‘The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.’
From the book of the Revelation to St John.
A new year and my first mudlarking blog of 2020 began with a visit to the ancient stone walls of Southwark Cathedral. Sunday 12th January is the annual ceremony of ‘The Blessing Of The River’, the river of course referring to the Thames, that glittering liquid silver artery that has its source in a remote field at Trewsbury Mead, southwest of Cirencester, Gloucestershire, gathering pace and volume as it journeys downstream, flowing through the bustling heart of the City of London before finally ending its journey out in the Estuary.
A procession leads the way from Southwark Cathedral on the southbank, meeting a similar one from St Magnus The Martyr on the northbank, in the middle of London Bridge.
Thomas à Becket gave his final sermon here in Southwark Cathedral 850 years ago before setting off to Canterbury for the very last time. 2020 is a very special year as it marks the 850th commemoration of his martyrdom.
The purpose of this ceremony is to bless those who work and look after the river and those who use it for recreation. Special blessings are also said for those who have died on or near the river. This year was particularly poignant as a small procession from St Magnus The Martyr church, en route to London Bridge, stopped by The Monument in order to leave floral tributes and say prayers for the young people killed in the recent terrorist atrocity at Fishmongers’ Hall. In previous years, prayers have also been said for victims of the Marchioness disaster which occurred in the early hours of the 20th August 1989.
We began the procession from the font at Southwark Cathedral in a cloud of incense. Bishop Peter Price, formerly Bishop of Kingston, led the group from Southwark, while Bishop Jonathan Baker, Bishop of Fulham, led the group en route from St Magnus The Martyr, based on Lower Thames Street on the north side of the river. St Magnus The Martyr church is also well worth a visit as it’s the gateway to the original London Bridge of medieval times.
We parade out of Southwark Cathedral through Borough Market en route to London Bridge, the buildings of medieval London jostling with the new while curious passers-by and tourists stop to ask what we’re doing and to take photos. Contrary to appearances, this particular ceremony is only approximately twenty years old and was the idea of Father Philip Warner of St Magnus The Martyr, although almost certainly blessing ceremonies of the river have existed in one incarnation or other for hundreds of years. This particular ceremony borrows from the Eastern Christian tradition of blessing water by dipping a cross in it, and merging with it a symbolic ritual of baptism because the ceremony is held every year on the Feast Day of the Baptism of Christ.
The Blessing of the Thames procession reaches London Bridge and crosses over to reach the other side as traffic stops to let us pass, the gold and scarlet robes of the clergy providing a bright and welcome contrast to the steel grey and sombre city skyline. The sun battled with a fierce wind that at one stage whipped up from nowhere.
The women of Southwark Cathedral clergy were particularly magnificent in their scarlet and gold chasubles, defiant in the face of the wind screaming in our ears and causing vestments to flap wildly. At one point I feared Bishop Peter was in danger of taking off and ending up in the river.
We meet with the procession from St Magnus The Martyr in the middle of London Bridge and greet each other warmly. Readings and prayers are said. A wooden cross is then ceremonially handed to the two bishops who, facing downstream (east) towards Tower Bridge, together throw it into the river.
The cross momentarily disappears under one of the arches of London Bridge before eventually the current begins to carry it on and out towards the estuary. Because the cross is made of wood it’s biodegradable and poses no risk of polluting the river.
As leaden clouds gather over the buildings in the City, the final prayer is said and we are blessed with holy water by the bishops. The ceremony concludes with everyone invited for refreshments at either St Magnus The Martyr or Southwark Cathedral.
If you’d like to take part in next year’s Blessing Of The River Ceremony next January 2021, please keep an eye on either The Southwark Cathedral or St Magnus The Martyr websites.