After 14 years, the Venerable David Meara has retired as rector of St Bride’s, the spiritual home of the media.
He talks to Andre Paine about living with almost 2,000 years of history, standing up for the newspaper industry and what he’ll miss…
Have you felt the sense of history at St Bride’s?
Very much so. Down in the crypt there are two little bits of Roman pavement, so it takes this site back to at least the second century AD. It’s reputed to be the oldest site of continued historic Christian use in the City. Samuel Pepys was born in Salisbury Court, Dr Johnson held court at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and would have known the church. Samuel Richardson, the first modern novelist, was buried in the churchyard – we still have his skeleton.
Can you explain what role the 69-metre spire played in the typical wedding cake?
In the late 18th century, there was a baker called William Rich, of Ludgate Hill, who was asked to bake a wedding cake. From Ludgate Hill you get a good view of the spire, and he was casting around for inspiration and thought: I’ll base my wedding cake on the tiers of St Bride’s spire. Hence the tiered wedding cake.
The church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, has suffered serious damage over the years, hasn’t it?
It was completed in 1703 but then 60 years later there was a lightning strike, which shattered the top pinnacle. It was then rebuilt at a slightly lower level.
And it was bombed?
That was 29 December, 1940, when the church took a hit. One of our older congregants remembers coming as a teenager the following day and seeing all the devastation. It was a firebomb, it wasn’t a high-explosive bomb, so it was only the interior that was completely burnt out. When they came to rebuild it after the war, the tower and spire were still there.
How has St Bride’s remained the spiritual home of the media?
After Murdoch took the presses off to Wapping, and then the others scattered around London, my predecessor and I worked hard to keep the links with newspapers. We obviously have the good old Fleet Street memorial service and [colleagues] all love coming back to gather for those. We do an annual service for journalists, particularly those killed in the frontline. I think it’s well worth keeping St Bride’s as the cathedral of Fleet Street and the spiritual home of journalists everywhere.
How have you responded to the phone-hacking trial and the fallout from the Leveson Inquiry?
I’ve always felt that St Bride’s must be a friend to the media – a critical friend but a friend. The first wedding I ever took when I came here in 2000 was Andy Coulson’s. Five years ago I took the wedding of Rebekah Brooks. We know a number of people who’ve been caught up in these trials. I think the industry really has been under the cosh over the last few years and we need to – more than ever – support the value of a free press. I think the moral compass was lost in a certain sector but the irony is there were already laws to deal with most of what’s come out. The Leveson Inquiry, I think, was a bit of a waste of time and a huge waste of money. He says nothing at all about the online world, which is completely unregulated.
‘The first wedding I took when I came here was Andy Coulson’s’
Have you enjoyed the services for high-profile figures?
Well, we’ve had some good ones. We’ve had memorial services for people like Alan Coren, Clement Freud – that was lovely, we went into the end of the service with a minute’s waltz, a reference to his Just a Minute years. We’ve had Kate Silverton’s wedding, Giles Coren actually had one of his children baptised here and he got married here. So the fun things as well as the sad occasions.
Where do you go to relax?
Clerkenwell is one those areas, I suppose in the time I have been here, that has really come up. We often go through it if we’re going to Sadler’s Wells; my wife is a great fan of dance so we’ve gone there a lot. I’m going to dinner at the Zetter tomorrow night. There’s a nice little Italian restaurant in Bride Court here called De Palo, and we occasionally go to the Lutyens restaurant in the old Reuters building.
What will you miss about the area?
Oh, I think the sense of history. You’ve got those little alleyways, which are very much based on the old medieval street pattern. One or two of our older congregants have ended their time in the Charterhouse, a lovely old medieval complex that is now a home for elderly, single men. It’s a fascinating place – it’s like a mini Oxford college. I think St James’s church is a lovely landmark. And Postman’s Park is a hidden gem.