All Saints was the work of the Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield, who was closely associated with the Oxford Movement and was responsible for about a hundred ecclesiastical structures in England, Scotland, the United States and Australia. The church was designed as a manifesto building, demonstrating everything that should be observed in church architecture by the Victorian Anglo-Catholic. It was commissioned by a group of Tractarians in 1841 and completed a decade later, and the liturgy and worship within are as much a manifesto for Anglo-Catholics as the building.
This is a gathered community from all over central London, quite mixed socially, but almost entirely in late middle age or elderly. There is not much modern about this church; it is almost a time warp experience, a visit to pre-war Britain, or perhaps the setting of a Barbara Pym novel, just post WWII. But the seriousness and lack of pomposity are welcoming, not at all off-putting for me. The fact that they sail forward regardless of fads and fashions (or rather without updating their the ecclesiastical fashions) is rather admirable.
There are very few people living nearby, and the surrounding streets just north of Oxford Street are the hub of the UK high street rag trade and advertising industries.
The Revd Alan Moses, vicar, and two other priests who I believe were the Revd Gerald Beauchamp, assistant priest, and the Revd Julian Browning, honorary assistant priest. All were vested simply in cassock and surplice. Their role throughout the service was minimal, but they did make a shockingly loud noise at the end (see below).
What was the name of the service?Tenebrae
How full was the building?
Reasonably full – about 100 filling the nave, though the aisles were empty.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Someone was giving out the service sheets and bid us a good evening in welcoming but hushed tones.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern chair and the rail of its back cut into my back uncomfortably.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silence was kept and the church was not fully lit. Five minutes before the service, even more of the electric lights were turned out and a row of benediction candles was lit. A pious altar boy (rather an altar man, as even they are middle aged here) lit six candles high on the altar, so high he could barely reach them. This collective silence and darkness in the heart of London, just a few yards from the materialistic frenzy of Oxford Street, was powerfully calming and created an air of expectation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The zeal of thine house hath even eaten me." But these were preceded by the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Apostles Creed recited silently by all.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A special booklet was handed out giving most of the words except for the five lessons. These were from from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and Paul's Epistle to the Church in Corinth. The whole service was sung and did not require responses from the congregation. In the beautifully clear acoustic you could really have dispensed with the booklet and simply listened to the words being sung.
What musical instruments were played?
None. The whole service was sung without accompaniment. Fortunately, the choir at All Saints is exemplary, comprised of professional musicians and students from the London conservatories. So the glorious Renaissance music by Lodovico Grossi da Viadana, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Orlandus Lassus and others was sung with more precision than in many concert halls. But here it was offered in its proper setting, without ego or the desire to win an encore. It was offered for the power of its spiritual directness.
Did anything distract you?
The altar man trying, and at first failing, to light one of the impossibly high altar candles provided some amusement before the start. But after that I was wrapped up in the divine office.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was monastic in its simplicity, length and pace. It reminded me of sitting in monasteries hearing the offices of the day – and that is indeed where this service has its roots. Tenebrae ("darkness") is a mixture of the monastic offices of matins, lauds and none, which were originally sung on the three final days of Holy Week but over time came to be anticipated as a single service. It began in relative darkness, but as it progressed candles were extinguished two by two until the church was in complete darkness. The Miserere was sung in the pitch blackness, an unusual and moving experience. Then after a silence, the three clergy made a sudden loud noise by walloping the choir stalls (I couldn't see, of course, so I am guessing here) – symbolising the earthquake at the Resurrection, and one candle representing the risen Christ was rekindled.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There wasn't one.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Most of it. There were one or two moments early on when I wanted more involvement. Then I let go and relaxed into the monastic spirituality of the service and the exceptionally beautiful music.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
For a service that involved sitting for most of the time, the chair became increasingly uncomfortable.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We all filed out of the church slowly and in silence. No coffee or chat, no tombola (raffle ticket sales) or notices.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
I cannot give a rating. Tenebrae is an unusual service these days, even in Anglo-Catholic outfits, and is only held once a year. But the opportunity to experience this rare spiritual expression, especially sung so beautifully, is one that attracts me to this church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Miserere in the darkness.