I have a collection of vicars. An unusual thing to collect, perhaps, but utterly worthwhile. I think it is their compassionate intellect that appeals. And their sense of humour. I suppose a job that includes so much listening to others requires an impressive ability to find the funny. Some of my vicars are gay. Which as a stand alone fact has as much relevance as their eye colour. Except that it explains how I came to be attending London Pride with a vicar.
This has been a tough week. On Wednesday I went to the vigil for Jo Cox, on what should have been her 42nd birthday. Had not a crazy man shot and knifed her to death. Previous to her murder she was unknown to me, but now I could put my name on the shortlist of potential biographers for this MP who genuinely lived to serve. An Oxfam worker in Africa, an advocate for refugees, a responsive representative for the people of Yorkshire and a mother. It is the latter that makes me tear up the most. Her killing shocked the world. Not least because it came so soon after the shootings in Orlando. Plenty of despair to go round.
Jo and her young family lived on houseboat (how cool is that) near Tower Bridge. So on her birthday a small boat, filled with flowers, was sailed down the Thames and moored outside the Houses of Parliament. And there it sat, bobbing gently on the water, all alone. Metaphors were fast and thick at the sight.
On to Trafalgar Square. To honor the woman who had said “far more unites us than divides us” spawning the hashtags #moreincommon and #lovelikejo. The day was muggy and close, even more so in the square packed with people. Despite the numbers it was a solemn and quiet crowd. A beautiful, at times halting speech from her husband, Brendan, and a moving tribute, via video link on big screen from her sister. Then the celebrities got involved (Bono! Seriously?) and I made my way back home, overwhelmed with desire to see my own children as quickly as possible.
Then the Brexit vote. Two days on I still don’t know what to make of it all. Except that here in Wandsworth it was a 75% vote to remain. So lots and lots and lots of shocked and sad people. Uncertain times ahead for sure. And a desperation to do something inclusive. And happy. What could fit the bill more than London Pride. With Christians.
After the pre and post vote rhetoric, the parade was positively calm, un-confrontational and fun. Because I was attending with vicar Louis, and his impossibly young and glamourous mother Janice, we joined the Christians at Pride group, made up mostly of members of St Anne’s Church, Soho and Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church. Their position along the parade route was strategically chosen as a group of so-called “religious” haters positioned themselves at the end of Lower Regent Street, the perfect vantage point to promise hellfire and damnation to each passing float. We were a bit further along, smiling faces without angry placards. Before the parade started, one of the vicars produced a loaf of bread and several bottles of what my mother and I would call “sangria wine,” and offered a short communion service, open to anyone. There were a lot of enthusiastic takers. My teenage daughter couldn’t quite choke down the plonk, but she appreciated the ceremony. My younger was given a long blessing from a priest. Sharing Communion, on a London street, in the sunshine, with strangers, most of whom happen to be gay. Does it get more inclusive than that? Gorgeous moment. We weren’t the only ones to think the parade deserved special treatment. Some older punks across the way had champagne with real glasses, serious parade preparation envy from me. And a great image on a day that aims, among other things, to dismantle stereotypes or expand them, depending on your point of view.
And the parade itself? Fun. Lots and lots of fun. Our new Mayor Sadiq Khan and his wife marched. There were mentions of the massacre in Orlando, though not a many as I thought there would be. But then this was a celebration not a memorial. Plenty of flesh on display, not all of it tanned and toned. “Oh dear,” blurted out by someone near me may have been the understatement of the day, as a series of particularly exposed, pasty pale and jiggly stomachs passed in front of us. There were lots of men and women in uniform, military and civil service. Starbucks and Barclays were doing some serious promotion, both with large, lively packs of marchers. Plenty of earnest groups as well, colleges, universities, health clinics, the Women’s Institute!, Muslim and African organizations, bikers too. But what I really wanted was flamboyant. And I was not disappointed. More Patsy’s and Edina’s than I could count. Feathers, sequins, impossible high shoes, ball gowns. Some proper fabulousness.
And in the midst of all this happy fun came a text from my dear friend Lucy. My circus writer friend with whom I share so many adventures. Her mother had been rushed to the hospital and was now in a medically induced coma. Prognosis cautiously optimistic, as long as nothing more happened in the night. Lucy is the youngest of 6, a very late in life baby. She has always said that she will never get to have her parents for as long as she would like. But today is too soon. Please not today. And suddenly I realized, sometimes today is all we get. Which makes finding our way past the last weeks of horror and shock and fighting and divisiveness all the more important. We need to try to be kinder and gentler to each other. We need to not pass up the opportunity to tell someone we love them. A smile for a stranger is a good start. Maybe even a conversation, not a shouting match, with someone who disagrees with us. Because we are all in this together. As John Donne, former Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral famously reminded us in the early 17th century, “no man is an island” and admonished us “for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.” We aren’t in this alone. Let’s stick together and make this living thing work. Those bells are ringing for us all.
At time of writing, Lucy’s Mum has made it through and is awaiting surgery. The Cox family has announced their intention of withdrawing from public life to concentrate on each other. The sky over the UK hasn’t fallen yet. There was a marriage proposal at the Pride parade. And I have two more vicars to add to my collection. Let’s gather round, pass the wine and ring ring those bells till our arms ache and our throats hurt from laughing. At least for today.