Thursday, January 2, 2014


One of the many things I love about London is that it smells of history. Every building, every street, every park carries with it the whiff of the past. And not only the wheeling and dealing of the powerful, but also the comings and goings of ordinary people. I love to imagine what a place has meant to everyone who passed through it; what were their stories? What were their lives when they were here? What did this place mean to them? 

A place that means a lot to me is the Brompton Oratory (strictly, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) in South Kensington. Its vast, overpowering neo-classical facade is topped by a statue of Our Lady and it has the assertive confidence of St Peter's in Rome, albeit on a smaller scale. Sitting between the high culture of a clutch of still gloriously free museums and the high spending of Harrods, it is both a central part of this area of London and also oddly detached from it. In this it is very like the Catholic Church in England; part of the air everyone breathed for a thousand years, then a threat to the state, now a marginal oddity with a vague whiff of the foreign. 

That foreignness continues inside. You step out of the chill winds of a London pavement into Italy. It is unapologetically, brazenly baroque, bursting with drama and emotion and heaviness. The half dozen side chapels host statues of saints contorted with pain, love and yearning, illuminated by flickering candles. The Virgin Mary rules over the biggest side chapel, aloof like a Duchess, changing her dress with the liturgical colour of the season. Confessionals are everywhere, stern and wooden, unyielding in their disapproval of sin but also unfailingly safe receptacles for its forgetting. The interior is always in shadows, whatever the weather, whatever the time of year; though startling shafts of light blast down from the cupola. It really is utterly unEnglish, though it was founded by an Englishman, (Cardinal Newman, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to England in 2010). It seems like it's been here forever, but it was only opened in 1884. Being in South Kensington, it's a notoriously society church, with a random clutch of celebrity congregants (the composer Edward Elgar, the director Alfred Hitchcock and the racing driver James Hunt were all married here). and yet come to Sunday Mass and there are, as befits a London church, people from all round the world, and every income bracket.

And I love it. It breathes the prayers of the thousands who have passed through it. The other day I snatched ten minutes inside on the way to a family trip to the V & A while my wife tried (unsuccessfully) to return a vase to Skandia across the road. I had someone to pray for who wasn't well. I lit a candle in front of the altar of the Sacred Heart - Jesus baring his heart, opening Himself to us. And for that ten minutes I felt at home. It was (it always is) like sharing a hug or a smile or a joke with someone I loved; nothing much in itself, but immensely strengthening.

Cor ad cor loquitur is the motto of the Oratorians; heart shall speak unto heart. Catholicism is fundamentally a religion of the heart, of the emotions, of the senses. It's ultimately as pointless to debate its rights and wrongs with someone outside the church as it is to say why you married this person and not that, why you love your children, why this person understands you and that one doesn't. But it's also a religion of history; part of what makes me feel safe in a Catholic church is the two thousand years of tradition, enfolding me like a vast extended family. History can kill, when it flares up as unforgiven grudges. But it can also give the present depth and texture and solidity. Next time you're in South Ken, step inside the Oratory, and step into two thousand years of Western culture.


  1. Very interesting - to look at it I would never have guessed it was built in the 1880s. I'll let you know if I get there some time. Do you happen to know if it is always open?

    1. Yes, it is open all the time. Well worth a visit, whatever your beliefs - it tells you more about Catholicism than dozens of books or arguments.