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|2056: St Mary
Abbots, Kensington, London
Photo: John Salmon
St Mary Abbots, Kensington, London.
Church of England, Diocese
St Mary Abbots has, at 278 feet, the tallest spire in London.
It's a Victorian Gothic landmark, built in 1872 by the pre-eminent
architect of the time and place, Sir George Gilbert Scott, toward
the end of his career. Sadly for him, he didn't live to see
the spire, but the work was completed by his son. I approached
from the southeast corner, which involves walking through a
long mood-setting cloister. It stands on sacred ground – there
has been a church dedicated to St Mary on this site since the
13th century. This is the fourth church building, each one larger
than its predecessor, and many artifacts from the previous churches
are retained, including memorial plaques on the wall of a side
chapel and some of the ten bells. There's a crossing in the
nave, with a functional chapel in the north transept, while
the south side appears less used. Behind that crossing, doors
open to the cloistered walkway on the south side and a lane
on the north. The west door leads to the church schoolyard,
and all the doors were open on the night I was there. The nave
is tall, long and narrow, with two rows of pews running the
length of it, interrupted by the crossing between the doors,
behind the actual crossing. A shorter set of pews in the north
chapel, which is dedicated to St Paul, give a feeling of elbow
room in the right place. The high windows are full of stained
glass, which makes it a dim old Victorian church, but I found
it more prayerful than gloomy, and there is a lot of glittering
gold mosaic in the reredos. The overall effect is impressive,
like a small cathedral.
There are at least three services every day of the week and
five on Sunday, according to the newsletter, so it not only
looks like a cathedral, it acts like one too. As the Mother
Church of Kensington, it has strong links with several local
churches and the parish includes St Philips, Earl's Court, and
Christ Church Kensington. The nearby St Mary Abbots Centre has
theatre, reception and meeting rooms to hire, (but the reception
after the service I attended took place in the attached school
hall). They run seasonal courses (Lent, Advent, etc.) and have
a long-running book club. They often donate the entire collection
to some charitable cause. The beneficiary of the collection
from the service I attended was the United Society for the Propagation
of the Gospel, and the newsletter indicated that a previous
Sunday's collections (all five of them) went to the aid of the
victims of the recent flood disaster in Pakistan. A glance at
Google images reveals that the current Prime Minister, David
Cameron, attends with his family. Princess Diana was a "member
of the parish", living in nearby Kensington Palace, and
St Mary Abbots held a massive memorial service for her. There
is a highly rated primary school, which holds a service in the
church every Thursday during term time, and four age-levels
of Sunday school. Lots of young families attend the church.
(Draw your own dots.)
Kensington is a very "good" London address. It's rich.
I mean, wealthy. No rundown or boarded up shops around here,
but up-market boutiques, fashionable restaurants, expensive
apartments and the ubiquitous coffee house chains. There isn't
a particular abundance of pubs near the busy corner on which
the church stands, strangely. Kensington Gardens, the western
portion of London's Hyde Park, is a diamond ring's throw away.
The Royal Albert Hall is within walking distance, as is the
Holland Park Opera. It's bounded by Notting Hill, Earl's Court
and Knightsbridge, so one isn't in any danger of wandering into
the slums. Therefore, St Mary Abbots attracts a well-heeled
congregation and as such has a bit of a reputation for exclusivity,
but that might say more about the people who feel excluded than
the regular worshippers. The Royal Borough of Kensington and
Chelsea is the most densely populated place in Britain, and
today probably hosts citizens of every nation in the world,
either as residents or tourists.
The Very Revd Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey, preached.
The Revd Gillean Craig, Vicar of Kensington, celebrated. There
were four other clergy in attendance but I didn't get all their
names and they didn't have "speaking" parts, except
for the Revd Gareth Wardell, who deaconed. There were two acolytes,
and an adult choir. The director of music, Mark Uglow, played
The date & time:
Wednesday, 8 September 2010, 7.00pm.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn Eucharist of the Feast of the Nativity of The Blessed
Virgin Mary. This is the church's patronal festival, and my
inspiration for this report was to do a 10-year update on the
MW report that was filed ten years ago on this church.
How full was the building?
Maybe half full, but it was a weekday evening! All of the pews in the front half of the nave were well populated. It was nice that there wasn't one of those five-row Anglican gaps at the front. Behind the crossing, the numbers thinned out, but it was still respectable. I would say upwards of a hundred worshippers, plus the clergy and choir.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, a woman welcomed me graciously and gave me the hymnbook and order of service booklet.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was just a pew, with a kneeler hanging on a hook. But there was plenty of space and enough stand-sit-kneel action not to get a numb bum.
How would you describe the pre-service
The organ was playing and it was quietly reverent. People might have been talking quietly to the person beside them, or not, but there was no loud chatter or moving around meeting and greeting.
What were the exact opening words of the
The choir assembled at the back of the church. Father Gillean
came to the lectern and said a few words of welcome: first to
the guest preacher, whom he described as an old friend, followed
by a special welcome to visitors. The choir then sang the introit
motet ("Sing joyfully" – Byrd), we all sang the introit hymn
as the choir and clergy processed to their places, and then
the actual service began with the words: "In the name of
the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit".
What books did the congregation use during the
A special order of service booklet and The New English Hymnal.
This is the same hymnbook as they were using ten years ago,
and my copy had been repaired with green duct tape – it might
have been the very copy the previous Mystery Worshipper had
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, about which I know nothing but it had an impressive
set of pipes. I presume it is a good one because students from
the Royal College of Music regularly give recitals in the church.
Did anything distract you?
One member of the altar party disappeared. Vanished! I counted them in procession – there were six. When they recessed, there were five. Luckily the service was over by the time I had this crisis of self-doubt about my observational skills!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
It was high church, grand vestments, lots of candles and incense.
A good many people knelt for the prayers. Father Gillean celebrated
the eucharist ad orientem and chanted the eucharistic
prayer in a most majestic voice. The dean and a woman whose
name I didn't get were gloriously vested in floor length copes
of gold with a bit of red – not matching. Two assistant priests
were in matching white and gold chasubles. The one who disappeared
had been more plainly vested, in a white hooded alb like the
two acolytes. After communion, the altar party processed to
a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, spectacularly bedecked
in a ring of white and purple/blue flowers, and recited a solemn
act of dedication involving incense and holy water. They remained
there while the choir sang the Ave Maria. It was all
very formal, but not stiff. Reverent.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Dean Hall started with some jokey material about London churches, which lightened things up, and then launched into the sermon proper in a serious tone. He used notes, but used them well and it didn't detract, though I might have given him a higher score if he'd done it as well without.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Being the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
it was naturally about Mary. Dean Hall spoke briefly about the
Annunciation, specifically about paintings of it, and linked
this to the gospel reading (Luke 1:46-55 – The song of Mary).
I was expecting the predictable lecture about the virtue of
obedience, so I was delighted when he veered off and talked
about how Marian worship is justified in the gospel of St John.
First, at the wedding in Cana, Mary persuades Jesus to take
action, ignoring his protests that his time had not come. Does
she not still intercede for us directly with her son? Secondly,
at the foot of the cross, Jesus puts his mother and the beloved
disciple into each other's care. We are all encouraged to be
that disciple. Mary has maternal care over us.
Which part of the service was like being in
The music was lovely. The choir was excellent and the congregation
was lusty. I mean, we sang lustily. Father Gillean's voice as
he chanted the eucharistic prayer was also very moving. So,
the musical parts!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Well, call me cynical, but all those young families who attend
on Sundays... where were they? There was not one child in the
place. And the congregation was predominantly white – just a
few grains of pepper in the salt. This does not reflect the
cosmopolitan neighbourhood. Father Gillean was expressively,
explicitly welcoming, but is his flock as warm as the shepherd?
And where were all the little lambs?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end, Father Gillean announced that everyone was invited
to stay for refreshments in the school hall. Clergy were stationed
by all the doors, shaking hands and repeating the invitation.
So I went across. But then, nobody spoke to me. When I got brave
and walked up to people, they were nice enough. But it was a
bit awkward. It might be quite different on a Sunday morning.
However, this was a party and people were talking to their friends.
How would you describe the after-service
It was a spread of home-made goodies, mostly, and glasses of wine. Very nice indeed.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 I can't afford to live anywhere near there, so travel issues mean that my attendance could only ever be occasional.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, I was very glad I went. Sophisticated prayer.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I think the sermon will stay with me for a while. And the memory of all the gold mosaic of the reredos, glittering in the dim church.
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