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  1073: St James, Piccadilly, London

St James, Piccadilly, London

Mystery Worshipper: Ambrosia.
The church: St James, Piccadilly, London.
Denomination: Church of England.
The building: The church was built in 1684 by Christopher Wren. It is very plain and elegant, built in brick with Portland stone details. Inside, the nave and chancel are all in one with a single vaulted ceiling.
The church community: The church prides itself on being diverse and inclusive, including "people of any faith or none", with emphasis on the political and ecological as well as "the sacred in life". Somewhere along the way they have embraced creation theology, with God as creator, and redemption as freeing us to be what we are meant to be. They seek "to be changed by God's generosity rather than limited by the Church's periodic meanness". They "understand the Bible in the light of what this age knows and biblical writers did not, and could not, know", which is now a rather dated, relativist approach. Unfortunately, by not identifying Christ as the way (offering chakra breathing prayer, Zen meditation, and hosting talks on spiritualism, Sufi mysticism, shamanism and the Universe that adores us) the impression is an uneasiness with traditional Christology. Is Jesus God and Saviour, or, Arian-like, a special God-filled person who helps us towards being our true selves? The latter was rather the impression given by the sermon.
The neighbourhood: Piccadilly is a smart and expensive street in central London with Fortnum and Mason, the Ritz Hotel and the Royal Academy nearby. Not residential, but St James' congregation comes from all over London and beyond.
The cast: Clergy: Charles Hedley, rector; Hugh Valentine, who celebrated; Meg Johnson, being licensed; William Jacob, archdeacon, introduced as "Bill". Four servers, a verger, organist Malcolm Hicks and cantor Elizabeth Lil.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.

What was the name of the service?
Parish eucharist, Common Worship order one, with licensing of the Revd Meg Johnson and laying on of hands.

How full was the building?
The service started at 11.00am, but the two central blocks of seats were only about a quarter full. They were full-ish by 11.15, with probably 80-100 people. Every time someone came in late, the heavy glass doors creaked loudly. There was no one in the galleries or side blocks of seats.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I and a couple in front of me waited to get beyond the door as the service sheet dispenser was chatting. "A service sheet for you!" she said gaily. After the opening procession and hymn, we introduced ourselves by name to our neighbours. At the peace, the celebrant asked if any visitors wanted to identify themselves. He then added that tea and coffee were available afterwards. To a woman near me he said, not peace, but, "You've done wonders with that room!"

Was your pew comfortable?
Pews were high-backed wooden benches and reasonably comfortable. The floor is stone and there were no kneelers visible, although at various points we were invited to kneel.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A lot of rushing about, chatting and diary-comparing. If it were not for the organ playing it could have been people waiting to start a business meeting. There was a coffee point top left beside the sanctuary, and someone was completing preparations as we waited for the service to begin. The cantor came out at 10.55 and tried to get everyone practising some responses, but without success. Everyone went on chatting.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. Will you please stand as we sing our first hymn."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service sheet with everything on. The hymns were modern and unfamiliar to me, although I am a hymn-fan.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
We were given spoken stage directions throughout, which broke up the flow and the mood. We kept having to turn towards the west door as the sanctuary party processed (at the beginning, before the Gospel, at the offertory), turning east when they got to the sanctuary.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Clearly meant to be participative and accessible, but unexpectedly standard Anglican wordiness. For the eucharistic prayer, we gathered all round the altar, and offered the eucharist for, among others, members of all the great faith traditions (would they, I wondered, want us to?). During communion, a group of eight or ten people, led by the cantor, sang Nada te turba in parts to a Taizé chant very beautifully. Those wanting laying on of hands queued for this meantime in a side chapel. The laying-on was still going on when the communion had finished and the notices were starting. I thought that as the service was so long anyway, they might have waited a further few minutes until it was over. During the final hymn and before the blessing, the sanctuary party processed to the back of the central aisle, where the clergy chatted till we finished singing. Then we all had to put our hands on neighbours� shoulders in blessing and commissioning – rather like a game of Twister.

St James, Piccadilly, London

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – The archdeacon read his sermon, but varied his tone enough for this not to be annoying. However he did lose his place at one point and did not improvise. After the sermon, he licensed the new clergywoman in a very chatty way, giving explanations and joky asides to the audience, which tended to diminish the meaningfulness of the proceedings.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Stories are how we make sense of the world. Through stories, Christians believe God reveals and relates himself to us – the origin of creation, our place in it, moral statements about it, and God as loving and steadfast. The first Christians believed by drawing on stories of the past to understand this event "Jesus" – when God entered into human experience to definitively reveal the nature of divinity and the creative urge, so we might see the parent-like nature of God. But are the stories true, or are they comforting myths? The answer was not clear to those at the last supper. Was there more to Jesus? The choice they and we have is to believe Jesus� words and works as being of God, revealing the heart of creation is love, which empowers us to be accepted and forgiven.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing of the group during the communion.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There were 14 notices given by a succession of people. These included a man saying he was a welcomer and would be glad to chat to first-timers afterwards; a woman who shouted something angrily about work with refugees (inexplicable to me but no one seemed fazed); and a woman who said: "How much do you know about the Gospel of Mary, one of the Gospels not included in the Bible?" – and gave details of a forthcoming talk.

If intercessory prayers were said, what issues were raised?
Prayers were offered for the annual parish meeting that afternoon, and the election of members to the church council; thanks for the gifts of John Paul II and prayers for Pope Benedict; the Jews at Passover; guidance on voting at the general election; World Equality Day. There were also two prayers which obviously had some subtexts: "Those (named) who are now following their journey in another way," and "Members of the Church of England who see their way to serve you differently than we do in this community – different paths, one way."

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I hung around near the welcomer and even caught his eye a couple of times, but neither he nor anyone else wanted to speak to me! I think I was the only person not talking. I went over to the piano where pictures of proposed redecorating were displayed, but people just grunted and moved out of the way. The clergy seemed to have disappeared. After quite a long while I left and sat under a tree in the courtyard and watched a couple, with two huge dogs each, enter the church café – the left hand pair, I noticed, were actually keeping perfect step with each other.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
CaféDirect instant coffee, Barleycup, teabags, biscuits, donations to Christian Aid.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – I found I was experiencing a mixture of anxiety and boredom throughout the hour-and-a-half. Despite its edgy self-image, St James was strangely stodgy, punctuated by the odd unpredictability (such as the Twister-blessing).

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. God did not get much chance to be transcendent (one prayer was changed from "Almighty God" to "Generous God") and there was no silence in which he might have been heard. It was too much about us – a mixture of feelgood and social activism. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not what one looks for, wanting to worship at a main Sunday eucharist. A newcomer entering a church expects to encounter something specifically Christian, even if they then decide it is not for them. I wondered if by covering all spiritual bases St James is suffering a failure of nerve and actually confuses by making the "product" too diffuse.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The elegant building, and maybe the four beautiful dogs. The service, I just want to forget.
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