Opening a cafe in a functioning church no longer seems quite the radical notion it once was.
What with the ubiquitous proliferation of branches of Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Costa and umpteen other chains, opening a new cafe in any part of central London these days seems a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle. Even opening a cafe in a functioning church no longer seems quite the radical notion it once was. Yet despite all that the Host cafe at St Mary Aldermary in the City of London has managed to be something out of the ordinary.
With one of two exceptions, the City churches aren't generally known for being hives of activity. That's not a criticism – simply by providing quiet spaces for contemplation they play a very important role in a part of London renowned for a frenetic pace of life.
But St Mary's was a church that, though well looked after, only a few years ago was in danger of dying on its feet and gave the impression of being distinctly under-used and under-appreciated.
That was a great shame, as even by the standards of the City this is an exceptional building. It is conceived on a monumental scale, for a start; it could easily be the main parish church of a large town. It dates from 1679-82 and was the only one of the City churches rebuilt after the Great Fire in Gothic. But the architect – who cannot, incidentally, be conclusively established as Sir Christopher Wren himself – played fast and loose with the style, especially in the wonderful frothy plaster vaults with their deep saucer domes. Ian Nairn said of the church "Wren treated Gothic as though it were a cantankerous old aunt: with affectionate disrespect". It is also one of the few City Churches which escaped the Blitz largely unscathed.
In 2010 the Moot Community was established as St Mary's. This is a worshipping lay community living by a rule that it calls its Rhythm of Life statement. Having a community permanently tending the building has given St Mary's a role a little like that of an abbey church and that's not an idle comparison: Moot saw the opportunity to take on one of the traditional roles of monastic communities by providing hospitality to visitors. This is about more than just feeding and watering them, though. Part of Moot's mission is to engage people who do not respond to traditional expressions of church and yet are curious about religion – the growing contingent that describes itself as "not religious, but spiritual".
St Mary's is lucky enough to be in one of the few areas of the City which retains a dense network of narrow streets, now mostly pedestrianised, and the west doors open out onto a small garden where a burrito stand does a roaring trade at lunchtimes. In other words, it's in a place where people naturally congregate. The next step is to get them through the door and that is what the cafe does. It draws visitors into a lofty, light-filled space which is manifestly the House of God, but where, although there is no pressure to participate in worship, there is every opportunity to do so. The cafe carries on functioning while services are in progress elsewhere in the building and visitors can become worshippers at any point they wish.
An application was made to the Diocesan Advisory Committee in May 2012 for a Certificate of Recommendation for the installation of the cafe. There was already a servery at the west end of the south aisle, but it was clear that it wouldn't be up to the task and so it was removed to make way for a larger replacement with a section of raised floor in front (which provides space for the service runs, preventing the need for any excavation) and a espresso bar set at an angle to it. The church was lucky enough already to have a large, unencumbered space at the west end of the nave and this has been used for the seating – a mixture of small tables seating two, refectory-style tables and benches and sofas. Stands have been put up either side of the west door for selling greetings cards, postcards and a range of literature related to Moot's activities. There is also an area for private prayer. Luckily, the church already had toilets, which were installed a few years back in the base of the southwest tower. The cafe is run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers.
All the hard furnishings are bespoke and were designed by David Harris in co-operation with the church's inspecting architect, Margaret Davies of MRDA. The architect was keen to avoid using historicist detailing to make the new additions contextual; instead the intention was that the shade of the timber panelling would harmonise with the existing furnishings and panelling dating from reorderings of 1876 and 1886, while the white-painted steelwork picks up the surrounding walls and pillars rather effectively. All the alterations are completely reversible. Generous support for the capital works was provided by the Mercers' Company.
The work isn't quite complete as Moot would like to install glass doors in the splendid baroque doorcase, one of the last surviving bits of the Wren church of St Antholin, Watling Street, which stood nearby until its demolition in 1875. When you stand in the church at lunchtime you can see visitors wander up to the doors, peer through and then walk away again, unsure whether they're really allowed in. It's hoped that minimising visual barriers between the interior and exterior will help to overcome that. Moot would also like to bring back into use the north doors opening onto Watling Street.
Host has now been up and running for five months and has been a success. Moot has produced some short videos of users explaining what it is that they like about the cafe and you can view one of them here. Quite a lot of regulars cite great coffee as the main reason they keep coming back. Nothing wrong with that – no matter how worthy the extra-commercial intentions, any cafe has to be able to beat its counterparts at their core business. But Host has also successfully helped to achieve wider aims. A pilot catechetical group run in conjunction with it has resulted in one baptism of an unchurched person and five confirmations of dechurched people. And that's just one of a whole range of activities that go on in the building.