“He’s a very good Christian soul, but he’s not the dynamic person an organization needs,” Reverend Simon Grigg thunders over the phone as I arrive. The energetic rector of London’s St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, affectionately known as the Actors’ Church, he acts as much as an impresario as he does as a priest. “It has been said,” he admits. After a career as a director and stage manager before his ordination to the priesthood, getting that performance in 2006 was, he says, “a bit of a dream come true.” Faith and pizzazz unexpectedly meet at St Paul’s, a supportive presence in London’s theater industry.
West of Italy’s Covent Garden Square, theatricality is baked into the fabric of the building, a 1631 masterpiece by Inigo Jones, architect and pioneering theater designer. “We spent a fortune renovating it,” says Grigg. Like the setting of an exuberant musical, there are gold flakes everywhere, from the bases of the candlesticks to the cherubs on the pulpit: “This is a Covent Garden gem and I want it to sparkle.”
The entertainment industry in London prospered around St Paul’s, while Samuel Pepys enjoyed England’s first recorded portico show of Punch and Judy in 1662 (“very pretty, the best I’ve ever seen”). Is it still the Actors’ Church? “We do the usual stuff in the parish church,” says Grigg. But members of the profession are welcome to prayer, baptisms and funerals, and it houses the Theater Chaplaincy UK, supporting those involved in the performing arts. There’s even its own company, the Iris Theatre, known for its summer promenade shows in the churchyard and a model 1920s theater in the nave.
“We also commemorate the actors with plaques, pews and pews,” explains Grigg. The church is dotted with rhombuses of black or white marble, from Vivien Leigh and Charlie Chaplin to Hattie Jacques and Boris Karloff. There are touching tags about Diana Rigg (“First Appearance 1938. Called for Rehearsal 2020”), as well as lesser-known names like Percy Press, “King of Punch and Judy.”
Historically, the theatrical profession has been considered disgraceful; the senior warden told Grigg about two young women who, after the service, said, “We are dancers, but please don’t tell anyone.” And in living memory. The idea that theater isn’t right has a pretty long tail – and gays are disproportionately attracted to it, so there’s a different level of suspicion among some people. This makes our relationship with the formal Church of England quite difficult as we do not accept the homophobia of the Church of England at all“.
“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. A large homeless population in central London is also helped here. Grigg seems to be keeping his distance from the wider South East, and talks cheerfully about 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,” he thinks.
This is a Covent Garden gem and I want it to shine
Reverend Simon Grigg
Their community is a cheerful, chaotic community, located in the heart of London. ‘There are more people in Covent Garden than you think,’ he says, ‘they’re just tucked away.’ The pre-pandemic gathering consisted of locals, tourists, “actors, freaks and bastards. We had people I call refugees from other churches. Someone said it’s warm here. It’s partly because of the damn cats – if it’s a place a cat can live, it must be fine.”
These cats – names taken from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, whose opening scene takes place in the portico – are indeed soothing presences. Mrs. Higgins is busily busy while Eliza is napping on a pile of paperwork. “Eliza is the Spawn of Satan!” Grigg roars across the room. She ignores him.
Covid has changed the crowded atmosphere. “It was like a ghost town, definitely scary.” Grigg photographed boarded-up theaters, summoned helpless parishioners, and delivered food. His darkest moment was the funeral in confinement: “I was not allowed mourners and 10 minutes because the hearses were backed up to the gates of the crematorium. This was probably the lowest point. “
C of E closed its churches in March 2020, “which many clergy were very unhappy about.” Despite this, St Paul missed only one Sunday service. “I’ve been zooming since the first week,” says Grigg proudly. “We moved the entire set and caboodle to my table.” The individual choir tracks were mixed together, and at the end everyone quieted down for a chat. The virtual service is still available on YouTube along with personal worship thanks to advanced technology (“it looks like a Concorde there”).
Coming out of lockdown, Grigg seems particularly aware of the role of the Actors Church in the theater community. He and his colleagues are “dumping loads” of mental health issues, including theater workers who are increasingly concerned about precarious livelihoods. “Speaking with my theatrical hat, the damage is huge and will be for years. The industry remains unstable. And the Church of England is very fragile now – we’ve lost a lot of people.” Blokada broke the habit of going to both church and theater.
Among the shadows a little welcome glow. Grigg is beaming with the benefits of the job: Judi Dench’s annual Christmas card (“put it on the mantel”), invitations to West End openings, and excellent stargazing. Even Bette Midler asked for a trip to the church while she was in town. “I’m not easy to impress with a star, but I told my husband, get your ass over here!” He met most of his characters, though “I’ll go to my grave wishing I’d met Julie Andrews.” No wonder she’s been in the job for over 16 years: “Another job will be fucking boring compared to this.”