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'O Camel You Faithful' as live animal procession takes over West London

by Ros Mayfield

Residents in West London have been treated to a live re-enactment of the Wise Men's journey to Jesus, as thousands gathered to mark the start of Advent.

Three real-life camels meandered through the streets of Fulham as part of a local church's Christmas procession.

Donkeys and sheep are always in high demand for Nativity preparations across the country, but early in 2023, Father Ross Gunderson at St Etheldreda’s church wanted to do something a bit different.

The giant hump-backed animals, each carrying a royal-looking rider, towered over the crowds as they wandered through Fulham's streets.  Expert camel guides in shepherds' outfits walked alongside each one, followed by acolytes, congregants and clergy.

Months of planning and research paid off, and crowds of onlookers thronged the pavements as the procession made its way from the church, through Bishop’s Park and past the town's Premier League football stadium in a re-enactment of the Wise Men's journey accompanied by Fr Ross and the church's two curates, Rev Briony Mackie and Rev Eva Webb-Sheen.

Several stars were visible in the night sky in the capital, although Fr Ross says they didn't choose a specific one to follow.

The event involved careful logistics and coordination with a large number of volunteers.  The specific route was agreed way in advance with the Metropolitan police and local authorities, including animal welfare, who needed to ensure that the camels were properly looked after.   Volunteers from St John's ambulance were also on hand to help.

After stopping en route at the local school, the crowds then returned to the church for some well-known Christmas carols, joined by musicians from Fulham Brass Band, with music Director Russell Swallow and the church's community choir. 

Reflecting on the night's activities, Father Ross told Premier he was overwhelmed, but delighted that the idea proved as popular as it did.  He described it as a "massive success", with a "breathtaking turnout", which he attributed to the fantastic support team at the church.

Curate Briony Mackie, said: “It was a joy to welcome so many people to usher in the start of Advent at St Etheldreda’s. As an Anglo-Catholic plant St Eth's recognises the importance of being outward facing and showing the public what it means to be the presence of Christ in the Parish in which they serve.

"This is such a special time of year for so many people across London, and the world. I hope everyone found it as fun to take part in as we did."

Last year's procession, which included a donkey, led to at least one new family joining the church and getting baptised and confirmed.  Father Ross says he's wants to increase projects that "take church outside the walls", and hopes to see more of St Ethelreda's activities taking place in the open air, as a way of making church more "visible" and "normal" in the local community.

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