Mystery Worshipper: Rorate
Church: Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula
Location: Tower of London, London
Date of visit: Wednesday, 27 July 2016, 6:30pm
Photo: © Samuel Taylor Geer and used under license The more modern of the two chapels at the Tower of London, St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) dates from 1520. Designed in the Tudor style, it is a low rectangular stone building featuring a tower at the west end and short nave. It was renovated during Victorian times, thus exposing the earthly remains of many of Henry VIII's victims, including Anne Boleyn. Katherine Howard, Sir Thomas More, John Fisher and Thomas Cromwell. Queen Victoria caused a memorial pavement to be laid to commemorate these and others.
The chapel acts as the Tower's parish church. There is a community within the wall of the Tower of London for whom this is their parish. Others come from far and wide to worship here, including many tourists. Regular services are open to the public free of charge, although special services usually require an invitation. Attendance at a service does not include admission to the Tower.
The surroundings are stunning: the old with glimpses of the new (the skyscraper known as the Shard, the tallest building in England) being clearly seen from inside the Tower. And you have to be out by 9.30pm or you get locked in for the night!
The chaplain, the Revd Canon Roger Hall MBE, presided. The Revd Cortland Fransella, assistant to the chaplain, read the prayers. General The Lord Dannatt GCB CBE MC LC, constable of the Tower of London, gave the address. Colm Carey, master of music, conducted the choir. Christian Wilson, assistant master of music, played the organ. Chapel clerk Yeoman Warder Moira Cameron oversaw the ceremonial. And to top it off, there was an unnamed server. Everybody taking part in the service was dressed so smartly: cassocks, surplices, copes, stoles, hoods, etc. with one exception (read on!).
What was the name of the service?Evening Prayer for the Patronal Festival.
How full was the building?
Full, with a few seats as the back of the side aisle. There must have been 200+ in the chapel.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
You couldn't avoid being welcomed, from arriving at the gate to the chaplain shaking hands with everybody as they entered, and the yeoman warders showing people to their seats. Also on hand were an abundance of smiling stewards.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern wooden seat that was perfectly suitable and with plenty of leg-room.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a buzz of excitement, reverential chat, and the feeling of being somewhere special for a special event. Sadly, there was no organ music before the service and the organist looked a little stressed (but only at this point). And the service started late.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The yeoman warder Moira Cameron asked the congregation to "Please stand for The Constable of Her Majesty's Tower of London" and he was shown to his seat. The chaplain then gave a welcome and some notices. The service proper then started with all eight verses of "For All the Saints."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially prepared order of service with all the words needed.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ, a new instrument dating from 1999 by Orgues Létourneau of Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec, Canada. It replaces an older instrument dating from 1699 and known as the Father Smith organ. That organ was moved from the banqueting house to the chapel in 1890 by consent of Queen Victoria. The case is that of the Father Smith organ but all of the pipework is new.
Did anything distract you?
Stuck in a niche in the church wall was a small statue with a candle on each side and flowers beneath. From a distance we wondered if it might be a Hindu god, but on closer inspection at the end of the service it was revealed to be a rather crude statue of St Peter in a garden with a cock crowing beside him. A good distraction was watching the yeoman warders in all their fine uniforms overseeing the ceremonial. How do they get their shoes to shine like that?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Excellent Prayer Book Church of England choral evensong with an amazing 12 member choir. We were treated to Stanford in G for the canticles, and the anthem was excerpts from Handel's Messiah. The service concluded with a farewell to the constable and his wife, and to the chapel administrator, all of whom were evidently much loved members of the Tower community.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The constable is evidently used to public speaking and this was an address rather than a sermon. He began by saying that vicars preach sermons but soldiers tell stories – and he did. And he was very amusing.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke about St Peter as we see him in the gospels and epistles: the likeable figure but with failings, the impetuous, impulsive, wretched, walking on water human being. We still have the wind and waves all around us today: austerity, ISIL, terrorism, Brexit, climate change and what do we do about it? We should take Jesus by the hand and let him lead us back to the boat. We should fix our eyes on Jesus and go forward.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music! The choir were outstanding. But rather than sounding like we were listening to a concert, it really felt that this was part of the worship that we all were offering.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not much can go wrong at these events, but .... the one exception to everyone looking so smart was the poor server, whose alb looked like it had never seen an iron. His amice looked even older and was distinctly not white anymore ... and the moths had been at work! Maybe the chapel should invest in some new server's robes.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As the final organ voluntary was being played, there seemed to be a haste to be ushered out of the chapel rather than being allowed to sit and listen. And sadly a steward was having a conversation with a member of the congregation right by the organ. Even so, there was some time to look around the chapel. Everybody was chatting and friendly. Another warm handshake from the chaplain and it was out onto the green for wine and canaps.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The wine was excellent and there was plenty of it! The canaps were more than excellent and there were loads of them, going from savoury to sweet, concluding with meringue and fresh strawberries and cream. Perfect!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – The music was sublime. If only I could find a place to live in the Tower!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It was so uplifting, I don't think anybody could have left this service without the sense that we had been worshipping God.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?