Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life: Alexander Chancellor

Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life: Alexander Chancellor

Article excerpt

The Parish Church of St Luke in Sydney Street, Chelsea, is enormous. Vaguely reminiscent of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, it was built in the 1820s to accommodate a congregation of 2,500 people and was one of the earliest Gothic Revival churches in London, with a higher nave than any church in the capital other than St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. It was built at great expense with the help of a government subsidy as a result of the Church Building Act of 1818, by which Parliament allocated funds for building new churches in the urban areas of Britain where populations had greatly outgrown the facilities for Christian worship.

Chelsea was one such area, and its then rector, the Revd Gerald Valerian Wellesley, brother of the first Duke of Wellington, pressed hard for St Luke's construction. He considered his existing parish church -- now Chelsea Old Church -- too small for his purposes; but he might also have been influenced by a then widely held belief that the Church of England should be strengthened as a bulwark against the sort of revolutionary upheavals that France had recently endured.

In any event, the church got built. Charles Dickens was married there in 1836, just after publishing the first part of The Pickwick Papers ; and one of its organists, Sir John Goss (1800-1880), composed two very well-known Anglican hymns, 'Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven' and 'See, Amid the Winter Snow'. And there St Luke's still stands, a great edifice in Bath stone -- turrets, pinnacles, flying buttresses and all -- towering over its surroundings and visible from far and wide.

Well, Chelsea, as we know, is now heavily populated by rich Russians, international bankers, hedge fund managers and so on, who may not regularly attend an Anglican church; and it may be, that despite its 'outreach' activities, Café Portico and so on, St Luke's may sometimes have difficulty filling its pews. I don't know. What I do know, however, is that there was an impressive turnout for a service I attended there on the Wednesday of Holy Week.

Parallel with Sydney Street, behind the back of the church, is a road of little terraced cottages called St Luke's Street. And for many decades, in a cottage immediately facing the east end of St Luke's, lived a woman about as remote from Russian oligarchy as it would be possible to imagine -- a relic, if you like (though relic sounds quite the wrong word to describe such a vital, youthful and beautiful woman), of a kinder, cosier, more English place than Chelsea has since become. …

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