“She’s a very good Christian soul, but not the dynamic person the organization needs,” the Rev. Simon Grigg yells into the phone when I arrive. The enthusiastic rector of London’s St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, affectionately known as Actors’ Church, carries himself as much an entrepreneur as a priest. “It has been said,” he admits. After a pre-ordination career as a director and stage manager, landing this job in 2006, he says, was a “little dream come true.” Faith and dynamism unexpectedly align at St Paul’s, a supportive presence in London’s theater industry.
In Covent Garden’s Italianate West Square, theatricality is built into the fabric of the building, a 1631 masterpiece by Inigo Jones, pioneering architect and theater designer. “We’ve spent a fortune on restoration,” says Grigg. Like the setting for a lush musical, there’s gold leaf everywhere, from the bases of the chandeliers to the cherubs on the pulpit: “This is the jewel of Covent Garden and I want it to shine.”
Restoration London’s entertainment industry thrived around St Paul’s, while Samuel Pepys enjoyed England’s first recorded Punch and Judy performance on the portico in 1662 (“very pretty, the best I ever saw”). Is this still the Actors’ Church? “We do the ordinary parish church stuff,” Grigg says. But members of the profession are welcome for prayers, christenings and funerals, and it houses Theater Chaplaincy UK, which supports those in the performing arts. There’s even an in-house company, the Iris Theatre, known for its summer shows in the churchyard, and a model 1920s theater in the nave.
“We also commemorate the actors, with plaques, benches, and benches,” explains Grigg. The church is dotted with lozenges in black or white marble, ranging from Vivien Leigh and Charlie Chaplin to Hattie Jacques and Boris Karloff. There are poignant recent markers for Diana Rigg (“First Appearance 1938. Called to Trial 2020”), as well as less familiar names like Percy Press, “King of Punch and Judy.”
Historically, the theater profession was considered disreputable; an elderly warden told Grigg about two young women who said after a service: “’We’re dancers, but please don’t tell anyone.’ And that is within living memory. The idea that theater isn’t appropriate has a pretty long tail, and gay people are disproportionately attracted to it, so you have another level of suspicion among certain people. It makes our relationship with the formal Church of England quite difficult, because we don’t accept the homophobia of the Church of England. absolutely.”
“The great glory of the Church of England, for some of us, though not for the current hierarchy, is that we are there for everyone when they need us,” he adds. Central London’s sizable homeless population also finds help here. Grigg seems to operate an arm’s length from the broader C of E, and gleefully unburdens himself on the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally. I remind him that he is being recorded. “Oh yeah. Let’s just say we don’t get along,” she considers.
This is the jewel of Covent Garden and I want it to shine
Reverend Simon Grigg
Theirs is a joyously messy community, located in the heart of London. “More people live in Covent Garden than you think,” she says, “they’re just hiding.” The pre-pandemic congregation included locals, tourists, “actors, knick-knacks. We have had what I call refugees from other churches. Someone said, it’s hot in here. Partly it’s the damn cats: if it’s the kind of place a cat can live, it must be fine.”
Those cats, names taken from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, with its opening scene set in the portico, are indeed soothing presences. Mrs. Higgins runs around busily, while Eliza sleeps on a pile of office paperwork. “Eliza is the spawn of Satan!” Grigg yells across the room. She ignores him.
Covid changed the crowded atmosphere. “It was like a ghost town, positively creepy.” Grigg photographed boarded-up theaters, called out vulnerable parishioners and delivered food. His darkest moment was a lockdown funeral: “I was not allowed mourners and 10 minutes because the hearses were stuck to the crematorium doors. That was probably the lowest point.”
The C of E closed its churches in March 2020, “so many clergy were very unhappy.” Even so, St Paul’s only missed one Sunday service. “I zoomed from week one,” Grigg says proudly. “We transferred all the equipment and caboodle to my dining room table.” The individual chorus tracks were mixed together and everyone unmuted to chat at the end. The virtual service continues live on YouTube alongside in-person worship, thanks to sophisticated technology (“it looks like a Concorde back there”).
Coming out of lockdown, Grigg seems especially aware of the Actors’ church’s part of the theater community. He and his colleagues deal with “loose loads” of mental health issues, including increasingly anxious theater workers for precarious livelihoods. “Speaking with my theater hat on, the damage is enormous and will be for years. The industry remains fragile. And the Church of England is now enormously fragile: we have lost a lot of people.” The confinement cut the habits of going to church and the theater alike.
Amidst the shadows, a welcome glow. Grigg smiles at the perks of the job: an annual Christmas card from Judi Dench (“you put it in front of the mantelpiece”), invitations to West End openings, and excellent star screening. Even Bette Midler requested a tour of the church when she was in town. “I’m not easily dazzled, but I told my husband, get your ass over here!” She’s met most of his heroes, though “I’ll go to my grave regretting never meeting Julie Andrews.” No wonder she has held the job for over 16 years: “Another job will be fucking boring by comparison.”