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  1054: Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London

Westminster Abbey, Westminster, London

Mystery Worshipper: Blessed Percy.
The church: The Collegiate Church of St Peter, Westminster, commonly known as Westminster Abbey, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: A huge 13th-16th-century Gothic church, the burial place of King Edward the Confessor and many other British monarchs and luminaries, including Geoffrey Chaucer. It has been the backdrop, in its various architectural forms, to every coronation since 1066, and many other state occasions besides.
The church: The abbey is a collegiate church, having in fact been dissolved as a monastic foundation during the Reformation of the 16th century. A collegiate church is governed by a chapter, or college, of canons. The abbey is also a royal peculiar: it is the personal property of the Sovereign, and is therefore not subject to the authority of the Church of England hierarchy.
The neighbourhood: The abbey nestles in the heart of British government, just across the road from the Palace of Westminster and surrounded by government buildings. This is also one of the busiest tourist areas in the capital, and the abbey is one of the main attractions, dealing with about 1 million paying visitors per year, from whom it receives around 80 per cent of its income.
The cast: The preacher was Rev. Roy Searle, president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain; the organist and master of the choristers was James O'Donnell. The other clergy and the assistant organist were unnamed.

What was the name of the service?
Choral evensong.

How full was the building?
Only the choir of the abbey is used at evensong, which is a so-called choir office. The choir stalls were pretty full, and seating in the transepts was also being used.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A scarlet-gowned steward showed us in politely, where his colleagues took over, indicating our way with a wave of the hand and a "Good evening".

Was your pew comfortable?
Choir stalls aren't known for their comfort, and these were no exception. But the quality of the worship soon made me forget the less-than-luxurious seating!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, reverential and expectant; the organist was playing the quiet, slow movement of a Bach trio sonata when I arrived.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion", the first line of a choral introit by Adrian Batten (c.1585-1637).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None: there was a stiff card bearing the order for choral evensong (a shortened version of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer order for evening prayer), and a leaflet containing the two hymns and other material proper to the day. The Bible translation used was the New Revised Standard Version.

What musical instruments were played?
The abbey's five-manual Harrison & Harrison pipe organ, and a little continuo organ on wheels, which was used for the canticles of the Fifth Service of Thomas Tomkins (1573-1656).

Did anything distract you?
All sorts of things: the verging to and fro of the reader and preacher; the assistant organist coming down from the great choir-screen to play the little continuo organ in front of the gawping tourists; trying to identify the various academic hoods worn by the clergy and choir.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It doesn't come much more stiff-upper-lip than this! It was quite strictly Book of Common Prayer, and the liturgy proceeded unannounced throughout, though the service was shortened by the removal of some of the penitential material at the beginning.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes – if only all sermons were so brief and to the point!

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – He was clear, measured and concise, without appearing hurried.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The need for good leadership in the modern world, for the sensible and moral use of power, and for leaders to recognise that their power comes ultimately from God. This was clearly timed to coincide with the general election campaign, and took its inspiration from the day's Old Testament lesson, Zechariah 4:1-10.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music and ceremonial, the Book of Common Prayer language, and a surprise meeting with a friend at the end of the service.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Hardly hellish, but we were crammed rather tightly into the choistalls among the many tourists. And I do wish they wouldn't use the oh-so-PC New Revised Standard Version Bible translation for traditional-language services. Whatever its scholarly and other merits, it is quite incongruous in this situation.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
The standard intercessory prayers were used, so the Queen and the royal family were mentioned, and it was asked that the nation be "godly and quietly governed". I love that phrase!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of hanging around at the abbey! There is a definite feeling of being expected to leave as quickly as possible, which is conveyed very politely. This slight hurry is understandable, considering their busy schedule of events.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee at the abbey? You must be joking! There are a couple of coffee stalls in the grounds, though.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I enjoyed the service thoroughly, but I prefer something just a little higher up the candle, with a solemn evensong, say, at least occasionally, so I can get my incense fix! I would also like to feel a greater sense of community among the congregation. That said, there are times when it is nice to be anonymous in church... Certainly, such worship doesn't encroach too much upon the personal space of the doubter or seeker of faith who just wants to be left alone to figure things out, and to allow the beauty of it all to wash over him or her without commitment. This is an important aspect of so-called stiff-upper-lip worship which I think deserves to be recognised more widely.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Meeting my friend while listening to the organ postlude.
 
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