|517: The Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair, London|
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Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude.
The church: The Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: An 18th century preaching box with a 1726 spire, built when Mayfair was first being laid out. It remains mostly untouched, except for the chancel, which was rebuilt by the celebrated 20th century architect, J.N. Comper. Comper had intended to rebuild the whole chapel in the style of an early Christian basilica in Rome, with giant columns down the nave. Only the chancel got built (money, it seems, is short sometimes, even in Mayfair), and so there is only one pair of giant columns and their entablature, which stops rather abruptly. The rich renaissance altar and chancel behind it are in dramatic contrast to the pleasant but utilitarian 18th century chapel.
The church: The church seems to attract a number of North Americans, and several of the American men were wearing preppie bow ties. The external architecture of the church is reminiscent of so many US churches that this somehow seemed appropriate. Otherwise, there was a youngish mix of adults plus 20 children, who were catered for by a Sunday school. They joined us at communion only.
The neighbourhood: Mayfair is as posh as its Monopoly board reputation, and on Sundays is pretty quiet. Anyone who lives there can afford to spend the weekends in the country, and so the offices are mostly empty. It is even possible to park free of charge near to the chapel on Sunday if you read the signs carefully. I doubt that many of the congregation actually lives locally.
The cast: Fr. Simon Hobbs, Priest in Charge, plus Fr. Michael O'Halloran from the neighbouring Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Farm Street (for the first 15 minutes). A number of servers.
What was the name of the service?
11.00am eucharist on Palm Sunday.
How full was the building?
There were about 50 people, making the downstairs one-third full. The gallery was empty. There were 20 children in the Sunday School.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was someone there to welcome, hand out literature and redirect us to the little park round the corner for the start of Palm Sunday proceedings.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, until one tried to kneel.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
We started in Mount Street Gardens, a sequestered spot overlooked by luxury flats, with Anglican Grosvenor Chapel at one end and the Roman Catholic Farm Street church at the other. For Palm Sunday, congregations from both churches meet in the park for a joint blessing of palms. In the spring sunshine, and with gentle birdsong winging out over the distant roar of London traffic, there was an atmosphere of peace and quiet anticipation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Wonderful though it was, the park setting didn't make things very audible, so I couldn't hear the first words.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Specially printed service sheet (which was clear to follow), plus the New English Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ: an excellent 18th century style instrument that matched the chapel's architecture.
Did anything distract you?
The Roman Catholic and Anglican congregations had met, and I was warmed by the prospect of an ecumenical coming together; the churches are, after all, only a hundred yards from each other. After a glorious Weekes anthem, a Gospel reading and a brief homily (in all of which the clergy shared duties), we abruptly parted company and walked off in diametrically opposite directions. Worse, we sang the same hymn as we went. Singing a hymn in unison when in procession is pretty difficult, even if you are going the same way. When walking away from each other there is no hope. The cacophony that resulted was as distressing as the schismatic parting of ways as we turned our backs on each other and retreated to our respective churches to continue the service. It was a depressingly symbolic moment.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern Catholic, not too much fuss.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
When booking the park for the beginning of the service with the local authority (ironic that this is necessary, I thought, since the park was originally a church graveyard), the man in charge had told the priest that it was OK so long as it was not a political assembly. The preacher went on to assure us that our faith was, in truth, inevitably political and to bemoan the lack of political vigour by the House of Bishops and many in the church. He was supported in his call to outspokenness by the Old Testament reading (Isaiah 50: 4-9). But he didn't make it clear what kinds of political issues we might consider. The only example he gave was the need to ban fox hunting, and he didn't argue this point. I am to the left in politics and am frequently impatient myself with the House of Bishops. But this didn't strike me as either an effective call to arms, or a theologically based critique of the fallenness of our sorry world. My heart was with him, but the argument was thin.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing by the choir: a truly excellent band of just five singers. They gave us a Vittoria mass setting and Bruckner anthem. This being Palm Sunday, the Passion from Mathew was sung (music also by Vittoria). Every word was clear and the drama effortlessly highlighted. No grandstanding by the musicians, just a moving exposition of the Passion story, made more powerful than readings would have been. Vittoria, himself a composer-priest, would surely have approved.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sudden realization in the park that we were about to turn our backs on the Roman Catholic congregation and walk away from each other. Up to that point, I had imagined us to be attending an ecumenical event.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The vicar greeted everyone personally as they left and spoke at length with some. This I appreciated, but as a result the queue for his reception line took rather more than five minutes to clear.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There did not seem to be any coffee. However, on arriving home I saw from the service sheet that there was and that it was to be found in the parish rooms. These must be outside the church, somewhere in the vicinity. However, it was not obvious where they were, nor did anybody either offer directions or extend me an invitation.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 if it were nearer I definitely would.
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 increasingly divergent versions of our hymn as we parted company with the congregation from the Immaculate Conception.