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People of the Thames

Christmas reflections

Rev Sophia Acland

Rev Sophia Acland with the Thames in the background. People of the Thames

After nearly a decade, this will be Rev Sophia Acland’s last Christmas at All Hallows by the Tower in central London, prompting her to reflect on the church’s close links with the river.

“I shall be very sad to leave All Hallows in January, after more than nine years.

“During my time here as Associate Vicar, I have much enjoyed my contacts with river and maritime organisations, not least the PLA.

“My husband, now retired, is doing various voluntary things in Gloucestershire.

“It seems the right time for us to leave London and for me to concentrate on my other church job, up near the source of the river.

“It will be a big wrench.”

Yuletide schedule

“I will be spending Christmas in Yorkshire, near another great waterway, the River Ribble, where I grew up, with my extended family.

“I will be taking a service on Christmas Day, but after that will have time off to relax, which will be lovely after a very busy December in London.

“But I will be back in London for the New Year’s Eve fireworks.”

The spirit of Christmas

“What I most enjoy about Christmas is the feeling of people coming together.

“It’s a wonderful time to connect with people from the local community around All Hallows.

“Many of them have river or seafaring connections, such as the Company of Watermen & Lightermen, and those working in shipping law and insurance.

“We also welcome visitors from far and wide, staying in the many local hotels over the festive period, as well as our regular congregation.

“It’s a lovely time of year. The church is full of music and candlelight.

“I particularly enjoy chatting after services, renewing connections with all sorts of people.”

Commercial break

“I think it’s a pity if people feel under pressure to spend a lot of money at this time of year.

“But I think most of us are aware that there is more to Christmas than this.

“Even the ads for the big supermarkets and shops on TV now emphasise the more important things in life, like kindness, looking out for the lonely and being inclusive and welcoming.”

In tune with modern values

“Many people nowadays would say they do not belong to any particular faith, but I feel Christmas is as relevant as ever.

“Its messages include values we can all share.

“With our news media full of the horrors of war and violence, Christmas speaks to us of light shining in the darkness and not being overcome – of hope and better things ahead.

“At a time when we see so many refugees and asylum seekers making dangerous journeys to seek safety or find a better life, Christmas tells the story of a baby born far from home.”

Sophia Ackland with PLA Staff at launch of UCL Tamesis

2023 highlight

“A stand-out moment for me of the last 12 months was blessing UCL Tamesis for the PLA in June, the UK’s fully-electric port survey vessel.

“I felt honoured to have a go at steering the vessel using a mobile app.

“It is a wonderful piece of equipment which will help research in coastal morphology, carbon reduction, and habitat mapping, and enable safe navigation in previously inaccessible areas.”

Hopes for a greener 2024

“I am an Area Lead for the Church of England in London, working with churches in the City and Westminster to cut carbon emissions.

“My prayer for 2024 is that London be a leader in showing what can be done to combat climate change.

“As a Christian, I believe we have a duty to steward the beautiful planet God has made, and protect those most affected in the developing world, who have done least to cause the climate emergency.”

A focus for remembrance

“All Hallows has many historical links to both the Thames and the sea.

“It’s situated next to the original Pool of London, near the Merchant Navy memorials in Trinity Square Gardens.

“We hold services from time to time commemorating the loss of merchant navy shipping and celebrating the contribution of river workers.

“Recently, the Thames Memorial was installed in the church as a focal point for those who have sadly lost loved ones in the river.

“The unveiling ceremony, led by our Vicar Katherine Hedderly and attended by many members of the river community was beautiful.

“The church also houses the National Maritime Memorial Book.

“We hold an annual service, attended by the families of the bereaved, when new names are added.”

A community hub

“All Hallows’ parish covers both the City of London and Tower Hamlets.

“We try to build links between the two.

“For instance, we held an employability project in our Porch Room, run by the First Love Foundation, who are based in Tower Hamlets.

“This aimed to help former foodbank clients back into work, with input from local City businesses.

“We also hold a twice-yearly education project, which welcomes many primary school children from Tower Hamlets and beyond.

“Earlier this year, we hosted an art exhibition by a local artists’ community in Wapping.

“We are also the official church of the London Marathon, providing a welcome and refreshments to spectators – another highlight of our year each spring.”

A mixed congregation

“For our weekday services, attendees are mainly City workers, or visitors staying in local hotels.

“Our Taize service on Wednesday evenings is very international, attracting people from all over the world while they are in town.

“We sing in about seven languages. Some more successfully than others!

“At weekends, the congregation comes from people living near or in the parish, but also all sorts of people from further away, who have formed a connection with All Hallows over the years.”

Spiritual vocation

“I have always been a churchgoer, but never expected to end up ordained.

“I got drawn into the church more, because I play the organ (rather badly!) and I began to  feel called to do more.

“I wanted to try and communicate the Christian message of hope and share God’s love with others.”

Quick fire:

  • The Thames in three words? History. Trade. Beauty.
  • First memory of the Thames? Beautiful riverside walks near Goring, visiting cousins as a child.
  • Favourite season on the river? Summer. Not least because of the annual Beating of the Bounds ceremony, with local children and the Doggett’s men in their splendid scarlet uniforms.

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