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Meeting the Reverend Simon Grigg and his husband Paul Haugen is like sitting through a particularly flamboyant musical. Swapping lines and finishing off each other’s sentences, they harmonise perfectly.
Grigg, the vicar of St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden – known as the actors’ church – is the shouty extrovert, full of anecdotes and gleeful name drops. Haugen, an executive at PR agency Fleishman Hillard, the “straight man” drily quipping from the corner.
The story of how they met is worth replaying.
Grigg: “We met 17 years ago.”
Haugen: “It was 2002 – 16 years ago. It was February; it was cold
Grigg: “It was January…hang on, there’s a song there somewhere…”
They’re hamming it up, of course, but you can tell they’re a well-rehearsed double act. Sixteen years – or is it 17? – will do that for a couple.
Grigg has been vicar of St Paul’s since 2006. Situated in the centre of London, on the piazza of the city’s famous Covent Garden market, the church serves a particularly unique congregation of locals, tourists and the acting community.
Naturally – given Grigg’s background as an actor himself – “I’ve been acting since I was a child; doing anything that would pay me” – we start with the glamour. Alongside his duties at St Paul’s, he also acts as chaplain to the Garrick Theatre, recently host to Hollywood actor Matt Damon.
“He was starring in [the play] This is Our Youth,” explains Grigg, picking up the story. “He is SUCH a nice guy. And soooo gorgeous. I once came into his dressing room and he was there in only a towel. I said to myself: ‘Must keep eye contact. Must not look down.’”
You did though, didn’t you? I interject. “Of course! He suggested going for a pint after the show and I said, ‘You can’t – you’re Matt Damon!’ But he put on a baseball cap and, more to the point, he turned off that Matt Damon thing – and we sat in the pub for two hours and no one noticed.”
Haugen is looking on indulgently at this point. He’s heard these stories many times before. His own background, though, could not be more different. Growing up in College Station, Texas, he arrived in London on the day the UK elected Tony Blair as prime minister – the heady days of Britpop back in 1997.
Or as Grigg remembers it, “The year we last won the Eurovision Song Contest.”
Haugen has worked steadily for a number of PR agencies, so I was keen to explore if there had been an initial clash of personalities when they first met – and Haugen realised he was meeting the Church of England as well as Grigg.
“No, no, no – you’re not as he lies to you,” Haugen says, tongue firmly in cheek. “He deceives you…he did not tell me [voice goes up several octaves] the whoooooole truth!”
“For the first few days!” Grigg shouts from across the kitchen.
“For four weeks!” Haugen bats back. “He said he did social work."
The truth finally came out over dinner a few weeks later, but Grigg shrugged it off. “I grew up going to church,” he says now. “I was a boring Lutheran.”
But life isn’t all a whirl of Harry Potter premieres and awards parties. Running an inner-city church comes with its own challenges – of finances, homelessness in the local area and simply operating a Grade 1-listed building that hosted 428 events last year.
It also comes – as does the church-owned flat – with a time limit. The Church of England requires its clergy to retire at 70. Grigg is 57; Haugen, 58. When the time finally comes to hang up the dog collar, the pair – who have always lived apart – are looking into moving abroad.
“When I retire, I lose the shop – I lose the flat,” Grigg shrugs. He resolutely does not want to rise within the church. But, for the time being, worries for the future are far from his mind.
As he says himself: “I’ve probably got the best job in the Church of England anyway.”
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