock ‘Rave’ Service run by Chris Brain had also generated a certain amount of excitement in St James at this time as an example of an authoritarian fundamentalist youth Church that had moved in the direction of Creation Centred Spirituality.
In September 1997 Sean Cathie, then a priest at St James’s, ran some Parish Workshops. One of these was for post-evangelicals (or ‘post-evan-jelly-babies’ as one member put it) and a post evangelical group of sorts did emerge from this which met a few times but didn’t really gel. I think most members decided they would rather do something better with their time than unpack their traumatic pasts together (because of the ethos of the original workshops the group was semi-therapeutic based in ‘personal narratives’ and this just didn’t work). However, through my involvement with the group I met Rosie Miles – she’d seen me at the original workshop and collared me on a train from Victoria one evening. Donald Reeves came up with the idea that she and I should do a sermon together about our experiences of fundamentalism.
The sermon was given in the summer of 1998 (the Sunday after the Patronal Festival). Rosie loved every moment of it. I hated it because giving sermons is alien to me (I’m fiercely proud of not liking speaking to very large groups of people). However, I did get some small consolation: I managed to say, from a pulpit, that my Dad who was builder used to think that all churches should be turned into pubs and that all vicars are spivs and drones (something I don’t actually believe – non-stipendiary priests do not belong in the spivs/drones category for starters). It was a case of ‘please yourselves you miserable lot’ because my comment was met with blank faces. Dear Donald growled at me later, ‘All vicars are spivs and drones indeed! Harrumph!’
After our sermon Rosie and I wanted to get a post-evangelical discussion group together without a primarily therapeutic ethos. I had attended Dave Tomlinson’s pub Church – Holy Joe’s – a few times and had been impressed. I thought that with a bit of tinkering so that people who weren’t post evangelicals could also be included, and with less of a focus on a single leader, we could do something like it at St James’.
I had lunch with a couple of people who spoke to me after the sermon and were passing through St James’ who had been members of authoritarian charismatic churches. They told me very sad stories of abuse, which sent me doing networking with ’Inform’, ‘Southall Black Sisters Against Fundamentalism’ and other groups, in anticipation of encountering further stories of trauma in the proposed new group. However, I think the bubble had already burst. The Sheffield Nine O’clock service went down mired in scandal because of abusive leadership stemming from abusive power based Spiritual Warfare theology. The miscarriages of justice influenced by the ‘Satanic Abuse’ panic were starting to come out etc - and I never encountered stories like these again. In this context diluting the focus on any one leader seemed very important even for a humble little group like the Vagabonds wished to be.
Rosie left London and I almost shelved plans but, in the end, carried on regardless. ‘The Vagabonds’ it was to be; and the first meeting of the Vagabonds proper was held on the last Sunday of January 1999. After the service we rendezvoused by the font in which Blake was baptised and then walked to Shaftesbury Avenue for a meeting on the top floor of Burlington Berties. (Burlington Berties no longer exists but it seemed appropriate to meet there too because Burlington was ‘Bert, Bert who hadn’t a shirt’ from Vesta Tilly’s music hall turn and, as such, an honorary Vagabond). And people turned up!; and they were people who were to become a big part of my life but who I had not properly met before.
Members present were John (Ince), a young Emma-Louise (then ‘our lass’, now mother of three children, David (Carter), Grant (from New Zealand), Ian (from Scotland), and me. The other two important core members of the early group came a little later in the second year – that is Leon, and Cornell (Jackson), the person who was later to become the mainstay who carried the Vagabonds forward when needed, developed it in new directions and established the Vagabonds as it exists today.
Just for the first year I was chair of all meetings and did most of the talks and discussions. I tended to go for the eye catching title – for example I did one about Jesus’ ‘Hard Sayings’ entitled ‘On Hating Your Parents’ (and when I announced it in Church someone butted in ‘I don’t have a problem with that!’ ) –
Of all the relations I ever did see
My own fleshy kindred are furthest from me
So bad and so ugly, so hateful they feel
To see them and hate them
increases my zeal
(So now we’ve said that together through gritted teeth we feel a lot better – don’t we? We have a larger horizon of ‘family’ - and perhaps it’s time to include our biological family in the party to, as Jesus did with Mary at the foot of the cross).
Others in the group gradually became confident and John Ince chaired his first discussion on medical care ethics and the Sermon on the Mount that summer (he was a nurse) and David led his first discussion on the feminine and the incarnation then too (which I believe has turned into a long-term research project for him). Both were very well received and gave me a welcome rest.
It was at this time we developed the ‘Chair and Chair leg’ (they were terms used in a professional committee I was then part of). John and I batted the idea around and came up with a procedure (is it now a ‘tradition’?) that whoever leads a meeting should be supported by another Vagabond who would go for a meal with them to talk things over the week before the actual meeting. We used to meet in the Crypt of St Martin’s in the Fields for these preliminary chats.
The discussions we had in the first year were all Bible based – to fit a post-evangelical ethos; and I remember Grant, who had been in the Plymouth Brethren, sipping his pint at the second meeting and opening his Bible and saying – ‘I knew there was something missing in Brethren Bible Studies but couldn’t’ quite place it until now’.
The levity of Vagabonds is rooted in something ‘true’. Although the group was never completely post-evangelical and is no longer post-evangelical at such, the experience of fundamentalism informed a lot of its ethos via Rosie’s initial input, the input of the anonymous and very distressed people I conversed with before the group started, and of course through Holy Joe’s. The thing about fundamentalism is that it is a religion of Holy Seriousness and Holy Terror – any laughter under these conditions is forced laughter and invariably false too, as if the laughter raiser is wearing too tight clothes that constrict the blood flow. So religious laughter is especially important to post-evangelicals once the tight clothes are off and fool can laugh at fool (and it’s up to us all to judge who the real fool is and who the wise fool is). Laughter helps us chart the wise and narrow path between faith and doubt and other paradoxes of the spiritual life. Indeed, meeting in a pub as Christians is the biggest joke of all; and is richly symbolic of embracing the world in a positive way while challenging its oppressive and excluding power structures.
As a group that started out as something a bit like a post evangelical group it was also important that we as part of the Body of Christ and therefore of Mother Church should take control of theology and other ‘ologies’ for ourselves. Some of us had experience of authoritarian clericalism where the texts of the Bible were given a specific and clearly defined meaning outside of the people reading them – so the texts themselves had become external and oppressive. As John Everard, reader of our parish at St Martin’s in the Fields in the early seventeenth century wrote: ‘If you are ever fondling, ever licking on the letter of the Word – no marvel it is that you are such starvelings’. So to find us ‘a Christ that would do us some good’ (Everard again) we had to take control with confidence in our own experience, our own reading abilities, and our own ability to share our bits and bobs of expertise wisely.
Of the ‘big mouths’ in the original group, ironically, John (with his floppy Bible) and David (with his immaculate and authoritative Biblical commentary) actually came from the Catholic Anglican tradition. As for me (with my ink stained ‘Gospel Parallel Texts’ edition) I had been a conservative evangelical Anglican whose head had finally split from exposure to the pernicious logic of sectarian Calvinism. However, to put humpty back together again I had absorbed the teachings of a rag bag of Anabaptist Spirituals, Christian Humanists (Erasmus is a firm favourite), Universalists, Quakers and Levellers. I think perhaps the mild anti-clericalism that I’d inherited also helped develop the ethos of ‘yes we can’; ‘For we are not for names and titles, and we are not for sect or party’, and ‘professor’ was a dirty word to the early Quakers. Also, I think it was excellent that neither Donald nor Hugh in any way interfered or even visited us for the first two years – they trusted us to get on with it while we were in our formative stage. Indeed, we had no outside speaker or experts visit us at this time – which was providential.
David was the most learned and enthusiastic lay theologian in the group. He actually attended real scholarly lectures and read the works of real up to date Christian scholars. I learnt much from him in our many long and enjoyable chats at Vagabonds meetings and outside of them. He was, and is, a mine of erudition and he has pursued his theological passion with diligence to this day. David is also a good sport. In the early days we were keen to touch base with the Blake Society and so, on my suggestion, we both attended ‘The Hammer of Los’ drama workshop one Sunday (run by the old chair of the Blake Society ‘Sune Vagabond’ – a very sweet and gentle man who sometimes came to meetings and shared his sandwiches with us). At one point in celebration of LOS Blake’s mythic type of the Eternal Prophet, we all had to swing our arms up and down in semi arcs intoning deeply, ‘the blow of his hammer is justice; the swing of his hammer is mercy -the BLOW of his hammer is justice; and the SWING of his hammer is mercy’. Here you could watch two Vagabonds joining in St James’ mainstream activities for the afternoon – and a right couple of spam happy troopers we must have looked. On a lighter note, before we met, I used to think that BVM (‘Blessed Virgin Mary’) was the acronym for another model of ‘BMW’. Your tolerance is called for here – I originally come from a tribe where the joke about European Aristocrats in the Bible (the German Baron Fig-tree, and the Russian Count Notakostoff) comes from the classier end of the spectrum.
Since the early Vagabonds group wasn’t completely post evangelical John and I agonised a bit over statements of identity. I remember coming up with something about Richard Hooker’s Anglican golden mediocrity triad of Scripture, Reason and Tradition from his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity – ‘that whereas other groups in St James’ might emphasise reason or tradition, we in the Vagabonds would start from scripture in our balancing of the Hookerian triad’; and John replied, ‘sometimes Dick you can be a really pretentious plonker!’'
The pub we met in became more and more unruly. I often had to shout above the new juke box. We were once joined by a cocaine addict who wanted us all to massage his numb lips; and we once got stuck right in the middle of what looked like the meeting of a sinister chain-smoking Chinese triad cell. But we sort of enjoyed the edginess – and I remember John with his pink boots and pink hair loved to get his Bible out in front of the searching, bewildered and sometimes hostile eyes of other customers.
At the end of the year, I handed over the office of Chair to John Ince at the January ‘Vagabonding’ session (more post evangelical corniness). John was the first to develop the email group for the Vagabonds. Under his more personable and charming leadership many new people came including Emma Louise’s husband-to-be Phil who was quickly nicknamed ‘The Gospel according to Geezer’ for his matter-of-fact observations on holy writ. Other new members much valued for their contribution and kindness were Suzanne, Alex and Julie. Under John we all took turns at chairing meetings – but the slightly rebellious edge stayed; when the pub in Shaftesbury Avenue closed down, we wandered from venue to venue – vagabond like – trying to find a new space (and some of them were extremely alarming spaces and places, and we even met in St James’ Park sat on the ground as a more comfortable alternative a couple of times – when the weather was good).
Early in the third year of the Vagabonds – 2001 - we began our first visits to other places of worship in order to appeal more widely to people at St James’. First off was St Martin’s Lane Quaker meeting (I think our visit whetted core member Ian’s appetite for the Quakers – and I believe he is now a Quaker in Scotland). Then we attended the Russian Orthodox Church in Knightsbridge which was dazzling in its holy beauty. Later still Cornell organised a visit to a black Pentecostal service (now that was groundbreaking). I also remember Cornell giving his first session. It was on Martin Luther King and on how to raise the stakes in non-violent protests without flipping into violence. He did something very new – a professional type simulation presentation instead of a standard talk and discussion – yes, he was the rising star. Leon also led a good discussion on VAUX (pronounced VOX) – a real kosher post-evangelical group that met in Vauxhall (further evidence of post-evangelical corniness in the choice of VOX as a name!)
On Holy Saturday of 2001 on Ian's recommendation the Vagabonds met for the first time at the Captain’s Cabin – which had always been there, but which had somehow eluded us. ‘This is the place’ and it was goodbye to ‘Foxes have holes and birds have their nests...' Yes, it was goodbye to ‘Burlington Berties’ and ‘all aboard the good ship Vagabonds’. Ian had found a very suitable and permanent venue for us. Everything appeared to be going beautifully but then I became suddenly very ill and incapacitated, and John left for Australia where he later died tragically young. Cornell took over the leadership of the group – with David and Leon to support him – and made it the fixture in St James’s life it is today. In a sense you are celebrating the continuing Vagabonds rather than the Vagabonds of beginnings now; it is wonderful that it continued and developed in a new direction, and this is entirely down to Cornell with Leon and David. They overcame disruption and tragedy with good courage.
John Ince would want us to remember him only as the funny, intelligent, very individual and large-hearted man he was - and for nothing else. So I propose a toast: ‘Raise a loving cup to John’ And as Erasmus the noble clerk of Rotterdam once said in the guise of Dame Holy Folly: "There’s an old saying, ‘I hate a fellow-drinker with a memory’", and here’s a new one to put alongside it: ‘I hate an audience that won’t forget’.
‘Raise a second loving cup to Cornell.’ He is the real founder of the continuing Vagabonds and has co-ordinated an excellent programme for many years. This story is only one third cooked and we look forward to the continuing narrative. Cornell was also a good friend to me in a dry and bleak hour; he took me to see an all-black cast version of the Beggars Opera at the time (appropriately as ever). It was a moment of true joy for me when I had few.
And raise a final loving cup and say – ‘May the seed Christ reign / May Christ rise in daughters and sons / Drink up and live well in Christ our Hen, Mother King of all good Vagabonds past, present and future. AMEN’
The Little Vagabond by William Blake
Dear Mother, dear Mother, the Church is cold,
But the Ale-house is healthy & pleasant & warm;
Besides I can tell where I am use'd well,
Such usage in heaven will never do well.
But if at the Church they would give us some Ale.
And a pleasant fire, our souls to regale;
We'd sing and we'd pray, all the live-long day;
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray,
Then the Parson might preach & drink & sing.
And we'd be as happy as birds in the spring:
And modest dame Lurch, who is always at Church,
Would not have bandy children nor fasting nor birch.
And God like a father rejoicing to see,
His children as pleasant and happy as he:
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the Barrel
But kiss him & give him both drink and apparel.