Mystery Worshipper: Cool Dude
Church: St Bartholomew the Great
Location: West Smithfield, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 September 2018, 11:00am
Photo: © John Salmon and used under license The noble and ancient remains of the once huge church of an Augustinian priory founded in 1123. What survives is the crossing and former monks’ quire, saved after the Reformation as a parish church, when the long nave was demolished. A fine Lady chapel behind the altar at the east end completes a remarkable building. As many of the oldest churches in London were burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666, St Bart's (as it is widely known) can claim to be the oldest parish church in London. Its atmospheric Romanesque interior is often used in films (a useful source of income for the parish). Among its star turns as a set was for the fourth wedding in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral – that is, for the wedding (warning: spoiler alert!) that doesn't take place.
St Bart’s is home to eight livery companies. It is also a very popular venue for weddings – the Beddington Society, named after a couple who were married at St Bart’s in 1939, is open to all persons who were married at St Bart’s. There are three eucharistic celebrations each Sunday plus choral evensong. The eucharist is also celebrated on Tuesdays. On Thursdays the Roman Catholic chaplain on the hospital staff celebrates low mass.
For a business district, the area is home to a surprising number of residents. The huge Barbican and slightly less huge Golden Lane estates house many; and I walked to church past a large new development of luxury apartments called Bartholomew Square, which is taking over many of the former commercial sites in Bartholemew Close. Though very near the central financial district, this is in 2018 again a residential area. The central wholesale meat market at Smithfield is just a stone's throw away and has just celebrated its 750th anniversary. But it is due to leave central London altogether for a logistics hub on the city outskirts, and one wonders what will become of the magnificent Victorian buildings currently used by meat traders.
There was a substantial altar party of a dozen including two priests, among whom was the rector. There were also an ordinand on a training placement, various servers, a choir of six, and an organist. So, a full squad.
What was the name of the service?Feast of Dedication of the Priory Church.
How full was the building?
Seventy in the congregation, so the main space was comfortably full. A babe in arms was comforted in turns by his parents and was as good as gold.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A pleasant greeter personally gave me hymn book, service sheets, and a nice smile.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a modern chair – plain, un-upholstered, and rather nice.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent. As I was a tad early I did a quick reckoning: just six of those present were under 40 years of age.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The choir sang the introit from Genesis 28:17 – ‘Terribilis est locus iste: Non est hic aliud nisi domus Dei et porta caeli ’ (How awesome is this place: it is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven). This was printed in the service sheet in Latin and English.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hymn book and a service sheet with the service from Common Worship.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. St Bart’s has had several organs over the course of history. The most recent, rebuilt several times, was finally declared unplayable and un-repairable in 2010 and replaced by a digital instrument by Viscount Organs Ltd of Bicester, Oxfordshire, that had been used at Llandaff Cathedral while its new pipe organ was under construction. It sounded fairly much like a pipe organ. In the voluntary after the service (the popular Tuba Tune by CS Lang) it could have passed as one. Negotiations are currently underway for a new pipe organ to be designed by Schoenstein & Co. of San Francisco. Described as a “symphonic organ,” it will be the first of its kind in England, and perhaps anywhere in Europe.
Did anything distract you?
In the aisle I spotted a conspicuous three-part board, like an altarpiece triptych, dedicated to the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers. There was nothing actually displayed on it, but it did put to rest the tired stereotype that all London cabbies are Jewish. Will there soon be a Worshipful Company of Uber Drivers, I wondered, to challenge the other tired stereotype: that Uber drivers are all Muslim?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Full-on solemn, with incense and heaps of candles on and around the altar. Perhaps the number of candles was in honour of the feast of dedication. All taken at a stately pace with a procession for the first hymn and Angelus afterwards. At 90 minutes running time, this was good value for the money.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — Delivered very well by the ordinand, who was on placement at the parish. Concise, accessible and without theological jargon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He elucidated the scripture of the day, which was apt for a feast of dedication: Jesus turning the pigeon sellers out of the temple. We should treat our church as a place to honour God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
During the first hymn there was a procession, which the church, complete with ambulatory behind the altar, suits very well. We paused at the statue of St Bartholomew and the saint was briefly reverenced with incense. Nothing unusual in that, except that this statue is by Damian Hirst, the controversial British artist who came to global fame exhibiting sharks and other dead animals in formaldehyde. Still obsessed with mortality, Hirst has depicted Bartholemew the saint (who was martyred by flaying) as a living figure without skin, his musculature and organs on view. Hirst's Bartholemew holds a modern surgical scalpel in his hand as though he has just removed his own skin as an act of self-autopsy, and stands quietly triumphant. It is an astonishing work of art. Hirst normally scores his artistic points by incensing bourgeois taste; here at St Bart's we find his work is censed.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not part of the service as such, but a homeless man was sprawling near the entrance as we went into church and was still in situ as we filed out. He was not asking for money but looked as though he needed it. All the old arguments played through my mind: it is better to give to homeless charities (as I do) than street homeless people, as cash direct is likely to go for drugs or alcohol, which is what they want most and need least. As I left, I followed all the members of the congregation in passing by on the other side. Two hundred yards down the road an impulse turned me back, and I gave him a coin. I am still not sure if that was the right thing. The man's simple understanding was that Christians believe they should help those such as he – surely he is not wrong?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There wasn't much hanging around going on. So, after another look at the historic interior and at the flayed St Bartholemew, I shook a priest's hand and followed the majority of the congregation straight out of the church into the bright autumn sun, and home for lunch.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
If there was coffee, none was advertised. It was not obvious and no invitation was made.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 — A dignified liturgy celebrated in a beautiful historic 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 homeless man and reverencing the flayed saint.