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  1051: St Pancras New Church, Euston, London

St Pancras New Church, Euston, London

Mystery Worshipper: Galgallo.
The church: St Pancras New Church, Euston Road, Euston, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: An extravagant cuboid with six columns on the front and a wedding cake tower on top. So endeth the Philistine summary. This is a building that is trying very hard to be a Roman temple. In fact, that was the plan... the inspiration for the design of the church is the Ionic Temple of the Erectheum on the Acropolis. Wonder what St Paul would make of it? It was consecrated for the worship of God on 7th May 1822, and according to the church's website, was the most expensive church to be built in London since the rebuilding of St Paul's Cathedral. Probably best to keep quiet about that as well. It is visually stunning, both outside and in, with columns, columns everywhere... small, medium and large. If you want columns, they've got 'em.
The church community: St Pancras Church is musically focused, with free lunchtime recitals, as well as being the location for the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. If the vicar knows his audience, then his editorial in the parish magazine reveals something about the congregation. He discusses themes from War and Peace, having just read it for the third time himself, and is fond of recommending that everyone should read it before they die. The church is reviving the old custom of "beating the bounds", which is said to go back to pagan times. In its Christian form, the parishoners perambulate around the parish boundaries, pausing to pray at key locations. Whether they will revive the custom of young boys being held upside down and having their heads bumped on a marker stone, or of being beaten with willow wands, is not yet certain. The church belongs to inclusivechurch.net, which has a statement of belief that declares the gospel as "Good News for people regardless of their gender, race or sexual orientation".
The neighbourhood: Euston station is diagonally opposite the church, although this may not count as interesting. The British Library and the University of London are close by. There are 6,000 residents in the parish, and one third of them are students. Towards the end of communion, I'm sure I saw some tourists look in at the back of the church (well, they were wearing dark sunglasses). The church is in that sort of zone.
The cast: Rev. Prebendary Paul Hawkins was the preacher, Rev. Elaine Dando was the celebrant, and there were four other robed accomplices, all of whom sat in the choir stalls at the front.

What was the name of the service?
10am parish eucharist.

How full was the building?
The building is very large, with surrounding balcony to boot. Apparently it was designed for preaching. So the 30 or so people that were there (eventually), made only a medium dent in the space available. This was helped a bit by the "one pew for you, one pew for me" practice so beloved of Anglicans.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Hello and handshake, as we were handed a hymn book and two service leaflets. No one spoke to us when we sat down, or asked us questions during the peace. Not that we minded this; after all, we're British.

Was your pew comfortable?
Traditional wooden pews, but the service was only an hour long, so we managed. Getting out at the end was more difficult, as each pew had a little door on a latch, and ours had clicked shut. Discreet shoving was required.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reasonably quiet and reverential; people were not chatting. The only sound was that of people coming in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth and the life'. In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit." The omission of the second part of the verse (where Jesus continues, "No one comes to the Father except by me") may have been significant.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A green New English Hymnal, with lilac and yellow service sheets, including the three lengthy Bible readings. There were no pew Bibles.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and four choristers, situated behind the congregation, so they had the element of surprise. I'm not much of a musician, but it sounded fantastic. How do four singers sound like a full-blooded choir? I think the organ may be something special, having originally been built in 1856 for the New Music Hall in Birmingham, and through divers means has ended up in St Pancras Church.

Did anything distract you?
Two mobile phones went off, and there was some noise from small children moving around at the back, but they weren't really distractions. Perhaps the sheer amount of space swallowed up the noise. The most distracting thing was the profusion of things to count, particularly columns, and also squares on the ceiling.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Bells, but no smells. And candles. Eleven, as we both counted. Musically accomplished, with sung sections of the liturgy. The peace was quite friendly, almost an intermission. There was one modern hymn, the host was elevated, the Gospel was read in the midst of the congregation (with candles), and a handbell was rung at the eucharist. Overall, quite high church, but not that formal, particularly given the freedom of small children to wander during the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Rev. Hawkins stood at pew level, near to the congregation, despite a very fancy spiral staircase pulpit being available. He was noteable for his lack of eccentricities.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Rev. Hawkins drew out themes from the day's reading, John 14:1-14. In summary: Jesus is the way to God, but not in an exclusive sense. Jesus is for all... after all, Jesus talks about "other sheep that do not belong to this fold" (John 10:16), and John 1:9 speaks of how the light that is coming into the world is for everyone. The Father will welcome whatever is good, honourable and true into his presence. This was applied to other faiths, as the vicar gave an example of being to invited to pray for a sick Iraqi Muslim child. Afterwards, the father of the child told the vicar that God was for everyone. The universality of the work of Christ is deeply reassuring. There are many mansions in his Father's house, leading to some strange and/or comic meetings. The client and the prostitute will meet again; the neighbours who shouted at each other will be together. If we want to know what God is like, as Thomas asked, God is Christ-like and cross-shaped. The sermon underscored the church's inclusive approach, given the pivotal nature of this passage in Christian self-understanding. As an apprentice theologian myself, this sermon was like a red rag to a bull. There were some things to say "amen" to, but much that left me feeling frustrated. As a statement of the church's theology, which sounded very like universalism (or "Everyone's in!" as Desmond Tutu puts it), it did so in headline style. As an exposition of scripture, there was very little to show how this related to John chapter 14. Sermons may not often be the place for in-depth theological analysis, but given the size of the statements made, there needed to be a more convincing exposition.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Most of the service; we enjoyed the change. The choir doing a passable impression of a heavenly host; the beautiful space of the building; the sense of taking God seriously.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That such a large building contained so few people. Also parts of the sermon, which seemed to reflect more of the prevailing ideological trends in society, rather than the awkward sayings of Jesus.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
There was mention of the London Assembly, and also the scripted prayers for the royal family. No mention of the general election.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Coffee was served and we were talked to pronto. I was initially engaged in conversation by an elderly lady in red, and my partner by the curate. Lady in red was bemoaning the lack of a Mystery Worshipper at the service, as she had heard about it on the news. She rather half-heartedly asked me if it was I... I demurred. I think she was expecting a Mystery Worshipper in cowboy hat and mask, as advertised. The curate was very friendly and engaged in a lengthy conversation with us both. She established rather too many points of contact, which put our secret identity under strain. Then lady in red came up and started asking the curate about the Mystery Worshipper at length. Either the curate had no idea about the Mystery Worshipper, or she just realised what was cricket, and said nothing. The buzz of chatter around us suggested that this is quite a friendly place.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Not bad, but nothing special, although served in proper cups and hot. Paid for on a donation basis. No cakes, but cheese biscuits rather randomly provided.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Quite enjoyed the high church worship, and the friendly welcome at the end was promising. I would struggle, however, with being part of such a small congregation. Not being very church music orientated, I probably wouldn't make the most of that aspect either. The very short sermon would take some getting used to, and I would find it difficult to attend a church with the theological stance as projected in this service.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, the music, liturgy and space all pointed one way.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The columns, all 32 of them.
 
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