Celebrating 20 years as rector of St Bartholomew the Great, the Rev Dr Martin Dudley has witnessed dramatic change in his historic Smithfield parish.
He tells Andre Paine about London’s oldest surviving church (in use since 1143), playing host to Hollywood stars and the gay blessing that hit the headlines.
How does it feel to be marking two decades as rector?
It’s extraordinary. It’s only when you start walking round that you begin to realise you’ve made a lot of changes. We’ve spent a huge amount of money on it. I created the Cloister Café about five years ago. We’ve recently amalgamated the [parishes of the] Less and the Great and gone back to the Elizabethan name, Great St Bartholomew.
How much has Smithfield changed?
When I arrived in 1995, the place was so run-down. The building next door, where Club Gascon is now, was empty. This church had been without a rector for two years so it was really difficult, but we pulled through. The hospital was reprieved,
of course, now we’ve got a new hospital. So there’s been huge change in 20 years, there’s an enormous new housing area springing up and Crossrail’s going to have a huge impact. Save Britain’s Heritage have proposed the market, the hospital and the church should form a World Heritage Site.
Can you tell us about the Damien Hirst statue of St Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain?
We first had a bronze version of it for 18 months, then last year Damien’s company said he was looking for somewhere to put the statue. I hadn’t realised it was going to be the gold one. We’re slightly ambivalent about the gold one, so we treat it as a sculpture and not as an item of reverence because that’s a bit too close to craven images. We’ve also got the royal charter of the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers, of which I’ve been chaplain and an honorary liveryman. You don’t see a royal charter every day… though someone did ask if it was the Magna Carta.
Have you conducted high-profile services?
We did [Great Train Robbery mastermind] Bruce Reynolds’s funeral. We had all the paparazzi out here – unfortunately, Ronnie Biggs played to the cameras. We also had a funeral 700 years after somebody’s death, which was William Wallace. I think there needed to be some reconciliation.
The church’s best-known wedding is in Four Weddings and a Funeral…
Ely Dyson’s grave in the middle of the church is probably the most famous gravestone here, because that’s where Charles [Hugh Grant] fell with a thud after the ‘Do you love someone else, Charles?’ line. Of course, we’ve had a lot of films. Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded in the middle of the church in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. We had Ridley Scott and Cameron Diaz filming The Counselor, so I chatted to him as I was a great fan of Kingdom of Heaven in the director’s cut.
What did you think of T-Mobile’s spoof royal wedding advert featuring lookalikes dancing to East 17 in your church?
I thought it was absolutely brilliant – and the person who did the Archbishop of Canterbury was tremendous. I got the flak from the papers. But the Bishop of London said to me, ‘I can tell you that the principal participants were very amused by it’.
Your blessing of a civil partnership between gay priests in 2008 was more controversial… It doesn’t seem at all controversial now, does it? It seems as if I was a prophet. It was a difficult thing because it started out just as a neighbourly act for the hospital chaplain. It was only two weeks later that, suddenly, it was breaking news and there was a bit of a backlash. Of course, nobody expected then that the government would actually change the definition of marriage. So as you look back, you think: goodness what was all the controversy about?
‘We had a funeral 700 years after somebody’s death’
Has the £4 admission charge helped the church?
It’s been of huge benefit. It brings in quite a lot of money, most of which actually goes into staffing, and it means the church is cleaner and safer. We have a chapel designated for private prayer and annual passes for people who live around here.
As there’s no rectory, where do you live?
I live in the Barbican. Even though you’re in the City it’s more like a village, particularly as I’m a councillor – you walk around and get to know people. I like Barbican architecture, it’s such a contrast between St Bartholomew the Great and the brutalist towers.
What’s kept you here for two decades?
Why would you want to leave St Bartholomew the Great? It’s just such a wonderful place. I first came on a grey, wet day and the church was at its gloomiest, but I just thought, ‘wow, this is amazing, I’d love to be the rector here’. The water was pouring in last week and there are times when you say, ‘do I have to look after this building any more?’ But when you’re here at Christmas with candles burning, you just think: this is so wonderful.