St Paul's Institute

Back to the Future?

by Barbara Ridpath

Posted: 21 May 2018

These last four years have flown by. I have rarely learned so much so quickly. I arrived at St Paul's Cathedral with only the most rudimentary knowledge of my faith, and no knowledge at all of how a cathedral works. My career had been spent almost exclusively in finance in the private sector and suddenly I was to try and be the bridge between the Cathedral and the City as Director of the St Paul's Institute. It was a terrific opportunity to give something back to a city and a community that had so generously given to me, as well as to be paid to learn more about my faith.

The Institute was the responsibility of the Canon Chancellor and traditionally its remit had changed each time the Canon Chancellor changed. The intention with the appointment of the first lay director was to give the Institute an underlying structure and stability that could withstand changes in senior appointments, and to permit it to begin to build a strategy and programme of engagement and partnership.

This was always going to be a challenge as there were as many different desires for the Institute as there were constituents; the ambitions were huge and the means were modest. I like to think we punched above our weight.

We put together a strategy that centred upon core Christian values of equality, stewardship and the common good that were also comprehensible to people of different faiths or no faith. We experimented. And we occasionally ruffled some feathers. Hopefully, we did a little good along the way. Here are just a few things we learned:

  • The Institute could be a safe space to convene people of different opinions but it worked best when it filled a role that no one else could, either because of its safety, or because it came at a subject from a faith-based perspective. There are a huge variety of events around London on all subjects at all times of day or night. Picking the topics well was critical.
  • For an organisation of limited means, the most effective way to work was as a catalyst. We got people thinking and raised awareness and encouraged others to act. Such was the case with much of our thematic work such as Women in Leadership and JustWater.
  • Working with partners halves the cost and doubles the audience. We learned to work with partners wherever we could. It was more creative, and more fun, and spread our message faster.
  • Experimentation was at the heart of much of what we did, with venues, fundraising, and formats. A succession of talking heads can be dull if that's all there is. Giving the audience a chance to mingle and talk with each other afterwards over displays or with a drink helped generate ideas and continue the conversation and make the participants feel valued. Private roundtables with public summaries appealed to senior City figures but permitted their knowledge to be shared with a wider audience.
  • We tried to always leave the audience with one concrete thing that they could do to make progress on whatever the subject at hand was, so they left engaged.


We didn't always succeed and we certainly never pleased everyone. But over the course of these four years, the Institute worked with some fabulous partners, Advisory Council members, Associates and supporters who have sustained me and in many cases become good friends.

Shared purpose and shared desire for positive change is what created the terrific community that has motivated, inspired and supported me for the last four years. But contrary to the intention of hiring a Director, the position did not necessarily ensure stability and continuity. Rather it gave the Institute a platform from which to build, because the only constant is change: the world, people and priorities are always to some degree in flux. All strategies need refreshing.

Regular readers of our newsletter will have seen our own shift as we began our Democracy and the Common Good series this spring. The divisions within our society and the polarisation of thinking threaten our very democracy and are wreaking havoc on our communities. How we live together and disagree well, how we respect each other even when we disagree must be our priority.

In addition, London is fortunate to have a new bishop, who the Cathedral and Institute look forward to supporting. Even responsibility for the Institute is changing within the Cathedral. It will come under the guidance of the Revd Canon Tricia Hillas, the Cathedral's Pastor. This should permit the Cathedral to integrate work she does so well on interfaith relations and social justice with the Institute's work on equality, stewardship and the common good at this absolutely critical time.

All of this begs the question of the role of St Paul's Institute. I hope that it can continue to be a safe place where all are welcome and where people can build understanding from disagreement; that it can represent the voice of the voiceless; and that it can provide the inspiration that enables people to be their best selves and to serve others. Long may it thrive.

About this author

Barbara Ridpath is the former director of St Paul's Institute.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.