Our churches in Primrose Hill are very much at the heart of our community and Adam took his questionnaire to the Reverend Canon William Gulliford, Vicar of St Mark’s. William’s very thoughtful answers give a wonderful sense of what he and St Mark’s are all about.
How does St Mark’s Church engage with the Primrose Hill community?
St Mark’s is the parish church of many of the streets in Primrose Hill. It is a former “daughter” of St Pancras, which is to say that our parish boundary to the north is where the ancient parish of St Pancras met the ancient parish of Hampstead. Before the borough of Camden was enlarged to take in Hampstead, and before the recent merger of the wards in the area, we were one of the vestiges of the former parochial structure. Clearly how we engage with the local community now is not directly dependent on medieval boundaries. The Church of England’s sense of how to do church is that a parish church is the church for everyone who lives in its parochial boundaries. Our parish churches are open and welcome to all, even if you do not live in the parish. No one is required to attend church, as they were in Elizabethan England, but everybody is welcome, and everyone who lives within our boundaries has a call on us for baptisms, weddings and funerals and a legal right to those important moments.
We hope that St Mark’s can be a place of welcome and neighbourly friendship to everyone who passes by and especially those who live in the area.
St Mark’s has a strong tradition of offering lovely music on a Sunday morning in our services and the range of concerts which take place throughout the year, be they ones put on by musicians in the St Mark’s family or who like to use the church. St Mark’s has always been a place to gather and enjoy the peace and beauty of the walled garden. It came very much into its own during the first lockdown because of the café, which is now run by the Little Bread Pedlar. As many will know it offers not only very good coffee, but excellent pastries and sandwiches. We cannot open the church without two people being in attendance inside, so as an alternative to being open all the time, we are really pleased that for much of the year the garden can extend the tranquillity of the interior into the community.
Beyond the spiritual heart of the life of St Mark’s, the space is available to use for rehearsals and other events. Lots of people come throughout the week for a range of events which helps them feel connected with the Church in ways which are not just religious. The words above the inner door say: “This is none other than the House of God, this is the gateway of Heaven.” Jacob exclaimed this in the Book of Genesis after a vision at Bethel of angels on the ladder to heaven. It is important churches do not lose a sense of themselves as liminal places in the modern world between heaven and earth. For me the most important thing St Mark’s does is to help people catch a vision of something beyond themselves. Our spire is one of the landmarks on the perimeter of the park to say this eloquently.
What problems does St Mark’s Church have to face?
St Mark’s is a Grade 2* listed church. This means it is of very high architectural merit. This also means that as a community we have a considerable responsibility to ensure it is well maintained. Like all volunteer led organisations, St Mark’s relies heavily on the goodwill and generosity of many people who give of their time and talents very kindly. We receive no state subsidy and we have to maintain the building as a worshipping community. The last Bishop of London used to call the Church of England the “most disestablished Church in Europe”. I think he was recognising that most countries in Europe find ways to maintain heritage in ways which are more strategic and don’t allow what has happened to five other Camden churches very recently, namely to risk becoming derelict through neglect, or rather crippling maintenance costs.
Nearby, our namesake, St Mark’s, Hamilton Terrace in NW8 was burned down recently. Issues of security are another constant worry. We don’t know how that happened, but St Mark’s Regent’s Park was subject to a severe arson attack in 1994, and the traces of that remain in the building and the memory is still strong for many who remember it well.
The pandemic was certainly an important moment nationally for people to think about the nature of life and death. It challenged all of society dramatically. Since things are easier, we see slightly more people coming on a regular basis – I would like to say we have experienced revival – that is not the case, but there is a gentle and possibly slightly increased openness to what the Church has to offer and say, which is wonderful.
However, patterns of church attendance, and particularly amongst young families, are yet to return to anything predictable. I worry that helping young people and children encounter the Christian faith through regular attendance at church and through Christian teaching is proving harder. As religious studies in schools becomes more about comparative religion (a not un-useful social science) so younger people’s religious literacy is disappearing, as it is unsupported by a more detailed teaching of the contents of the faith traditions. In an age when fundamentalism is on the rise, I don’t think the best answer is religious indifference or secularism. I think religious indifference stokes fundamentalism. You might be surprised to hear me say this, but I think it endangers society, by the loss of the moderate and informed religious voice. What may not be easy to see is that secularism is itself a very powerful religion. And because secularism has almost no moral compass, I worry that it leaves room for the sort of values in public and political life which are increasingly amoral, utterly libertarian and lead to a compromising of human dignity. It is perhaps a big leap but the indifference to migrants coming to England by boat, and the political climate which turns them from victims of crime into criminals, is born of the sort of warped morality which does not see human being as being made in the image and likeness of God.
Which type of events does St Mark’s Church get booked for the most?
St Mark’s is very popular for a range of activities. Concerts are perhaps the most usual. We have had three film shoots use the church for a day or two at a time, as a base for the crew and cast. There’s often a very jolly atmosphere when this sort of event happens.
What is the most popular event that the church offers?
I think one of the most beautiful services we offer is the Advent Procession. It is very popular with people coming from far and wide to it. This takes place on the afternoon of Advent Sunday. It is not a Christmas Carol service, it reflects the themes of Advent, which is not just about putting out tinsel, in fact it’s almost the opposite. Advent is about darkness, waiting and even uncomfortable things like judgement. The tone of the service is, if not sombre, then certainly serious. There is beautiful music written for this season, which is sometimes in the minor key. The theme of moving from darkness to light avoids wallowing in anything dreary. It is certainly a helpful counterpoint to a lot silly jingle one might otherwise be subject to pre-Christmas. I welcome this recognition of the need to acknowledge darkness, so that the welcome of the Light – Christ himself – can be all the more heartfelt. The other season which is completely wonderful musically is Holy Week. The services that week are bit like a week of Sundays, with each one being very particular. They never fail to uplift the soul.
Which of the church’s services are the most popular?
Apart from the ones already mentioned, I think our annual Zoo service at St Francis-tide (late September/early October) is one of the most singular and fun. St Mark’s is a wonderful community, which reflects the wider Primrose Hill community in a lovely way. One of the things which really struck me when I arrived 11 years ago was how kind everyone was to one another, and how welcoming of visitors. If my only success has been to tend that lovely spirit and maintain it, I will feel in some small way I have made a success of being vicar here. It is the greatest privilege to serve here. I would hope anyone and everyone would feel welcome.
Thank you, William, for taking part!
Find out more about St Mark’s Church here.
And you may well enjoy our post from 2020: an extremely well-timed lesson in resilience!
© Joanna Reeves 2023, all rights reserved.