Maybe it’s not what you do . . .

Where we meet and what we say certainly matters, but how we behave in those places often proves instrumental in achieving results

Imagine the fascination of examining the diverse cultures of our world through a study of their chief gathering places. How and why do people come to gather in one location rather than another, and by what means is the record of those gatherings memorialised over time?

The triangulation of ecclesiastical, political, and commercial power invariably explains how most of these places come to be and, almost as inevitably, cease to be. And in recording the moment when those gatherings are brought to an end, how is the moment marked?

In the publishing heartland that evolved between London’s Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral over the best part of the last millennium, there was never to have been a great communal gathering spot in the narrow wyndes and cobbled courts of Fleet Street, nor on the steep banks of the Fleet River that bisected the area on its course from Hampstead to The Thames.

Where people gathered to hear sermons, attend to grand proclamations, and catch up on the community gossip and intrigues of state, was at Paul’s Cross, marked still today by a plaque in the northern precincts of the Cathedral that sheltered the spot from the winds that blew up from the river. And that plaque rewards imagination and thought:

On this plot of ground stood of old ‘Pauls Cross’ whereat amid such scenes of good and evil as make up human affairs the conscience of church and nation through five centuries found public utterance. The first record of it is in 1191 AD. It was rebuilt by Bishop Kemp in 1449 and was finally removed by order of the Long Parliament in 1643.”

In reading up on the background of this intriguing spot, some sources are more attuned to the divisive contentions of religion than are other, more generalist sources. All histories agree in noting that the oratory at Paul’s Cross occasioned riots of various stripes, whether religiously driven or not. Early English bibles were burned here; apprentices fulminating against foreigners rioted here. People died here.

And “amidst such scenes of good and evil” as inspire the wording on today’s plaque, posterity is invited to consider that for almost 500 years, it was the conscience of the church that was finding public utterance. The mildness of the plaque’s description of the eclipsing of the cross by the Puritans is itself worthy of a bemused smile. The cross was “removed”.

Any amount of exercising of conscience can be tolerated, it seems, so long as the utterances are not compromised by the filters of idolatry. In another time and another place, perhaps a little idolatry would have gone a long way. Ella Fitzgerald would recognize the dynamic:

“Oh, it ’tain’t what you do, it’s the place that you do it. ‘Tain’t what you do, it’s the time that you do it. ‘Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results.”