|496: St Matthew, Westminster, London|
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Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: St Matthew, Westminster, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A chapel rebuilt on the site of a much larger Victorian Gothic church of 1851 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, burnt by an arsonist in 1990s. The new worship space was created by architect Donald Buttress within one transept and the crossing of the burnt church while the rest of the site was sold off for an ugly office development. You enter from the street and are confronted by a huge Madonna by Martin Travers in gilded and bronzed papier mache. You must then negotiate an awkward utilitarian corridor that looks like a local health centre before passing through a small door into the church. This is a surprise a lofty and dignified Gothic space which, after the low-key, confused entrance, is a revelation. A huge Bodley reredos dominates the sanctuary. The wall behind it is covered in stencilled wall paintings which are something of a trade mark of Donald Buttress. They are vaguely medieval in feel, but clearly of the 1990s and help to prevent the odd fragments of architecture from which the rebuilt church is made from being overwhelmingly lofty.
The church: Hardly anyone lives in the parish and the worshipping community comprises inner city visitors and people who travel some way to worship here.
The neighbourhood: Until the 19th century this area was apart from a few fashionable houses next to Parliament a marshy riverside slum, as several Peadbody flats and cramped council blocks nearby the church bear witness. Today it has been colonized by Whitehall ministries, government agencies and expensive parliamentary PR firms. The area is completely deserted on Sundays. Not a pedestrian in sight.
The cast: Canon Robin Crawford, a retired priest who acts as an associate at the parish. We were told the vicar was away at a conference of Affirming Catholicism a liberal catholic grouping within the Church of England.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
In spite of the height of the space, at least half the floor area is sanctuary and there are only about 30 seats, with another 30 in a kind of annexe next to the sanctuary. Both nave and annexe were 90 per cent occupied, so if worship gets more popular here they will run out of space!
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Someone in a cassock hurried off as I arrived in the nick of time for the start. I suspect he had been on welcoming duty but doubling up as a server, so was off to assist. Anyone arriving just before the service and those arriving late would not have been met personally and would have found themselves alone in the unattractive corridor of an entrance.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a chair and passed muster.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A reverential silence was kept. Perhaps this was because it was Lent.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. The service sheet, spaciously set out and unusually easy to follow, had everything required, from the words of the hymns to the parish notices.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. This is situated in the nave among the congregation. As there is neither choir nor space for a large congregation this provides welcome support to the singing.
Did anything distract you?
About 10 children, all under about six, were in the annexe beside the sanctuary and were relentlessly noisy. When they tired of calling out for their parents, they clapped and stamped and scraped the chairs around. When that didn't attract the attention they craved they discovered that the iron heating grilles in the floor rattled loudly when stamped on. Worship of this sort is an adult affair and children are not going to like it. Their frustration is to be expected. Yet what are the parents to do? There seemed to be no creche or Sunday school.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Accessible, modern catholic incense and four servers and a mini gospel procession (although it didn't really process anywhere). Nothing was pompous or elaborate for its own sake. The service moved along briskly and was engaging in style, whilst being consciously liturgical.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 The pulpit was not used, and the delivery was informal, serious, accessible. No theological jargon, and relevant to our lives today.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Christ's visit to Jacob's well. The preacher emphasised Christ's key conversation was with a woman and with a Samaritan at that. The church had a special duty to reach out to those who feel alienated and who are ostracised in society, and to those who do not see the need for the Church's message. As evidence of its failure to reach out, he felt there had been a trend, especially among the young, to embrace Islam on account of its certainties, just as in what he called more hippy-ish times they had embraced Buddhism precisely because of its lack of certainty.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The peace. It was neither too huggy/kissy nor too formal. It felt like a spontaneous coming together of the very diverse people assembled in the church, a kind of cascade of human communion in preparation for the divine mysteries of the eucharist which were about to begin.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The noisy children mentioned above.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were warmly greeted and sent on our way by the celebrant and preacher as we left but there appeared to be no coffee or formalized socialising after the service. This may have been because it was Lent. The service sheet advertised an Open Table (presumably a parish lunch) the following Sunday.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't find any.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 If it were not a long tube ride away I should be seriously tempted to adopt it as my church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The thick clouds of incense rising like a prayer through shafts of winter sunlight to the roof far above.