Designed by landscape architect Robert Myers, St James’s Church will exhibit a show garden at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show offering a bold message of hope in a polarised world

Words: Will Moffitt

St James’s Church has long strived to be a place where imagination, courage and hope can flourish. A stone’s throw from Jermyn Street and those sharp tailoring shops, it was brought into being by Sir Christopher Wren in 1684 and consecrated by then Bishop of London, Henry Compton. Since then it has stood the test of time, weathering storms, secularity and German bombing campaigns; dutifully opening its doors to believers and non believers for formal services, counselling and – more recently – drag shows.

In an age where religious institutions often vie to be progressive, St James’s sought to reconcile devout worship with communality and inclusivity before it was popular. It was the first historic church to install photovoltaic panels, and the first central London church to hold funerals and memorials of men who died from AIDS. Its reverend, Lucy Winkett, was one of the first generation of women to be ordained as priests in the Church of England.

This month the trailblazing institution will achieve another milestone, becoming the first place of worship to have a show garden at RHS Chelsea Flower show in recent years. Sponsored by grant-making charity Project Giving Back and designed by award-winning landscape architect Robert Myers, ‘Imagine the World to be Different' seeks to inspire visitors to cherish the earth and embrace transformative change.

Myers’ design draws on concepts such as gathering, refuge, and the importance of restorative green spaces. It celebrates the significance of urban ‘pocket parks' in London and other cities, often connected with historic churchyards, some bearing the scars of wartime bombing yet refusing to yield to destruction. It also references resilient ‘pioneer plants’ like rosebay willow herb that found a foothold in the ruins of St James’s after wartime bombings.

“It’s a story of resilience and nature taking hold in the most difficult circumstances,” Myers tells me. “It’s interesting that those ruderal plants, the survivors if you will, took over [these sites] so quickly.”

The show garden will also include a counselling hut, designed by artist Ivan Morison, referencing the counselling project in the St James’s Church garden which has offered a safe and private space for around 5,000 hours of free drop-in counselling every year since 1982.

“Rather than trying to create a pastiche of exactly what St James’s is, we wanted to create a garden in its own right that had the same ingredients,” Myers explains. A reflective space for moments of community and quiet contemplation, the design is an endorsement for the church and its values. It’s also a valuable fundraising mechanism, supporting efforts to raise £20 million for The Wren Project, a scheme to restore and rejuvenate the historic, Wren-designed church and grounds, and to amplify and increase St James’s extensive social outreach and environmental work.

With the next stage of its evolution in the works Winkett is acutely aware that the church’s history, not just as a religious institution, but a place of open doors and broad minds that have engineered cultural change, can be a blueprint for its future. She references the brave souls who continued to host services in an adjacent room after significant sections of the church building were ravaged by wartime bombing; and the abolitionist and anti-slavery campaigner Quobna Ottobah Cugoano who was baptised in St James’s as an infant in 1757.

Within this context the most important thing is that the RHS Chelsea garden emulates and fosters one of the church’s central philosophies – that talking changes lives. “We think that having a conversation in a green space under a tree means that you’re freer to imagine the world to be different,” Winkett says. “Once you’ve done that you can go back into the world and be the change that you want to see.”

In a fractured, angry world where loud voices and inflammatory rhetoric spread voraciously, Winkett sees gardens and parks that can offer nonjudgmental spaces as fulfilling a vital social function.

“Anything that reminds us that we’re connected across all of the identity differences that we have, that we’re connected to the earth and to one another is incredibly important, because that’s how the world changes in the end,” she says. “We’re one church but we have an imaginative and bold vision of how the world could be.”

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 21 – 25, open to non-members from May 23. To donate to The St James’s Church show garden and Wren project please visit: