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2476: St James, Piccadilly, London
St James, Piccadilly
Photo: Steve Cadman and used under license
Mystery Worshipper: Virginia.
The church: St James, Piccadilly, London.
Denomination: Church of England, Diocese of London.
The building: A magnificent Wren church, dating back to 1684, with a gallery and organ case by the famed Baroque woodcarver Grinling Gibbons. The arched ceiling is covered in panelling and supported by Corinthian columns, which divide the interior into a central nave and two side aisles. For this Christmas Eve service, large red and white candles filled the sanctuary and tea lights filled every ledge around the building.
The church: Despite being in one of the wealthiest parts of London, it has an outreach programme to the homeless, who are allowed to take refuge in the church as long as it is open. There are several groups, including Caravan Drop-in for counselling, Julian Group for prayer, and Zen Group. Concerts and recitals are held regularly. The church prides itself on its inclusivity, which is evident in its mission statement: they are "a body which welcomes and celebrates human diversity..." There is a daily market in the church grounds.
The neighbourhood: The church is right on Piccadilly with its expensive shops and the Royal Academy. There appears to be very little residential property in the immediate vicinity. St James' Palace, Clarence House, the Ritz and several London clubs are all less than half a mile away.
The cast: The Revd Lucy Winkett, rector, preached. The celebrant was the Revd Hugh Valentine, assisted by the Revd Lindsay Meader.
The date & time: Christmas Eve, 24 December 2012, 11.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
Christmas Midnight Eucharist.

How full was the building?
The church was built to accommodate about 2000. It was mostly full but only downstairs. Certainly all pews on either side of the main aisle were full and there were lots of people in the side aisles too.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but I had been there for the meditation, which took place immediately beforehand when people were coming in at various times, and there was no formal welcoming.

Was your pew comfortable?
It wouldn't have been, had I not remembered the mental note I made to myself on a previous visit to bring a cushion with me next time!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite busy as people came in, with quite a lot of greeting of one another and exchanging of Christmas wishes.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
By the cantor, who came out to rehearse our singing of the responses: "Hello, everyone. My name is Lil."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a specially printed sheet with all the words of the carols and the liturgy, together with advertisements and details of the church's other activities. There were no Bibles in any of the pews.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, and it was played magnificently.

Did anything distract you?
Coming from a low church background, I couldn't help but keep making comparisons throughout!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Stiff upper lip, generally formal, and high Anglican, with incense and Latin responses led by Lil the cantor. The hymns were all traditional carols, as it was Christmas Eve. A nice and less formal touch was that we were all invited to gather round the altar for the administration of communion.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The Revd Lucy Winkett made her points clearly and with confidence. The sermon was very accessible.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
In Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's attitude was transformed in the end when he saw love in other people. In the same way, our hearts can be transformed by God if we allow him to. As the shepherds and wise men went to Bethlehem to find Jesus, so we can find our own personal Bethlehem in our hearts.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing traditional carols to the accompaniment of a powerfully played organ. The music soared. Also, communion round the altar was pleasingly different, and at the end we were encouraged to form groups of four and put our hands on each other's shoulders whilst the celebrant prayed for us all.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Being used to low Anglican worship, I found the formality and ritual, particularly the incense and the Latin, off-putting and unnecessary. The pervasive smell of incense was cloying at times.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no opportunity to hang around, as it was almost 1.00am and everyone was heading to their beds! But the three clergy were all at the door and shook hands with everyone, as far as I could tell.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
See above.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Because high Anglican worship does nothing for me at all.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Insofar as we were celebrating the coming of Jesus, yes it did. The sermon was encouraging, too. But in general, the high Anglican worship was off-putting.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The candles and tea lights.
 
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