This summer marked the 20th anniversary of the Primrose Hill Lecture Series. The idea was conceived in 2003 by Robert Atwell, then vicar of St Mary’s, as a means of encouraging discussion on society’s pertinent issues. Since its inception, there have been lectures from the foremost thinkers and writers of our times, including Lionel Shriver, Tony Benn, Alan Bennett, Melvyn Bragg, Jung Chang, Shami Chakrabarti, Paddy Ashdown, Mary Beard, Andrew Marr and Jonathan Miller. The fact that the lectures are held in a Christian church doesn’t mean other faiths don’t have a voice. Rabbi Lionel Blue has been a speaker, and Tariq Ali gave a lecture on Islam.
The first ever series consisted of Joan Bakewell speaking on religion and belief in Britain today, Fiona Bruce on the scenes behind the BBC programme Crimewatch, Shelley von Strunckel on how compatible astrology is with Christianity, George Alagiah on hope after war, and Nicholas Crane on how maps distort our view of the world. The theme which linked all these talks was ‘Virtues and Vices: Perspectives on our world’. Each consecutive year employed a theme; the following year saw ‘Trust and Betrayal: Issues in Contemporary Life’ and featured Simon Jenkins, who was gratefully invited back in 2021 to give a talk on Europe’s Best Cathedrals.
In a recent article in The Guardian, Simon Jenkins praised St Mary’s and the lecture series, ‘London’s St Mary’s Primrose Hill boasts a homeless shelter, a much-needed youth club, a children’s dance centre, a lecture series, a tearoom, a design fair and even a real ale brewery. It fills the gaps in an increasingly dilapidated welfare state.’
The distinguished speakers generally receive no fee for their appearance. All the proceeds go to St Mary’s and the vitally important outreach work they carry out there, such as the cold weather shelter and the youthwork at Mary’s Centre.
The talks are followed by question-and-answer sessions which open up the opportunity for debate. Primrose Hill Books sell copies of the speakers’ books, which can then be signed.
The lectures are currently sponsored by Lume, just across the road from the church, and Earth in Kentish Town, which kindly supply snacks. This ensures the events are convivial, as well as thought-provoking!
During the pandemic, the lecture committee had to adapt the technology to make the series accessible online. This format has been carried forward, so those booking a ticket can either attend the event in person, or watch online from the comfort of their home. This also means the talks can attract a wider audience.
The 2023 series was held in June and the speakers were Neil Mullarkey, Ben Macintyre in conversation with Kate Bingham and Hannah Barnes in conversation with Libby Wiener.