For the first few seconds there was absolute silence. Then an entire Notting Hill street exploded with cheers and wolf whistles. As it turns out, the excitement wasn’t directed at a passing star or, more likely these days, a frontline medical worker, but rather a local vicar.
When Britain entered lockdown in March, Old Etonian Pat Allerton, 41, figured, “We can’t get out, so maybe the Church should go to the people. We had some speakers in our church and the cables for a microphone—along with a long extension cord to plug it all in.” In a moment of extraordinary challenge, Allerton sought to deliver a simple message, which he took to the streets of London in five-minute sessions. After playing “Amazing Grace” on his homemade sound system, he invited residents to join him in socially distanced prayer. “I’ve had hundreds of messages,” explains Allerton. “I’ve heard from people of the Jewish faith, from Muslims. I’ve heard from atheists and agnostics.”
One particularly meaningful note came from a vexed Londoner looking to put an end to the disturbance outside her window: “I came down to the street to see what I could do about the noise, as my husband was on a conference call and was getting angry. What happened instead was me standing on the street with tears in my eyes.”
“I’ve heard from people of the Jewish faith, from Muslims. I’ve heard from atheists and agnostics.”
A career in the clergy wasn’t always what Allerton envisioned. Religion is something he found in his 20s, and Allerton admits that in his teen years studying at Eton he “enjoyed a beer and a joint.” It wasn’t a family calling, either. “I didn’t grow up in a Christian home or a churchgoing family. So it was all pretty alien to me and irrelevant to me—faith,” he says. “But then I just started asking the bigger questions of life.”
Allerton has now made 64 individual stops around London. Beyond Notting Hill, the priest has visited Chelsea, Kensington, the City of Westminster, Wandsworth, and Shepherd’s Bush, including multiple hospitals, a nursing home, and a prison. Religion, to Allerton, has always been about adapting quickly. “The Church needs to modernize, and recognize that not everyone’s coming through church doors,” he says. (This was true even before the coronavirus.) “So it’s important that we think of how we reach people. The message always stays the same. But the medium for communicating that message needs to change. And so I’m all for innovation.”
Speaking of moving with the times, Allerton—tall, muscular, with pale-blue eyes—jokes that the reason he’s been labeled the “hot priest,” a nod to Andrew Scott’s tantalizing character in the second season of Fleabag, is simply because he doesn’t fit the expected mold of “an old man in his 70s with a bald head and a tweed jacket.”
Most recently, after blasting out Judy Collins’s version of “Amazing Grace” during one of his street services, Allerton contacted the Grammy-winning singer. Having originally recorded the song in 1970 at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York as a peaceful demonstration against the Vietnam War, Collins decided, 50 years later, that it was time for an update. The singer went on to re-release her version of the song as a single—but this time adding a global choir.
Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for Air Mail