An Old Dirty Candle to Transform the Darkness…

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s


Round the corner and down the aisle as you walk under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is the Dean’s Vestry.  On the mantelpiece of the fireplace next to the Dean’s cupboard there’s a small and cheap rectangular tin candleholder, with a dirty old candle about the size of my little finger stuck in it by means of a piece of old newspaper. I’ve often wondered what that candle was about, until a few weeks ago when I was poking around in a room in the cathedral I hadn’t seen before, and found an old guidebook from 1926 which gave me the answer.

On 21st December 1868, the Revd Robert Gregory was installed as a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was in his late 40s, an energetic vicar in south London, and already a noted reformer. His mission was to turn St Paul’s Cathedral from an erratically staffed, dirty, dark, and underused institution into a cathedral fit for the glorious age of Christian faith in Victorian London.

Because he was known to be a reformer, his colleagues wanted nothing to do with him. So, on the longest day of the year, after the evening service had been sung and the few choirboys and singers had left, the Archdeacon of London and the verger accompanied him by the light of that small candle up to the high altar of the cathedral, where he was unceremoniously installed on a single chair.

In the following 22 years as a canon, and for 20 years after that as Dean, Robert Gregory provided much of the driving force that transformed St Paul’s into the institution that we see and know today. He reached a financial settlement with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners that gave the cathedral decades of reasonable financial stability, although it would have been helpful to us if he’d known about inflation! He recruited the reforming organist John Stainer, who got the music into shape using the new choir school to provide well-trained choristers and ensuring that the adult choir actually turned up – for many years there was a weekly disciplinary meeting to try to get the unruly choir, clergy and vergers under control. His energy drove through a decoration scheme for the dome and the quire, culminating in the beautiful mosaics which now adorn the East End of the cathedral. A wonderful reredos behind the altar and a pioneering scheme for splitting the organ into sections were parts of his legacy.

One of Robert Gregory’s final acts was to secure funding from his American friend John Pierpont (JP) Morgan for the installation of electric light in the cathedral. Gregory went from from lighting one candle in the darkness, through perseverance, shared vision, response to public concerns about the inadequacy of the church, and a pioneering engagement in the spiritual and social life of the City of London, to the final triumph of a cathedral blazing with light. In his last few years, policemen helped him across the road from the deanery into the cathedral for daily prayers, as he contemplated the beauty and wonder of a building designed by Christopher Wren and beautified further and made fit for purpose through the vision of himself and others.

In my role as Dean of St Paul’s, I find Robert Gregory an inspiration. I certainly won’t be here for as long as he was, but I believe as he did in the power of vision, particularly shared vision, as we seek to discern what God calls us to do in the service of Jesus Christ, and put it into effect with faith, hope and love. Whether that calling is to us individually, or to us together: remember the power of God’s vision to change us and the church as well as the world.

In an age of change which can feel dark and threatening, with an uncertain future and ongoing conflict, where injustice and unkindness, terror and coercion, discrimination and abuse are all too common – let’s take inspiration from Robert Gregory and what he achieved in the service of Jesus Christ, beginning with a small candle shining in a dark place, and ending in a blaze of light and glory.


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