For many Londoners Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Boris Johnson and his carol service at Southwark Cathedral. As soon as he appears in the nave you know that tradition, kindness and irony – together with a bit of bogus self-deprecation – are going to be offered in sacrifice to his rapt and adoring fans, some wearing municipal chains of office and looking immensely dignified, and just a bit comic.
Last Monday Boris’s celebrated his last carol service as Mayor of London. He began the tradition in 2008, after his first election victory. One of his early discoveries as mayor was that the world’s great religions were well catered for by the City Hall with publicly funded religious events. And then he noticed something rather odd: Christianity was not among them.
He therefore launched the Christmas Carol Service at Southwark Cathedral. This time next year he’ll be a government minister and fielding devilishly cunning questions from the beautiful, fish-eyed Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News. It will be up to his successor to host a Christmas carol service at the cathedral – or ditch it.
I was at last Monday’s carol service with a party from the Home for Good Social Club, whose members were once rough sleepers but who have now, with the help of The Passage homeless charity, found permanent accommodation.
The club was launched last year to help members adjust to the joys and burdens of life in the community. They meet for three or four hours every Sunday for food, board games, political arguments and so on.
The most excited member of the Home for Good club last Monday was undoubtedly Terry, an amiable Welshman who has spent much of his life sleeping rough. He made a big hit with Boris last year when he and other members of the club visited the mayor in City Hall. Terry’s contribution to the discussion with Boris was eloquent and impressive, and he said one thing that the mayor has not forgotten: that he preferred the companionship of the street to the loneliness of the flat.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Terry was unable to contain himself when Boris arrived in the Cathedral a few minutes before the service began. He got up and walked briskly down the aisle towards the mayor. Oh, Lord, I thought, what now? I followed Terry, who was speaking earnestly to a beaming Boris, and escorted him back to his pew. “What was that about?” I said. “I asked Boris to come to the Home for Good Christmas dinner,” he replied brightly.
The show went on. As in earlier years, Boris read the opening of St John’s Gospel (in the King James version, naturally). The signers were there again, too, but this year one of them entered new and perhaps uncharted territory by signing to the deaf in Latin while the choir sang Peter Warlock’s Benedicamus Domino. Or did he sign a simultaneous translation?
Whoever replaces Boris as mayor next year will have to decide whether or not to continue with the tradition. Would Zac Goldsmith, for example, the Tory candidate, stick with the service? I imagine he would, if only for PR reasons. Same with Diane Abbott. What about George Galloway, though? Tricky one. George was brought up as a Catholic in Scotland, but has called for a global alliance between Muslims and progressives because they “have the same enemies”.
If he wins (per impossibile) and decides to be true to his original beliefs, the carol service will continue. If not, we can perhaps look forward to Friday prayers in City Hall.
After the carol service my gang from the Home for Good club joined VIPs in a marquee for mulled wine and mince pies. Boris talked about St John’s Gospel, and started to quote from the original Greek text to Lois Lane, one of our volunteers, who is doing a PhD on medieval England, but who does not yet speak Ancient Greek. Terry meanwhile was looking bit crestfallen. “I didn’t tell Boris where the Home for Good dinner was being held,” he said to me. I urged him not to worry about it.
My big disappointment was that I was unable to learn from Boris whether, as a future Prime Minister, he would welcome a visit to Britain by Pope Francis, even though he does not see eye to eye with the Pope on global warming or the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He had, after all, struck exactly the right note when he welcomed Pope Benedict to London in September, 2010.
In the Royal Suite at Terminal 4 he had reminded the pope that the Roman Emperor Honorius had pulled his legions out of England in 401 and left our poor forebears to fend for themselves. “From that time,” Boris told the pope, “the British have had a sense of desertion, of confusion, of rejection.” What did the Pope make of that? “He looked hunted. His eyes flickered around the room.”
Did he say anything? “Yes,” said Boris. “He said: ‘Very interesting.’ ”