From a distance All Souls looks like a toy church dwarfed by the BBC Radio building behind it. It was built by the celebrated John Nash, who was responsible for much of Regency London including Buckingham Palace (but not the facade), and was completed in 1823. It is a Georgian preaching box with a rather odd cylindrical portico with pointed spire on top. The interior of the church is essentially Georgian in style, with galleries and a painting in the east arch but pews replaced by chairs. Renovations were done in the 1970s. The modern pulpit is central in this church and confirms its evangelical tradition.
All Souls is home to a large evangelical congregation of many nationalities. It has close ties to the BBC and has an orchestra lead by Noël Tredinnick, who is well known in Christian music circles.
The church is situated next to the BBC Radio building and is not far from the frantic shopping going on in Oxford Street.
Noël Tredinnick seemed to lead the service with help from the Revd Hugh Palmer, rector, and a student minister.
What was the name of the service?Evening Service: "A Fresh Look at a Familiar Sight – Broken."
How full was the building?
It was semi-full one-half hour before start time, but 15 minutes later it was packed out, both on the floor and in the galleries.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I got a brief hello at the door but was then ignored by everybody else other than an elderly man visiting from another church.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes brand new chair. More comfortable than the pews in the galleries.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was noisy people going down the stairs to the hall and up to the galleries.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Evening, everybody" (this by Noël Tredinnick). "We have Graham Kendrick with us." [Gasps from the congregation and cameras taken out as Graham stood at the front.]
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A nice service sheet and words projected at he front.
What musical instruments were played?
A full orchestra conducted by Noël Tredinnick and, curiously, the pipe organ for the new as well as the older songs with the orchestra. I was slightly puzzled by the use of the organ and wondered whether it was ever played aside from with orchestra, in the traditional sense, and whether the organist ever gets a chance to play traditional music and voluntaries.
Did anything distract you?
The orchestra and the space-age pulpit! This was very much a "middle classes at prayer" event. I couldn't help noticing the TV monitors in every corner of the building. Also the presence of Graham Kendrick seemed to draw everybody's attention as well as their cell phone cameras.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy with an orchestra lift! From the warm up with the orchestra on forward, it reminded me somewhat irreverently of the "Christmas in Heaven" song from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
A good evangelical 40 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The rector was dressed in a suit and tie (no clerical dress) and preached in standard evangelical way. He used a glass of water and cooking coloring to illustrate his point that we are all tainted.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on Genesis 3:14-24 (God punishes Adam and Eve for their disobedience). It seemed to be the classic evangelical sermon about the fall and imperfection. However, I agreed with him that the world isn't perfect.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music. Even though it was quite glitzy, it had all the hallmarks of good evangelical singing and cheerfulness that brightened up a winter's evening. The orchestra seemed to give everything a lift. As he conducted, Noël Tredinnick turned to the crowd at times with an engaging smile and wave of enthusiasm.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Noël Tredinnick got the congregation to rehearse Graham Kendrick's new hymn before the service. It was "Strong in the Lord we take our stand"' to the tune of Parry's Jerusalem. The student minister said she preferred Kendrick's words to those of the original sorry, I don't! Kendrick said that he had chosen the tune because it was familiar to most people. However, I'm afraid I don't think his new lyrics can hold a candle to William Blake's original lines. Also, I don't like it when Christian celebrities are idolised.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I chatted to my neighbor who was visiting from another church. Another elderly gentleman had a chat with me about the church and neighbourhood. However, as usual in large churches like this, I was otherwise completely ignored and could have been invisible. I get the feeling you have to be quite an extrovert to fit in here!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't get to try it, as it was served in the hall and no one was going down there with me.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – The music in the church was great, but unless you are extrovert this place isn't for you. I got the impression that Taizé and more reflective worship wouldn't fit in here. Curious use of the pipe organ though.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did, although I'm not sure if the service was really about amusing ourselves with music and whether that was the big draw here.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That glitzy image of "Christmas in Heaven" in my mind as the orchestra got into full swing.