St Anne and St Agnes
This bombed-out Wren church was restored by the Lutherians in the 1960s to serve exiled Latvian and Estonian communities. The congregation have long since moved on but its fate would probably have pleased Martin Luther, who believed that “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.” The church is now home the VOCES8 foundation, a critically acclaimed choir with a wide reaching education programme distributed digitally and in person to school aged children. While it’s website claimed to supply facilities for the local community, there was no evidence of anything being run at the centre itself, although that could be because it’s been closed down for the duration of the pandemic.
I did wonder if I should be visiting this church at all, given that it’s actually now essentially a rehearsal room. The guidebook I use was published 10 years ago, two years before the congregation moved down the road to St Mary-on-the-Hill. Compared to the other churches I’ve visited it had little to distinguish itself apart from it’s famous architect and the fact the vicar was beheaded for protesting against the execution of Charles I. Dating back to the 12th century, St Anne and St Agnes (formerly “St Anne-in-the-Willows”) has been burned downed and rebuilt more often than most, so that now it sits with it’s back to the world, nestled behind the Piccolo sandwich bar, shy or hiding something and definitely preferring people to notice it’s lovely garden as a place to eat their sandwiches or drink their Tenants.
There are repeated claims that it was the parish church of John Milton and John Bunyan, but this doesn’t tally. Bunyan lived his whole life in Bedfordshire, although he did visit and preach in London, and it has been suggested that it was the inspiration for his journey’s end in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the “Celestial City”. After all at that time London must have been spectacular, having risen from the ashes of the 1666 fire with the big glistening windows of the 40 plus Wren churches visible from as far away as the Chilterns.
London also proved to be Bunyan’s journey’s end, as he died of a fever at a friend’s house in Snow Hill – just a few minutes away from St Anne and St Agnes – after preaching for the last time at Petticoat Lane. Along with other non-conformists, he is buried a few streets down in Bunhill Row burial ground, joined decades later by his illustrator William Blake. So very broadly speaking I guess you could say he is eternally a parishioner now.
With Bunyan in paradise it would be nice to think that Milton’s imagined presence could save this church. However the use of the term parish is again misleading due to the sheer number of churches the city had when he was born in nearby Bread Street. He was baptised in one of the two churches in that street, All Hallows, and left the area in his teens. I guess he may well have wandered past, but I doubt he regularly attended St Anne and St Agnes’.
While obviously serving the community well over the years, I wonder if this church has yet to reach its glory. Just as Blackfriars priory leased its rooms to the King’s Men, repurposing religious buildings for the arts isn’t new and is always beneficial to both parties, maintaining the history of the building while providing the space and acoustics needed for performance. At a time when the arts are taking a hammering on every front, music in particular needs this kind of organisation. Like running, singing is free and accessible to all – but not everybody knows how to access it and VOCES8 not only teaches music in local primary schools but also trains older children to lead vocal workshops and choirs. They also offer scholarships to talented singers from low income backgrounds. So while the congregation is lost, it’s nice to know the walls are still – in normal times – filled with music and good intentions.