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  1041: St John's, Hyde Park, London

St John's, Hyde Park, London

Mystery Worshipper: Captain Snuggly.
The church: St John's, Hyde Park, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A bizarre combination of beautiful Gothic architecture and building site. Extensive works are being carried out on the building at the moment, so there was scaffolding throughout and a curtain of white plastic across the entire right hand side of the church (see photograph below). The left hand side, which was visible, had some stunning stained glass windows; however two appeared to be later replacements and really didn't fit in with the rest, which was sad.
The church community: Both genders, all ages, and a few ethnic groups were represented. This is pretty unusual in the Church of England these days! Apparently they get a lot of tourists popping in for the occasional service, which explains why my partner (Elastigirl) and I were immediately asked if we spoke English.
The neighbourhood: It's a very odd community, since the church has both incredibly posh expensive houses out the front and a tatty looking tower block round the back. Hyde Park is obviously nearby. There are some very stark contrasts here.
The cast: The president was the vicar, Rev. Stephen Mason. The preacher was the curate, Rev. Mark Pudge.

What was the name of the service?
Parish eucharist.

How full was the building?
About half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
This is a very friendly church. We were engaged in lengthy conversations three times before we managed to get to a pew. As mentioned, within two seconds of entering the building, a member of the congregation came rushing over to say hello and check that we spoke English. Another started talking about knitting (since Elastigirl and I are both knitters, this isn't quite as random as it seems). About five minutes into the service, the vicar asked us all to look around and greet anyone we'd never met before. The friendliness was so striking that I could have sworn they knew we were coming.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a regular wooden pew and was surprisingly comfortable, given that it had no form of padding.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly quiet, with a little chitchat here and there. Of course, we missed most of it by being continually engaged in conversation pretty much up to the start of the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us pray."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was only an order of service sheet, with all the readings and hymns printed in it. No indication of which Bible translation was used, though it looked like the New International Version to me.

What musical instruments were played?
There was a pipe-organ-and-choir arrangement.

Did anything distract you?
Before the children left (to the sound of the Wombles theme tune played beautifully on the organ), the kids sitting on the pew in front of me seemed to find me endlessly fascinating and couldn't take their eyes off me. This was quite distracting. Even more so was their toy fire engine which I wanted to play with. The building had had incredibly powerful incense burned recently, and it was still quite overwhelming. By the end of the service, I was becoming really quite light-headed from it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly run-of-the-mill C of E: not high, not low. Clergy dressed for the occasion, but no crossing ourselves or genuflecting. There was no incense burning at this service, only the smell of it hanging in the air, so God only knows how powerful the stuff must have been at the time.

St John's, Hyde Park, London

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
To be honest, it was a little difficult to follow, as it didn't seem to be about very much. In theory, the theme was "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places." However, the preacher didn't really seem to have a point to make about this. He rambled on a bit about making the church inclusive so that there was room for everyone. He then leapt onto the idea that what was really meant by "Nobody shall come to the Father except by me" was actually quite the reverse. Or something like that – again I couldn't quite follow. I am theologically very liberal, but even I found this sermon wishy-washy.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being a singer myself, I had braced myself for church choral singing at its usual poor standard. I was therefore startled when the choir were extremely good. In particular, there were three soloists of really outstanding ability, able to present liturgical singing at its very best. The effect was utterly stunning. When I made bemused enquiries afterwards I was informed that the soloists were scholars from the Royal College of Music. This explains a lot.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
While the choir were good, the people around us were quite bad at singing. The woman behind seemed to be singing notes almost at random, while suffering from the Over Warble Effect, and the man to our left was croaking tunelessly. I was unfamiliar with the hymns, and so tried to learn them from the people around me, with poor results. There was also an awkward moment when someone asked if Elastigirl and I were related (this being the C of E, you're never sure if people will clasp same-sex couples to their bosom or burn you at the stake, so we mumbled a quick "no" and stared at the floor).

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
We prayed for the Spirit to lead the new Pope on the day of his inauguration and into the future. We also prayed for both the politicians and the voters to be swayed by God's will in the upcoming election (though no particular parties were mentioned). Then there were the regular prayers for the sick and those in need, etc.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I wasn't given the chance. Within five seconds the vicar came up to say hello and tell us how nice it was to see us. When he had to dash off to the annual parochial meeting, he grabbed a young couple and introduced us. Everyone was extremely friendly and interested in us. In fact, it got rather awkward as they got more and more curious about why we were worshipping so far from home, and we struggled to maintain our cover.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I'm used to pond slime instant church coffee, so I was amazed when the coffee given to me was the most delicious filter coffee I'd ever tasted, with fresh cream on hand. So much so that I had to ask what brand it was. I was directed to a little independent coffee retailer just round the corner. Even thinking about that coffee now makes my mouth water. Elastigirl and I also shared a substantial wedge of very scrummy coffee and walnut cake. The refreshments really were top-notch.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I really liked this place. If it weren't too far to travel every week, and if I didn't love my own church dearly, I would be very happy to make this my regular church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely. It had a spiritual feel to it, gorgeous singing, a real sense of friendship and community, and great coffee. Everything a church should have, IMHO.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The coffee. No doubt about it. Still wondering if the shop does mail order. The service was good, but the coffee was better.
 
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