“It beggars belief that no-one thought what a terrible, terrible image of decline it is to deconsecrate the ABC’s home church,” tweeted the Rev’d Marcus Walker, slightly irritated by the ‘accidental discovery‘ of five buried Archbishops of Canterbury in a crypt at St Mary-at-Lambeth, which is now a garden museum. “Even in 1972 they should have been aware that the optics are dreadful,” he added with rising incredulity that the church which kisses the gatehouse of Lambeth Palace should ever have been deconsecrated and closed to Christian worship – even in 1972, when England’s sense of national identity and historic optics weren’t great.
Did the Church of England not know that there were at least five archbishops buried there? Couldn’t someone be bothered to check the records? Why was no archeological dig commissioned? This wasn’t just any old parish church: St Mary-at-Lambeth had been an adjunct to Lambeth Palace for centuries. Its flint and stone walls are 14th-century; its consecrated ground dates back to Edward the Confessor. “Its bells rang out whenever royal personages came” – just read the detailed history to get a sense of how much of England’s ecclesial history was acted out within its walls.
“Several Archbishops of Canterbury are buried here”, notes Basil F L Clarke in his 1966 book Parish Churches of London, so it was hardly a secret. Nonetheless, the church was earmarked for demolition in those heady and enlightened 1970s, only reprieved by The Garden Museum – “capturing what gardens mean to people in a collaborative forum of activities, debate, collections and archives.”
What a pity that the Diocese of Southwark didn’t capture what the Archbishop of Canterbury’s home church might mean to people in a collaborative forum of ecclesial history. What a pity that Archbishop Michael Ramsay didn’t call a halt to a manifestly offensive deconsecration right on his doorstep, for five of his predecessors who had thought to find eternal rest in a sacred crypt now find themselves offensively buried in a secular vault on deconsecrated ground. A red and gold mitre resting on top of a coffin becomes a prophetic symbol of an inevitable future.
Still, we must at least give thanks that St Mary-at-Lambeth wasn’t bought by Pizza Hut, which the current occupant of Lambeth Palace would doubtless find a little more useful than living next door to a museum.