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Postcards: Two London churches meet in the middle of River Thames for an ancient ritual

ANGELA YOUNGMAN reports on the blessing of the River Thames…

Norwich, UK

Clergy from two parishes on opposite banks of the London’s River Thames met on a bridge in its middle to enact the ancient ritual of the blessing of the river earlier this month.

The annual event, which took place on 14th January, is a combined venture between St Magnus the Martyr and Southwark Cathedral. It began in each church – Southwark Cathedral on the south bank and St Magnus on the north – and saw participants then undertake a short procession to the middle of London Bridge which is where the boundary between the two parishes sits.

Rev Canon Michael Rawson blesses the congregation and clergy from St Magnus the Martyr in the middle of London Bridge. PICTURE: Courtesy of Southwark Cathedral

On the bridge a service was held involving prayers and readings from the Scriptures as well as a blessing for those who work and look after the river including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the River Police.

‘We remember those who have died in the river, for example, over 20 years ago, the [1989] Marchioness disaster on the Thames [which] led to the death of 51 people,” explained Nick Sargent, the verger of St Magnus. “A survivor from that disaster used to come and take part in the service. River firemen sometimes fire their water cannons during the service and a wooden cross is thrown into the river.”

An ancient tradition, the service, which now attracts considerable media attention, was revived in 2008.

“We are a traditional parish church and Father Philip [Warner] wanted to restore the ancient festival of blessing the river,” said Sargent, “It is part of the orthodox tradition to bless rivers, and we were the first to make something of it in England.”

This year, more than 78 parishioners from St Magnus took part, together with scores more from Southwark, although numbers can vary from year to year, depending on the weather.

In recent years, the concept of river blessings has also been picked up elsewhere along the Thames. West of London where the river runs through the town of Teddington, the churches of St Mary with St Alban and, St Peter and St Paul introduced their own annual river blessing in 2017.

The Teddington river blessing takes place in July and the service is attended by congregation members from the two churches together with representatives of local groups possessing connections to the river. River themed sermons are given, the choir sings waterside spirituals and the river is officially blessed.  A cross is thrown into the water, and various boat owners sprinkle flowers.

Southwark Cathedral clergy – including, from left, Rev Canon Kathryn Fleming, precentor, Rev Canon Michael Rawson, sub-dean and canon pastor, and Rev Canon Jeremy Clark-King, treasurer – along with others, gathered in the middle of London Bridge. PICTURE: Courtesy of Southwark Cathedral

This year also marked the first time that churches in Wokingham gathered to bless the Thames.  The service was conducted by a congregation from the Prophet Elias Greek Orthodox Church, as part of a ritual to mark both Epiphany and the baptism of Jesus.

Such services form a traditional part of Greek Orthodox tradition, reflecting the importance of all bodies of water: sea, river or lake. While such an event would normally see young people dive into the water to recover the cross in order to receive a special blessing, this was not possible at the Wokingham event due to floods and safety considerations.

The practice of river blessing has also begun to spread beyond the Thames in England. In Manchester, St Melangell’s Orthodox Church holds an annual blessing of the waters on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal, while in Bedford the vicar of St Paul’s Church ceremonially blesses the Great Ouse each March.



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