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  1192: St Botolph Without Bishopsgate, London

St Botolph Without Bishopsgate, London

Mystery Worshipper: Vicky Park.
The church: St Botolph Without Bishopsgate, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The current building was completed in 1729, but it is thought that Christian worship has been held on the site since Roman times. The original Saxon church gets a mention as far back as 1247. The current church is aisled and galleried in the classic style and is unique amongst the city churches in having its tower at the east end with the chancel underneath. The building was severely damaged by the IRA bombs of the early 1990s, which led to three and one-half years of restoration work.
The church: It's not a community in the traditional sense. Instead, the congregation consists of workers from nearby offices. The church is open weekdays, with regular services on Wednesday and Thursday lunchtimes. As the church itself states: "We're here to supplement, not replace, the ministry people receive in their home parish church." That said, they run a youth club and an Emmaus course, and you can hire out their netball court in the rather tranquil churchyard.
The neighbourhood: It's on the edge of the City of London, practically next door to Liverpool Street station, opposite Tesco and near a cluster of bus stops en route to the East End. Tower 42, the tallest building in the City of London, and the 41-storey modern office skyscraper known as the Gherkin are also nearby. Needless to say, the area is very busy, noisy and dirty.
The cast: No names were given on the service sheet, but I presume the celebrant was the rector, the Rev. David Paton. He was assisted by two unnamed others.
The date & time: 1 March 2006, 1.10pm.

What was the name of the service?
Ash Wednesday Choral Eucharist.

How full was the building?
Three-quarters full. All seemed to be office workers, between the ages of 30 and 60, equally divided between men and women.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I was confused as to which of two doors I should enter by, and once inside I saw no service sheets. I asked someone where I could find one, but she didn't know either. Finally an official-looking person pointed me to a table that was hidden to one side.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a hard wooden pew, but it wasn't too uncomfortable. The kneelers were nice and plump.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very quiet. I was quite aware that when I got up and asked about the service sheet I was the only person making any noise!

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Now is the healing time decreed" – the first line of the opening hymn. This was followed by the priest saying, "Just as we're here together in Christ, so shall we all return to dust."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was just the hard-to-find service sheet and a booklet entitled The Eucharist.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ.

Did anything distract you?
Lots of people seemed to be fidgeting about during the service, dropping things which then echoed around the building. There also seemed to be a lot going on behind the scenes, such as fiddling with equipment during the readings. The high pulpit blocked my view of the choir.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
We received ashes before mass began, and the service was all "smells and bells" – but it was also down-to-earth and friendly. The priest managed to crack a joke about Gift Aid and seemed to make a real effort to encourage people to come to the church's other events, saying we could come and go as time permitted.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Two-and-a-half minutes, but I don't know if I'd call it a sermon!

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – He had a welcoming chatty style, but sometimes seemed to speed up a bit too much. Maybe this was due to his wanting to finish before everyone had to return to work.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Christian religion has many different signs – including the sign of the cross we'd all just been marked with. He used this to remind us of the importance of Lent.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It seemed like an oasis away from the grimy hustle and bustle of Bishopsgate and work. The choir sang beautifully. It was also great to take part in worship during lunchtime.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not being able to find a service sheet. The first person I asked misheard me (I was whispering as everyone was so silent) and thought I had asked to use the toilet! Also, having to check my watch to make sure I'd get back to work on time.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Along with most other people there, I had to rush back to work as soon as the service ended.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't think there was any, although we were told that sandwiches and tea would be available at their forthcoming lunchtime Emmaus meetings.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – It isn't the sort of church you'd have as your "regular." But it's opened up to me the possiblity of lunchtime worship – I do intend to return.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes! Definitely. I'd never been to a lunchtime service before and wondered what it would be like, thinking it might be the poor relative of a Sunday service. I was wrong!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The number of people coming together out of the grime of the city for such an uplifting service.
 
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