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At The Blessing Of The River

January 5, 2023
by the gentle author

The annual blessing of the River Thames takes place this Sunday 9th January at 12:20pm. Below is my account of a visit with Colin O’Brien. Click here for more information

Photographer Colin O’Brien & I arrived at St Magnus the Martyr to encounter the Bishop of London illuminated by shafts of winter sunlight as he emerged from a cloud of incense to bless a bowl of chalk, thus enabling the parishioners to mark their houses in advance of the imminent arrival of the three kings. Yet this exercise of spiritual power was a mere prelude to the main event – the annual blessing of the river, as a celebration of the baptism of Jesus.

The lavish brocade robes of the priests gleamed as they processed along Lower Thames St and up through the gloomy underpass – where the incense conveniently masked a noxious smell – before they emerged onto London Bridge in splendour. From the other side, the Bishop of Southwark led another procession and the two parties met in the centre to exchange greetings and declaim prayers.

Invoking Noah and the waters of Jordan, the Bishop of London blessed the Thames and – after checking no boat was passing underneath – the bishops tossed a wooden cross off the parapet. Then the congregation was sprinkled with holy water, while I watched the crucifix float away down the muddy river.

Photographs copyright © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. January 5, 2023

    Fascinating stuff. It is great to see these old traditions kept alive. Hopefully, there will be more female clergy in attendance this year to showcase the modernity of the Anglican Church alongside this ancient and sacred observance of London’s special relationship with its noble river

  2. Saba permalink
    January 5, 2023

    The Brits really know how to do pageantry; it never fails to be glorious. All men, mostly white. I welcome them but hope that, in the future, a gender- and race-diverse group will lead the pageant.

  3. Saba permalink
    January 5, 2023

    More reflection on the pictures — Somehow, no one looks to me as if they take the event too seriously. This made me think about the past when work on the river was more central to many more lives. The weather and the danger of some of the jobs must have spawned unfortunate events in many households, causing parishioners to pray fervently for safety. Did more people attend the churches in the past and believe that this procession might offer safety? I don’t know, and I have seen studies with conflicting assertions for church attendance and belief in the United States. Anyway, fascinating pictures as I approach them while asking questions.

  4. the gentle author permalink*
    January 5, 2023

    I think Colin O’Brien’s final photograph speaks eloquently

  5. January 6, 2023

    GA. Re: the last picture. OMG! Indeed it does! Yesterday, I had wondered why it was ‘off centre’, without realising why. Too busy focusing on just one issue – the lack of women. (Eventually I did spot one black woman – possibly a priest – and one white woman, obscured by heads and a banner. Not exactly centre stage.)
    To be fair to the church, there is diversity within it, and several inner city congregations do assist the homeless but this set of photos by the late great Colin O’Brien reveal striking social and historical insight into status and privledge.

    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 7, 2023

    I’ve spent the biggest part of my life living within walking distance of the Thames, and I’ve never seen, or heard of, this ceremony. I must have been walking around in a daze for decades…

  7. Tom permalink
    November 18, 2023

    This is totally absurd and pagan. What is the connection with this and God or any church in the U.K….reminds me more of the sacrifice given in the King Kong movie…

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