At The Lion Sermon
Door knob at St Katharine Cree, Leadenhall St
Each year the Lion Sermon is preached upon 16th October at St Katharine Cree in Leadenhall St in the City of London. This ancient church was established in 1280, emerging from the Priory of 1108 founded by Queen Matilda, and is the only neo-classical church to survive the Great Fire. Its lurching arcade in the nave, embellished with Corinthian capitals, is indicative of the unlikely blend of classical and gothic which characterises this appealingly idiosyncratic structure of 1628-30, traditionally ascribed to Inigo Jones.
Yesterday I attended the 365th Anniversary of the Lion Sermon, commemorating the life of Sir John Gayer (1584 -1649). A Cornishman who became Lord Mayor of London, he was a Governor of the East India Company and briefly imprisoned in the Tower for his Royalist sympathies. The story goes that he became separated from the caravan while travelling on a trading mission in Arabia – modern-day Syria – and was stalked by a lion. Yet the creature spared him, on account of his devout prayers and vows of charity, and his friends discovered Sir John sleeping in the desert next morning surrounded by the footprints of the lion.
I arrived in Leadenhall St to discover the porch of Katharine Kree unexpectedly occupied with bellringers, summoning the congregation, and walked around to the other entrance in Creechurch Lane. To my surprise the church was full with the curious and the devout, waiting in expectation of the Lloyds Choir and Rev Oliver Ross, who processed into the church with Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the preacher designated to deliver this year’s Lion Sermon.
The event would seem no more than a quaint custom celebrating a remote myth, if it were not for the presence of James Gayer – the current descendant of the Gayer lineage – who attended the service on behalf of his family and read the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Afterwards, James told me that he came to read every year and that it was a duty passed down through his family, undertaken by the eldest son of each generation.
Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin was formerly Vicar at the Church of Holy Trinity in Dalston where they have the Annual Clowns’ Service and has now graduated to become Chaplain at the House of Commons. Her sermon explored the notion of deliverance – as Sir John was delivered from the Lion’s clasp – and she gave us an account of her personal journey from a childhood in Montego Bay, revealing the obstacles she had overcome which shape her character today.
Just as we all began to ponder the lions that we had each overcome, metaphorically, we were brought back to the Jacobean church by an anthem of Henry Purcell performed by the Lloyds Choir which Rev Oliver Ross informed us had been composed by this greatest of English composers, inspired by a visit to St Katharine Cree and the musical possibilities of its organ of 1686.
Once the service was concluded with spirited versions of some favourite hymns and the congregation was tucking in to a hearty buffet lunch, I took the opportunity to visit Sir John Gayer, whose memorial brass is concealed behind the altar. He looked at me askance, frustrated perhaps to reside eternally in such an obscure location yet grateful to be remembered still after all these years – delivered from oblivion by a lion.
Bell ringers in the porch
The organ played by Handel and Purcell
Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin preaches the 365th Lion Sermon
Memorial brass to Sir John Gayer behind the altar
Sir John Gayer, as portrayed on his memorial brass
Thomas Bewick’s Lion
Rev Oliver Ross & Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin
Counting the collection after the service. The font is embellished with the Gayer arms
St Katharine Cree, on the corner of Leadenhall St and Creechurch Lane
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