On 17 November 1311, 700 years ago today, the Bishop of Stepney issued a licence for the building of a new chapel. It was to be situated on the main road east out of London, near the bridge over the River Lea, in the growing settlement of Stratford-atte-Bowe. Villagers were fed up of having to walk from Bow to Stepney and back each Sunday to go to church, so a new church made ecclesiastical sense. It took a few years to find sufficient money and an appropriate site, but eventually Edward III granted a piece of land "in the middle of the King's Highway" and the first Bow Church was born. The A11 hasn't gone away, and still surrounds themedievalbuildingoneitherside. And parishioners still bear witness here, seven centuries on, at "the church in themiddle of the road".
It's not the church with the BowBells, nor the church at the end of the Oranges and Lemons rhyme. That's St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, four miles away in the City of London. But this doesn't stop tourists coming to St Mary's in Bow by mistake, lured in by the DLR (this being one of the very few churches in London with a station named after it). Visitors can't gain access to the interior unless they turn up on the first Saturday of the month, so won't see the fine beamed roof, the whitewashed arches along the nave and the stained glass window behind the altar with its hidden wildlife (owl, cat, mouse, look harder, squirrel). One of only two surviving medieval churches in Tower Hamlets, this is a charming building with a chequered back history.
The area around the church has changed dramatically too. Various houses, an inn and Bow's market hall were once tightly packed alongside, with the main road passing by to north and south. In 1789 a complaint was made that the church was "a great obstacle in a much frequented thoroughfare", forcing carriages to separate and causing "frequent stoppages". If easing traffic flow had been the order of the day, St Mary's would have been doomed to demolition long before now. It wasn't until 1825 that the area around the church was cleared of buildings and the present churchyard created. This somehow survived the coming of the flyover in the 1960s, although the rear of the churchyard is now rarely accessed, tapering to an artificial point between encroaching tarmac.
2011 finds Bow Church in a state of flux. The last Rector, Michael Peet, died in April after a long illness. He was the life and soul of the parish, and had been masterminding plans for commemorating today's 700th anniversary. He'd have loved the pageant which took place in the church in September, based on historic characters brought to life in the Reverend's book. And he'd have been in his element at last night's torchlight celebration. Tealights had been lit all the way along the path from the Gladstone statue, awaiting the Bishop of Stepney's arrival, while the congregation stood around outside the front door sipping refreshments. Someone had brought along a few cheap sparklers, which spluttered for a few seconds before extinguishing prematurely. And all the time Bow's non-famous bells rang out, no doubt annoying the hell out of various local residents who didn't realise the significance of today's date.
For those interested, there's even a special brochure packed with all the details a would-be community leader might need. It's remarkably honest, and lays bare the challenges of ministry in a multicultural inner city. Nearly twenty thousand people live in the parish, but only thirty or so regularly turn up for communion every Sunday. It used to be forty before the vicar fell ill, and the congregation have really pulled together to keep regular services and worship going during the interregnum. But in recent years the church has only ever hosted two or three weddings a year, maybe ten or so baptisms, which isn't what you'd expect looking at the imposing exterior. There's a genuine challenge here - to make Bow's ancient church a relevant part of the surrounding community, and to continue seven unbroken centuries of devoted ministry. Applications for the post close on Friday next week. Middle of the road candidates need not apply.